It was a rumor, a straw to grasp onto, like the one about the German troops due to land in Dublin in 1916.
There may not have been the same level of mayhem and destruction as in Easter Week of that year, but already by midmorning a hole, 8-foot high, had been punched into the back wall of the 158-year-old St. Brigid’s church on Tompkins Square Park.
This was the same section of the church that archdiocese officials had claimed was pulling away and on the point of collapse.
Their opponents didn’t believe that and nor, it seemed, did A. Russo Wrecking Inc, whose men created the hole and proceeded to use it as a makeshift door and window.
The word went out by email and phone Thursday morning that the demolition crew had arrived and had begun their work shortly after 7 a.m.
Within a couple hours, camera crews, together with radio and newspaper reporters, were peering in through the back gate at the hole.
Parishioners and activists who’d gathered were grim-faced; the moment they’d dreaded most had arrived.
But it was passersby, not having had time to digest the news, who were the most obviously upset.
“I’m speechless,” said a woman whose apartment faces the north side of St. Brigid’s, but then after a few seconds added: “This is a symbol of what’s going on in the entire United States and in the world.
“This is monstrous,” she said, visibly upset. “It’s historical. A beautiful church…overlooking a park; they should be trying to renovate it.”
Meanwhile, a distressed Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who had a long association with St. Brigid’s parish, said to a WNYC reporter when referring to the hierarchy: “They’re taking care of their lawsuits, but in the meantime they’re destroying our community.”
A blond-haired woman, with a blond-haired toddler in a stroller and another by her side, asked what the commotion was about. “They’re tearing down the church,” someone offered.
“Oh, bummer,” she said, and walked off.
People called anyone who might pick up a phone: the city’s Buildings Department, the local office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the FDNY and others. Some onlookers even suggested that the NYPD, which had a presence there since early morning, should intervene to stop what they regarded as an illegal demolition. As it happened, the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s was frantically pursuing its options in the courts.
A cyclist braked suddenly at the gate and looked at the gaping hole. He approached a portly employee with an A. Russo Wrecking Inc. t-shirt who was checking the lock on the gate and said: “Do you realize that this is the oldest building in the neighborhood?” The A. Russo man didn’t react in any way, pretending, it seemed, nobody was there. The cyclist, his protest recorded, left as quickly as he’d arrived.
Documentary filmmaker Dana Eshghi came in from her home in Kew Gardens when she’d heard something was afoot. However, she hadn’t understood the seriousness of the situation and so hadn’t bothered to bring her camera.
“I was priced out of the neighborhood in ’98,” she said, but added that she comes back often. “I always say: ‘Meet me on St. Brigid’s steps.'”
Today, Eshghi arranged to meet Walter, a friend from Harlem, who was her former East Village roommate. But with their rendezvous point out of bounds, they’d wandered in different directions and took several minutes to find each other.
“This is horrible, it’s so upsetting,” she said. “It’s like a sick joke. It’s such a beautiful church. I just don’t get it.”
Eshghi, who was raised a Muslim but doesn’t practice, said that like many in the neighborhood, she regarded St. Brigid’s as a sanctuary.
She discussed the building’s cracks, those the archdiocese said would be too expensive to repair, with St. Brigid’s activist Jerome O’Connor, a Cork native.
“You could do it yourself for $100,000,” said O’Connor, who has a background in contracting.
Walter said that St. Brigid’s didn’t fit in with the values that currently prevailed in New York. “It’s about conspicuous consumption now,” he said. “That’s part of it anyway.”
By early afternoon, locals felt that the appearance of fire department officials had slowed things down. But still, politicians and others — gathered by the north side of the church for a 3 p.m. press conference – had to speak over the hammering inside.
The first speaker stepped up. The Famine, and its victims and refugees, were invoked. Older Latino men in the crowd shouted: “Amen, Amen.”
Real estate and its rising value was another theme that got an airing. “It is a shame that the Archdiocese is willing to let our heritage to be sold off to the highest bidder,” said State Senator Martin Connor.
“I call upon the Catholic Archdiocese of New York to immediately stop the senseless and mean-spirited destruction of St. Brigid’s Church,” said State Assemblywoman Sylvia Friedman.
“This church is a cultural and historical icon,” she added. “It has served this community for so long and deserves far more respect than the Archdiocese has shown by sneaking in overnight to destroy it and cash in on the real estate boom.”
Friedman added: “It is an insult to the memory of all those who perished in the Irish Famine.”
David McWater, chairman of Community Board No. 3, said St. Brigid’s was built by Irish Catholics who had faced prejudice from everyone in New York including Irish Protestants. He described the East Village church as a “beachhead for Catholics not just in New York but in all of America.”
McWater said that as a businessman he understood that money spent was easily forgotten. Money would come in for the archdiocese and money would be go out, he added turning to St. Brigid’s behind him: “But you’ll never get this building back.”
Said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer: “The archdiocese must revisit its plan, work with the community and come up with a solution that will allow us to keep this treasure.”
A message of support from Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who was in Washington, was read by her spokesperson. It said she had written to Cardinal Edward Egan in April opposing demolition. “It is unfortunate that this historic treasure, barring an injunction, is being needlessly destroyed,” Velazquez added.
Then Ed Torres, former head usher at St. Brigid’s, stepped up to the many microphones. “I’m one seriously confused Catholic,” he said. “I was married here; my children received the sacraments here.”
The normally affable and mild-mannered campaign leader struggled to rein in his emotions as he spoke of his disillusionment. “We raised the necessary money; we did everything that was asked of us by our spiritual leaders; we had faith in our spiritual leaders,” he said.
“Please help,” Torres told the cameras. “We are at the last hour.”