Battery Park City has lost its only house of worship. On Sunday, the final masses were said at the Saint Joseph Chapel, within the Gateway Plaza complex. This brings melancholy closure to a years-long struggle by parishioners and community leaders to save the church, which has been buffeted by rising rents and declining interest from the Archdiocese of New York (which oversaw the Chapel) in maintaining a facility much beloved by hundreds of local congregants.
At Sunday’s noon mass, Jim O’Connor, who worked for many years at the Saint Joseph Chapel, said, “it’s been a very long morning, and a very emotional one. I can never really express the history that we have here and what this chapel means to this community.”
“Six weeks ago,” he recalled, “my nieces invited me to a dance recital, where I heard one song that made me stop and listen. The words that stood out to me were, ‘the room where it happened.’ I didn’t know, until my nieces explained it to me, that this comes from the Broadway musical, ‘Hamilton.’ But the phrase made me think immediately of the Saint Joseph Chapel, and all the great things that happened here.”
He recalled the Chapel’s early days, when it opened in the fall of 1983. And how, in the mid-1990s, a group of local parents — among the first who decided to remain in Battery Park City and raise their children here — “got together and said they wanted to start a religious education program for their kids. The diocese and the pastor were concerned about whether we had enough people. So these parents took over and started it on their own. That program has continued and flourished into something that nobody could have imagined — the largest program of its kind in Manhattan,” he said, as the congregation burst into applause.
“And this is the room where it happened. Along with first two confirmations in Lower Manhattan since the 1950s, which took place here in the early 2000s. Along with other first sacraments for your children. Along with charitable campaigns, food drives, and gift drives. All of that started here.”
Mr. O’Connor also recalled the sad history of the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the Chapel was successively used for months as a triage center, a morgue, and a respite station for first responders. He noted the art work in the Chapel, which ranges from stained-glass windows dating from the 1880s (when the first predecessor of what eventually became the Saint Joseph Chapel opened in Lower Manhattan) to sculptures focusing on themes related to September 11, which were commissioned for the Chapel’s rededication in 2005.
But then, Mr. O’Connor pointed to a different sort of relic. “If there’s anything more sacred to me than all of this artwork,” he said, “it is a red mark on wall behind the statue of Saint Joseph. That was made by a six-year-old girl, who was studying here for her First Communion. We asked the kids to write on whiteboards about something special they planned to pray for. And because there were so many children, her marker ran off the edge of the board and onto the wall. This was so long ago, it happened before the statue was there.”
“When the pastor at the time, Father Kevin Madigan asked me about it,” Mr. Connor continued, “I explained what had happened and promised to get it cleaned off right away. But he said to leave it there. He told me, ‘I want to remember what this Chapel was all about.’ And he was right. That little mark is, to me, more sacred than almost anything else here.”
Another reflection was provided by Justine Cuccia, one of the parents who helped found the religious education program in the 1990s. Ms. Cuccia, a community leader, was one of the driving forces behind the effort to save the Chapel. Choking back tears, Ms. Cuccia said, “we really did try, and I’m sorry.” She added that she still hopes to broker an arrangement for a shuttle bus to transport the large number of elderly and disabled congregants who formerly worshiped at the Saint Joseph Chapel to and from St. Peter’s Church, in the Financial District, where services are being transferred.
The denouement for the Saint Joseph Chapel began with a November letter, signed by pastor Jarlath Quinn, which announced that, “the difficult decision to end the lease was made, following careful discussion and consultation over a number of years with Parishioners, Pastors, Priests, Lay Trustees, Parish Finance Council, and the Archdiocese of New York among others.” This was a reference to the fact that, unlike most Catholic churches in New York City (where both the building and the ground beneath it are owned by the Archdiocese), the space occupied by Saint Joseph Chapel is rented from the LeFrak Organization, the owners of Gateway Plaza. They, in turn, rent the ground beneath the building from the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA). The letter continued that, “the cost structure of our parish has also changed dramatically, despite the unwavering generosity of our parishioners. As many of you are aware, for a number of years, the Parish has borrowed significantly (now totaling over $1.2 million) from the Archdiocese of New York to subsidize the operating expenses of the parish.”
That was a reference to the fact that the rent paid by Saint Joseph Chapel (through St. Peter’s Parish on Barclay Street, of which the Chapel is an adjunct facility) had nearly quadrupled in the space of a few years. The dilemma facing the Chapel dated back to 2014, when the LeFrak Organization raised the rent for the space from $22 per square foot per year to $80, boosting the total annual rent from around $70,000, to more than $260,000. This dealt a body blow to the Chapel’s finances. The jump appears to have resulted less from tough negotiating by the LeFrak team, who merely proposed a new rent they believed to reflect the space’s current value, than from an inexplicable departure from custom by negotiators representing the Archdiocese, who had always in the past proactively worked to limit rent hikes to modest increases.
These circumstances were largely unknown to Saint Joseph Chapel congregants for two years, until details began to seep out informally in early 2016. At that point, parishioners — who were being told for the first time that the Chapel might close — began to organize, in hopes of finding a way to save a house of worship to which they were passionately devoted. This group took the initiative in two ways: Reaching out directly to LeFrak, and also asking the BPCA to become involved. (The Authority, which owns the land beneath Gateway Plaza, and leases to LeFrak the acreage on which the giant residential complex sits, acts, in effect, as the landlord’s landlord and thus wielded considerable influence in this situation.)
At this point, discussions began in earnest. After the personal intervention of BPCA chairman Dennis Mehiel, the LeFrak team offered to reduce the Chapel’s annual rent by more than $30,000 per year. But this proposal, while generous, would have rolled back only a small fraction of the 2014 increase. And, in the view of the leadership of St. Peter’s Parish, even this benefit paled beside the Chapel’s annual deficit of more than $300,000.
But Lefrak’s offer was also accompanied by a second, potentially more significant proposal. This overture opened the door for the BPCA to make concessions on the payments that LeFrak owes to it, in the form of ground rent and so-called “payments in lieu of taxes.” (Such concessions would be couched within the broader context of the BPCA’s ongoing negotiations with LeFrak, in which the agency is offering to reduce future payments owed to it by the developer, in exchange for expanded and extended affordability protections for residential tenants.)
A LeFrak executive followed up on a negotiating session in January by writing to the parishioners who had kick-started the discussions, and also to Archdiocese of New York officials (who oversee all Catholic churches in Manhattan), that, “if the Church can approach BPCA and work out a deal where BPCA would reduce [LeFrak’s] payments to BPCA in an amount equal to the Church’s share of that ground lease rent, real estate taxes and civic facilities payments, [LeFrak] would be willing to pass that savings through to the Church and adjust the Church’s rental payments accordingly. If BPCA is not amenable to the foregoing, but is willing to give [LeFrak] some permanent credit against payments due from [LeFrak] to BPCA, [LeFrak] would be willing to pass that savings through to the Church and adjust the Church’s rental payments accordingly.”
In laymen’s terms, this appears to have been a pledge that LeFrak would convey, dollar for dollar, to Saint Joseph Chapel (in the form of lower rent) any reductions that the BPCA requested and was willing to fund in the form of diminished payments owed by LeFrak to the Authority. This offer would potentially have opened the door to reducing the Chapel’s rent back to the $22 per square foot baseline that was in place before the 2014 lease renewal, or perhaps lower.
It seems that the leadership of St. Peter’s Parish and the Archdiocese never followed up on this possibility, by requesting that the BPCA make such an offer to LeFrak. Negotiations fell apart soon afterward, as (according the multiple sources directly familiar with the situation) representatives of St. Peter’s Parish then focused on finding a way of shutting down the Chapel, rather than preserving it.
Even then, however, a glimmer of hope remained. According to a source directly familiar with the negotiations, the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo offered to intercede directly with the BPCA (which he controls), provided that Cardinal Timothy Dolan (the Archbishop of New York, who had ultimate authority over the Saint Joseph Chapel) was willing to signal that saving the Chapel was an urgent priority, by asking for the Governor’s help. But that call never came, which appears to have consigned the Chapel to its fate.
At the noon mass on Sunday, the celebrant was Father John Kofi Takyi, the Vicar General of the Catholic Diocese of Techiman, in Ghana. He came not only to officiate over the mass, but also to offer thanks. Many of the artworks and fixtures that will be removed from Saint Joseph Chapel, when it is demolished in the weeks ahead, are going to be donated to new churches in Ghana.
Because the last mass at the Saint Joseph Chapel happened to coincide with the Feast of the Epiphany (when the three Magi are said to have found their way to the infant Jesus, by following a new star that had miraculously appeared in the heavens), Father Takyi’s homily focused on this theme. “My message for you,” he said, “is to follow the star. Do you know where you are going? No! But follow the star. Do you know how far? No! But follow the star. Even when we have no idea where we are going, there is grace and healing in following the star.”
Even if the congregants of the Saint Joseph Chapel follow their parish leadership to St. Peter’s Church, it appears likely that the wound of losing their sanctuary will take a considerable time to heal.