church awaits word from vatican news

| 26 Jan 2016 | 10:48

Nearly every evening since August 1, people have gathered beside the stone steps of Our Lady of Peace Church on East 62nd Street and prayed the rosary.

Friday night, ahead of a record snowfall, was no different. Five parishioners sat on folding metal chairs, huddled inside their winter clothes. They prayed for nearly 30 minutes. Several others joined by conference call. “It’s important to us that someone is here every night,” Tami Ellen McLaughlin, a church parishioner for 15 years said following the rosary’s conclusion, as temperatures dipped to below freezing. “If feels really good. It’s important.”

Our Lady of Peace’s parishioners are in their fourth series of 54-day Rosary Novenas — uninterrupted sets of Hail Marys, the Lords Prayer and the Gloria Patri hymn — the first of which began the evening the doors to the nearly the 100-year-old Catholic church were locked shut by the Archdiocese of New York. Officially, Our Lady of Peace had merged with St. John the Evangelist Church, on East 55th Street, to create a brand new parish, with St. John’s designated the parish church.

But the congregation has been steadfast in its efforts to reopen the church doors. McLaughlin likened the evening prayers to “a vigil.”

A decision on the congregation’s appeal to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, pushed back three times already, could come as early as mid-February.

A cornerstone of the appeal has been a fundraiser, with parishioners trying to raise $500,000 by next month, an amount that would pay church expenses for 10 years, said Shane Dinneen, the president of Friends of Our Lady of Peace, the nonprofit administering the fund. Nearly $400,000 has been collected so far, with Dinneen, a parishioner at the church for nine years, having contributed the first $250,000.

The Archdiocese, as it did when it shuttered and merged dozens of churches in the city and across the region last summer, cited declining attendance, shifting demographics, financial constraints and a shortage of priests for the closure. Parishioners have disputed the Archdiocese’s rationale since November 2014, when the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, released a statement announcing the mergers.

Dinneen and others have sent the Congregation for the Clergy, which has the power to rescind the Archdiocese’s decree, several volumes of documents, including financial records, in the hopes of persuading the Vatican that the Archdiocese acted without merit.

“We know attendance is increasing,” Dinneen, citing what he said were audited collection figures, said of Our Lady of Peace. He and other parishioners have said the church has no debt and no liabilities. “The building is owned outright,” he said. “The parish didn’t cost the diocese anything.”

Dinneen said the church, by way of the annual Cardinals Appeal, has in the last five years contributed more to the Archdiocese than it has received. “We’re not a burden on the Archdiocese, we’re a resource for the Archdiocese,” he said.

Despite the church’s closure, parishioners have continued their acts of mercy and other works, organizing a food drive, a coat collection and a toy giveaway.

“We try to keep up with everything we did,” McLaughlin said following Friday’s rosary.

On Sunday, dozens of parishioners commemorated the Jan. 24 Memorial Feast for Our Lady of Peace, one of the titles of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with a prayer service. They did so by teleconference.

As on other special occasions since Our Lady of Peace was closed, parishioners asked the Archdiocese to open the church for the service. Archdiocesan officials, as they have several times since August, denied the request, parishioners said. (Officials did open the church earlier this month for a longtime parishioner’s funeral.)

Jessica Bede, who has worshiped at Our Lady of Peace for more than 50 years, said the prayer services and the community works preserve the parish’s vibrancy and keep the congregation from being “splintered.”

“That’s the kind of things we’ve done to bring the community together in prayerful resistance,” she said. “It’s helped us. It’s been rather rewarding.”

Bede had her first communion at Our Lady of Peace in 1959 and held funerals for her parents and one sister there. “Our Lady of Peace was more that than church for many of us; it’s also in its own way our memory book,” she said. Should the Congregation for the Clergy let the Archdiocese’s decree stand, the parishioners said they would challenge the Archdiocese’s decree before the Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Catholic Church’s highest judicial authority.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese, Joseph Zwilling, said he could not discuss Our Lady of Peace’s appeal, but said Archdiocesan officials have been in touch with the Vatican. “We are responding to the appeals,” he said. “We are in the process of doing so.”

For now, the Archdiocese has assured the church community that the building is being heated and otherwise cared for, Dinneen said.

Dinneen, who said he would match further contributions toward the $500,000 goal, has attended services at a few other churches since Our Lady of Peace was closed, including, most recently at St. Francis Xavier Church, on West 16th Street.

Although that parish has been welcoming, he said, “I still feel more at home on the steps of Our Lady of Peace.”