When a Church Gets Sold, Where Does the Money Go?

By Carrie Monahan

Mildred Guy, 65, is a parishioner at Nativity-Most Holy Redeemer Church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Nearby, the Church of the Nativity, where Catholic pacifist and social activist Dorothy Day took Eucharist and prayed until her death in 1980, lies vacant on Second Avenue, covered in graffiti. Four years ago, the Archdiocese of New York closed Nativity, merging it with Most Holy Redeemer on East 3rd Street near Avenue A. Deconsecrated in 2016, the building will likely be razed and the land used for luxury apartments.

Confronting the neighborhood’s lack of affordable housing, churchgoers and neighborhood activists have partnered with the Cooper Square Committee, a tenants’ rights organization with historic power. Formed in 1959, the committee defeated Robert Moses’ plan for urban renewal on the Lower East Side in the late 1960s.

Guy is a member of this new coalition, known as the Nativity Committee. In July 2018, committee members met with David Brown, director of real estate for the Archdiocese of New York, to propose an alternative plan for the site of the former church: 123 units of low-income housing for seniors and homeless families; a 1,000-square-foot meditation room named in honor of Dorothy Day; and a 1,800-square-foot community room for residents and neighbors. 

Brown – a former Wall Street financier who pleaded guilty to insider trading in 1986 – rejected the committee’s proposal, telling the activists that their offer of $18.5 million, to be financed by the city over the next several years, was simply not enough. The archdiocese could gain as much as $50 million from a luxury housing deal, something activists fear will further displace the neighborhood’s low-income residents.

The closure of Day’s former church is part of a larger wave of Catholic property sales in the area. In 2012, real estate developer Douglas Steiner paid $41 million for what was formerly the Mary Help of Christians Church on East 12th Street, turning the property into a condominium complex. In 2017, the archdiocese deconsecrated a dozen properties in Manhattan and the Bronx, putting the once-sacred sites on the market. Nativity was one of them. Guy still hopes to persuade the parish council and the archdiocese to accept the alternate proposal.

A Lower East Sider for more than five decades, Guy is a teacher’s assistant at the Neighborhood School, a public elementary school on East 3rd Street. On a humid afternoon in early March, Guy sat down to discuss her relationship with Catholicism and her thoughts on the Nativity situation.

So Mildred I’m going to ask you about your personal history with Catholicism – when it became part of your life.

I guess when we were raised in Puerto Rico we attended Mass and church. It became a big part of my life and our life… when we came from Puerto Rico [in 1960], the Church of Immaculate Conception and Catholic Charities really helped us a lot. They helped my mother who came here with my grandmother and six children with clothing and furniture when we moved into a bigger apartment. So they were very instrumental in our adjusting to this way of life.

So when you first came to New York were you living on the Lower East Side?

Yeah. We lived on 13th Street between B and C. My mother came first. And then my grandma came with three of my other siblings.And then my younger sister and I came a year later.We all were all living in a one-bedroom [apartment].

My mother worked in the factory. So whatever she made paid for the apartment. And then she was able to find, I guess by word of mouth, a bigger apartment on 22nd Street between First Avenue and Second Avenue, and that was a railroad [apartment]. So we came in through the kitchen.There was one room and then two other rooms. So it was a four-room apartment altogether. The bathtub was in the kitchen and the bathroom was in the hallway. And we lived there for seven years. 

You said your mom worked in a factory. What kind of things was she making?

She did underclothes. She did embroidery.And what she did – in order for her to make a little bit more money – she used to bring piecework and my older siblings used to come and help my mother. I think she got like a nickel for every piece or something. And that was a way for her to supplement her meager salary. 

So when did you become a parishioner at Nativity?

It was back in the ‘70s. That’s where, for the special occasions, that’s where I attended Mass.

So did you ever see Dorothy Day when you were there in the ’70s? 

No, because I would go to the Spanish Mass and she attended either the 8:00  Mass in the morning, or the twelve o’clock Mass. I would go to the 10:30 Mass in Spanish.

So did the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking parishioners at Nativity – from what you saw – did they interact with each other much?

No. I mean they try, but there was two different factions. The English-speaking parishioners – they were the Italian ones. And then there were us. 

So Father McGillicuddy, or Father Sean [the priest at Most Holy Redeemer-Nativity, who declined request for comment] was he originally at Nativity? 

No, no. He only went to Nativity when there was the merger, or when they were ready to merge.But he was originally at Most Holy Redeemer… I guess it was in the works already – like this merger was going to happen. Because Father Sean would come and do some of our daily Mass.

When you found out the merger was going to happen, how did you feel? Was it very emotional for you since you’d grown up with your mother going there?

Yeah, I guess it was. Because a few years before that, they had told us it was called “a realignment” [of parishes and their priests]. That they were gonna come and close our Nativity Church. So we were having petitions and a hearing. Then Archbishop Dolan came and granted us an appeal and Nativity Church stayed open.

But that’s when they merged us. And that’s when our parishioners’ numbers kept dwindling. First was when they did the first realignment, some people went to a church that was closer to them. A lot of them were on the other side of Houston [Street], so they’d find a church over there. And then when merged us with Saint Teresa, that’s when we lost a lot of parishioners. 

What reason did they give you for the re-alignment?

They said that there was not enough priests, there was not enough parishioners, there were too many parishes and churches contained in a small section like this. You know, we had Mary Help of Christians, Most Holy Redeemer, Saint Emeric’s… And of course there was Immaculate Conception.

Were you skeptical at all when they did the realignment about the reasons why they told you it was happening?

Well… they’re sitting on all this prime real estate. It’s like a Catch 22. So if you think there’s not enough parishioners and then you close that parish, they go to another church.Then they say that the structure is not safe. Then those people went to Mary Help of Christians. 

And with Mary Help of Christians – that was turned into luxury apartments?

Yes.And yeah, I mean, that was quick… It’s like a bouncing ball.I felt very sorry for those parishioners who were in Saint Bridget and went to Mary Help of Christians and then some of them went to Emeric’s and then they closed that. And then they went to Saint Bridget’s again.

I wanted to ask about Most Holy Redeemer, because I guess it’s in a kind of a Gothic cathedral style. But because the parish doesn’t have a lot of money, they’re technically in debt to the archdiocese for maintenance. 

So they get a certain amount of money.Nativity Church also got money from the archdiocese to help support itself. Because the thing is, most of these parishes have very poor parishioners. The collections are very minimal. Not enough to come and sustain your monthly bills.

So I think they would get quarterly funding. And that’s one of the things that when they come in, they say why they have to close some of these churches and parishes, because it’s a big drain financially on the archdiocese. 

Has Father McGillicuddy been supportive of the Nativity Committee’s efforts?

Well, he came and said he really, really would love that property to be low-income, affordable housing. But I guess he knows the financial situation and he knows the history of Most Holy Redeemer and what it takes to run a parish. I truly believe he would love to come and help those most in need. But, you know, some things are beyond his control. It was possible they were not happy with him getting too involved with people who were against the closing.

I understand that the final decision on Nativity is in the hands of the parish council, but when they owe all this money to the archdiocese, it’s probably unlikely that they’ll go against David Brown (head of real estate for the Archdiocese of New York)’s directives, right?

They dangle. [The archdiocese reps] say, “We’ll sell this property, you’ll be getting this money, you’ll be debt free. You’ll be able to do all the renovations you can, you’ll become independent…”

Has thearchdiocese told the parish council, “if you let us do what we want to do with Nativity, the money will go to Most Holy Redeemer?”

Yes, that’s what they said.

Where do you think that money will go? 

The thing is, once they sell it, theycan do whatever they want. There will not really be any accountability  the amount of money.

I know the archdiocese set up acompensation fund for victims of clergy abuse. Do you think that any of that money would go towards that fund?

It’s possible, because they’re gonna take a chunk from the top. And a percentage goes to Most Holy Redeemer, and from that percentage you have to pay the debts that you owe the archdiocese. Your amount of money gets smaller and smaller. If they sell it for $50 million, Most Holy Redeemer could get maybe $10 [million]. I don’t know the ratio. But what happens to the difference?

Once the sale happens, is there a way for the parishioners or for anyone who’s interested tofollow the trail?

Well, no. You cannot even find out how much the archdiocese owns, how much they sell properties for…I don’t think it’s gonna be public knowledge. It may be public how much they sell it for. Is that a true amount? I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s any way unless, you know, they’re forced to open up the books and say they’re allocating all this money you got from here. If you say you’re gonna build housing, how much are you investing in that? If you say you’re gonna support schools, what schools and where?

In the past two years or so has this or anything else kind of shaken your Catholic faith at all?

Well, not really. We have all these abuse scandals. I have my faith in God and my belief. I haven’t lost my faith. I still read my scriptures at night… My faith has not really wavered so much. It’s just, I guess, my trust in the actual people.

Is that because of the property stuff, or is it more because of the sex abuse scandals?

It’s a little bit of everything. They are so against same-sex marriage. Or if you’re divorced, you can’t receive [communion]. On the other hand, they come and protect all these things going on so they can protect the institution. You come and confess a hundred times and you continue to do whatever you want. You are pro-life and then you don’t fight against capital punishment and children who are hungry and homeless. If you believe in all life, you cannot really be that selective.

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