NEW YORK -- A New York State appellate court unanimously ruled Thursday that the Archdiocese of New York has the right to demolish a Famine-era church in Manhattan that has become a rallying cry for the metropolitan area's Irish community.
Earlier in the year, a state Supreme Court justice dismissed the lawsuit, titled "Committee to Save St. Brigid v. Edward Cardinal Egan," bidding to stop the demolition of the church, which was built in 1848 by Irish shipwrights. The suit was brought by the committee, along with former parishioners of St. Brigid's Church. The archdiocese has a city-issued permit to raze the building, which it maintains is structurally unsound.
The plaintiffs asserted that the archdiocese failed to constitute a board of trustees, consisting of two archdiocesan officials, the church's rector, and two lay people, to make such decisions, a provision they noted was required by state law.
A lawyer for the archdiocese countered that archdiocesan officials would assemble the board before taking further action and that archdiocesan officials were making decisions well within their authority. The case went before the Appellate Division of the state's Supreme Court on June 13.
In its uncorrected opinion, the court stated, in part:
"The court properly found that the disposition of the church property and funds at issue were matters within defendant's ecclesiastical authority, and, accordingly, that the relief sought by plaintiffs, i.e., an order mandating that the funds in question be used to restore the subject property for use as a church, would impermissibly involve the court in the governance and administration of a hierarchical church.
"Plaintiffs' promissory estopel claim would, in any event, be unavailing for lack of a specific promise to keep the subject church building in operation as a church if funds were collected for that purpose."
The church was built more than 150 years ago as a spiritual home for Roman Catholic immigrants fleeing The Great Hunger. Cardinal Edward M. Egan shut the church in 2001 because of structural problems.
Members of the committee announced earlier in the month that someone who insisted on anonymity recently made a new offer to purchase the church, at Avenue B and Eighth Street, from the archdiocese at "fair market value."
But Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the archdiocese, responded that the offer was not new. About a year ago, he said, someone offered to buy the church, but archdiocesan officials rejected the offer because they wanted to use the land for other purposes.
A permit that the archdiocese obtained several years ago to convert the church building into apartments was replaced last year with a demolition permit. The demolition permit was on hold pending the decision by the Appellate Division.
On June 14, the committee produced a benefit titled "Bards for St. Brigid" that headlined more than a dozen New York Irish-American literati, musicians and scholars. The Manhattan event drew more than 500 supporters and garnered $21,000 in donations for the preservation effort, according to the organizers. The money, they announced, was largely earmarked for legal fees incurred by the suit and subsequent appeal.
Representatives of two prominent Irish groups, the Grand Council of United Emerald Societies and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, also announced June 13 that their organizations were joining the effort to save the church.
The committee doesn't seem ready to surrender the church to its likely fate, though. Friday morning (June 30), Mary Ann Pierce, a member of the committee and producer of the June 14 benefit, e-mailed supporters, urging them to fight on. Providing contact information for Mayor Michael Bloomburg, Egan, and local legislators, she wrote "We need your help now: Spread the word that St. Brigid's, the Famine Church of the Lower East Side -- a unique jewel of Irish history in America -- is in grave peril and must be preserved.
"Contact fraternal and cultural organizations, media, politicians, the Archdiocese of New York, your family and friends -- anyone who cares about our history. It's time for all to step up and get involved to save St. Brigid's." WGT