NY Catholics seek to save venerable church

The Church of St. Vincent de Paul in Manhattan has a storied history.

Dedicated in 1869, it was the first integrated church in New York, it has long served as the spiritual home for the area’s French-speaking Catholics and today it is Manhattan’s last francophone parish.

Famed French cultural icon Edith Piaf was even married in the church in 1952.

Today, it serves a diverse body of Catholics from France, Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Switzerland, Togo and elsewhere. But the end appears near for the venerable building.

“Stained-glass windows depicting the story of France are chipped, and plastic bins lay across the floor to collect rain from the leaky roof while yellow cautionary tape marks areas damaged by the water,” according to Agence France-Presse.

Worse yet, the number of parishioners on the church’s rolls continues to dwindle; five years ago, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York made the decision to close St. Vincent de Paul for good.

However, churchgoers can get attached to their place of worship. Despite the fact refurbishing St. Vincent de Paul would cost an estimated $5-10 million, some aren’t giving up just yet.

“Alarmed by the pending closure, a nonprofit group is going into overdrive to save this gathering place for a diverse group of French, Belgian and Swiss expatriates along with mostly French-speaking African and Haitian immigrants,” according to the wire service.

It has already tried three times, in vain, to get a hearing with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. And the non-profit group, Save St. Vincent de Paul, tried again in early May, underlining the church’s architectural merits, its history-laden past and its lively present.

“This is not a neighborhood church. It’s a church where people come, sometimes from very far away,” said Olga Statz, a Haitian-American who has attended St. Vincent since childhood and is now leading the non-profit preservation drive.

“It’s an architectural treasure,” she added, pointing to the delicate craft of the stained glass windows and the monument to French Americans killed during both World Wars.

Volunteers have been distributing flyers after Mass in a bid to rally the faithful and collect funds for repairs.

“For the French and African francophone community, it’s a unique gathering place,” said Sylvie Hulot, who is preparing the confirmation of about 40 children.

Sylvestre Kouadio, a 51-year-old Ivorian taxi driver from the Bronx, told the New York Times that the consequences would be grave.

“The church has become a second home, a home away from home for Africans who speak French. This is the anchor,” he said. “It’s not so much a place to worship,” Kouadio said. “It’s a place to worship comfortably.”

Kouadio said it’s not just a building that’s at stake – it’s an entire community.

“We don’t live in the same neighborhoods, and this community, which comes together despite socioeconomic differences, is going to be destroyed,” he said.

While the parish is bustling with social activities such as a food pantry, clothing donations, and French and English lessons, attendance at mass is often sparse, Agence France-Presse reported.

On any given Sunday, the homily rings out among the mostly empty pews. A hundred people at most attend the service, said the church’s pastor, the Reverend Gerald Murray.

“This parish is in a lot of difficulty, and the diocese also has difficulty, because we have many parishes and not as many parishioners as we used to have,” he said.

“So even though it’s sad to think of closing the church, at some point the bishop has to do that.”

Joseph, an Ivorian who comes to collect for charity each Sunday from neighboring New Jersey, said that “for the church to live on, it needs the faithful.”

“It’s our responsibility,” he added.

The church’s faithful have moved over the years, the archdiocese explained.

A century ago, they lived “overwhelmingly” in Manhattan and the Bronx, said spokesman Joseph Zwilling, adding that national parishes created to minister to French, German and Italian immigrants have gradually disappeared.

“We have to move from a model of an archdiocese based on what the conditions were in 1912 to address the conditions as they exist in 2012 and years to come,” he said.

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