By Sabina Mollot
On Sunday, parishioners at Our Lady of the Scapular-St. Stephen, a Roman Catholic church on East 28th Street, learned that the church would be closed and parish merged as part of a plan by Cardinal Timothy Dolan to close and consolidate churches throughout New York State.
The plan, which the church’s own pastor, Father Robert Robbins only learned of on Friday, is designed to save money by having churches that merge share administrative and other costs.
While no plan to sell Our Lady of the Scapular-St. Stephen has been announced, Dolan told the New York Times on Sunday, when speaking about the planned church closures in the city and upstate, that some may be sold. This church, meanwhile, is no stranger to money-saving mergers, having already been merged twice. The first time was back in the 1980s. St. Stephen’s, established in 1848, was merged with Our Lady of the Scapular in 1980s and the original Our Lady building has since been razed. Then, in 2007, the Archdiocese of New York announced that the Church of the Sacred Hearts of Mary and Jesus, which was located at 307 East 33rd Street, would be merged into Our Lady of the Scapular-St. Stephen Church.
Once the current Our Lady of the Scapular-St. Stephen church closes, which is expected to happen in August of 2015, services will be moved to Murray Hill’s Church of Our Savior at 59 Park Avenue and 38th Street. Robbins has already had administrative duties there for a while, bouncing back and forth between the two churches.
While his future has yet to be decided by the Archdiocese, the current shortage of clergy may work in his favor.
According to the Times article, Dolan’s plan calls for 112 parishes to be merged to create 55 new parishes. Out of the 55, 31 will have one of the participating churches no longer used for regular services, and they will effectively be closed.
The various closures and mergers won’t affect Catholic schools and St. Stephen, which, for the past 20 years, has leased space to the Epiphany School for its upper grades, will continue to do so. Prior to becoming home to one of Epiphany School’s two locations, St. Stephen had its own Catholic school, which closed.
Robbins, who’d only been at the helm of the church for two years, said he wasn’t given an explanation for the closure. However, the facts are that it is not self-sustaining, even with space on the property being leased to Epiphany, since the rent isn’t market rate, and attendance has been dwindling.
“In 1890, it was the largest Catholic church in the United States with 20,000 people coming on a Sunday,” said Robbins. These days, the crowd on Sunday usually hovers around 150. The faithful flock in between shifts and visits at nearby hospitals, and local residents, many who are elderly and poor, are also worshipers.
“It’s kind of a microcosm of the city since 1848,” Robbins added. “You think of these neighborhoods that are constantly changing. It really mirrors New York. We used to be an immigrant church with Irish and Italians and Germans when they came to America and then the next generation moves a little bit to the north and then the next generation moves a little further to the north and then the next generation goes to Westchester. People just aren’t practicing.”
Of course, none of these things made the blow of hearing that the church would be closing any easier for those who heard it directly from Robbins on Sunday.
“It was the natural reaction,” said Robbins. “My kid was baptized here, my parents were buried with the church. It’s a lot of history.”
Of Romanesque design with the exterior being landmarked, the building is the second location for St. Stephen. The original, located at 27th Street and Madison Avenue, was sold after a few years to the Harlem Railroad. The replacement building, located on East 28th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, had a price tag of $50,000. It was designed by the renowned architect James Renwick, who later went on to design St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
In 1865, in an effort to accommodate the regular crowd of parishioners, the church’s first pastor, Reverend Jeremiah W. Cummings, D.D., made a decision to expand the building through the block from 28th to 29th Street.
This project cost $100,000. Then it was on to beautification. Before long, the walls at St. Stephen were adorned by 45 murals and paintings by Roman-born artist Constantino Brumidi. The works were created over a 12-year period from 1868-1879, when Brumidi was also creating frescoes in the Capitol while Congress was in recess. There are also many ornate stained glass windows, which Robbins said could be removed along with much of the artwork. “We’ve done it before in other places,” he said.
With or without the art, the real estate will no doubt be closely watched by developers, who have always been making offers, Robbins said. While the pastor said he couldn’t even speculate as to the building’s current value, there is some deferred maintenance to consider. Four years ago an estimate for repairing various structural problems at the building was $35 million. This week, there’s work under way to re-stabilize the plaster on the walls.
At Epiphany School, where enrollment is currently the highest it’s ever been, principal Jim Hayes knows his school could use more space. However, when asked if Epiphany had any interest in acquiring St. Stephen, he said, “It’s premature to talk about that space. Right now they’re just getting over the hump with the parishioners losing their worship space. In a year or two they’ll probably focus on what to do. It’s a very big church. It goes through the block.”
Angel Falcon, the coordinator of special events at Our Lady of the Scapular-St. Stephen, said while the mergers were just announced, the church community had “some inkling” of what was going to happen for a while. He and the other employees are remaining hopeful, however, that a merger will increase mass attendance.
“We believe that if we can get everyone under one roof, we will have a resurgence,” he said. “Instead of heating a huge building on a Sunday for a few people, now we can put heat into a building where more people are. The building is gorgeous but I would hate to be of a faith where we’re custodians of buildings.”