Dear Friends,
Once in a while I post a Walkers essay from the past when it feels right to do so. Yesterday evening I walked by the place where Mary Help of Christians Church stood on East 12th Street and I could see that it was almost entirely gone now. Back in 2007 was when the church got its notice, and there was a ‘last mass,’ which I attended. Then, the church was granted a stay of execution of sorts, which lasted five years, until now. Mary Help had a big, active congregation. For a long time, while it was closed, I would see people holding mass for themselves on the steps of the church. This past month I’ve watched it be demolished and felt sad. So it feels right to post this one now. I went looking in my pictures, and found some from that Sunday in 2007, and I will post a couple of them here today.–R.A.

There was a time when I didn’t know such a thing as closing a church with a whole parish begging for it not to happen could occur, but it does, all the time. Our Lady Queen of Angels up in Harlem was closed by the police and some of its parishioners were arrested, all ladies, I read. I was shocked the day I read in the Post about how the Cardinal lured the priest from old Our Lady of Vilnius uptown to meet with him and then had all the locks changed while he was out. After I read that I ran downtown to see for myself. I’ve noticed that little church whenever I’ve had occasion to go to New Jersey in a car, crouching there right near the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. The archdiocese had put the little church on its vanish list even though it had an active parish just like Our Lady Queen of Angels did. Whenever they close down an old church saying it has irreparable damage, usually invisible to the naked eye, there seems always to be some kind of luxury residential building or huge dormitory waiting to spring up on its spot.

When I got to Our Lady of Vilnius it looked very lonely sitting there and people had left a sign protesting its closing. Then I saw three old geezers on the steps.

Old geezers are good for the lowdown on anything, especially if you’re a lady. They told me that it was all true. They told me the priest’s elderly housekeeper tried to keep out the thugs sent down by the Cardinal with their locksmithing tools. “This is where Father sleeps, you know,” she told them, but they weren’t listening. While the old guys told me all about it, a flicker of motion caught my eye at the window in a door.

“Yeah,” one of them said, “They got t’ree guards in there, guardin’ the place.” They said that some of the people turned away from the church had cried. The guys told me they themselves are members of the Knights of Columbus, and now their meeting place was closed. One of them said the priest asked him if he knew of anything in his building, because he was locked out of his rooms with no place to live. Another of the old guys said he wasn’t sure that it was a good thing that the Post ran a photo of the Our Lady of Vilnius priest smoking a cigar. “That don’t look good,” he said. But one of the others said, “I don’t see nothin’ wrong wit’ dat. Maybe he felt a lotta anxiety, ya know, and the cigar, it calmed him down a little.” They showed me the bright new shiny lock on one of the doors. “And meanwhile,” one of them said, “they got all the money in the world in Rome. But they gotta close down the church. And they got a senior center in the basement. So now they got no place to go.”

I asked the boys if I could take their picture, and they posed for me on the steps. I thought one of them looked like Al Lewis and told them that. Al’s lookalike said, “Yeah, but he’s dead. He was older than me. He had that restaurant for a while on Bleecker and Leroy, Grampa’s.” I told them how one day I saw him standing on the sidewalk out front of that restaurant when it opened. I was surprised by how tall he was. On the Munsters he looked little, but on the street he towered over me. Normally I don’t bother famous people on the streets in the city, but I couldn’t resist Al Lewis. I said, “Hi Grampa.” He smiled down at me and he was just as friendly as he could be. He told me all about how he got his start in the theaters on the Lower East Side and he gave me a card with a caricature of himself on it. Grampa’s restaurant is long gone, but while it was there it seemed to do a good business. The building was demolished and replaced with a luxury residence. “The archdiocese has a lotta money,” said the one in the baseball cap. “And here they go, closing down churches and hospitals.” Al’s lookalike re-lit his cigar and said, “And if dat wasn’t enough, the price of stamps is goin’ up again, too.” The three of them sat shrugging and shaking their heads.

A few weeks ago I learned that Mary Help of Christians on East 12th near Avenue A was having its very last mass. I had never been inside it, but many times I went to their flea market. That’s where I bought my black suede platform boots for $5, the ones that eventually both broke at the same time when I was standing at a light on Park Avenue and 81st Street. I was going to a party in a very snooty big gallery. I had to hobble onto a bus heading to Madison Avenue where I bought a pair of disposable hospital slippers in an old drugstore. I threw the platform shoes in the trash bin right where they died, on Park Avenue, and wore the slippers to the party. It was one of the most glamorous things that had ever happened to me, and it only cost $3.99—for the slippers.

I decided to go to the last mass.

It was packed with sad people of all colors and types. It was a lovely old church, and very solid. The archdiocese had apparently decided attendance had dwindled although nobody there seemed to think so. At the end of the mass and the long giving of thanks for having had the church for more than 100 years, children were let up into its belfry to ring the old bell. I went outside and stood on the sidewalk and listened as it rang and rang and rang.

June 7th 2007

Priests outside Mary Help of Christians for the 'last mass' in May 2007

Note: Our Lady of Vilnius still stands next to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, a lawsuit filed by its congregation having halted its demolition, but to date they have not been able to use it.

Copyright 2013 Romy Ashby

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