Thursday, March 30, 2006

Historic New York Jesuit parish slated for closing.

Today's New York Times has an article on the expected closing of one of Manhattan's oldest parishes, Jesuit-run Nativity Church, as part of a sweeping parish reorganization plan announced earlier this week by the Archdiocese of New York. Founded in 1842 and staffed by Jesuit priests for nearly a century, Nativity has served successive waves of immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan - first the Irish, then the Italians, and most recently Hispanics from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. After weathering many decades of social and demographic change, Nativity has finally met a challenge it can't overcome: gentrification. As the NYT reports, Nativity's passing is part of a much larger phenomenon:

Manhattan, the archdiocese's historic heart, is among the hardest hit in the recommendations [for parish closings]. It has a quarter of all the churches in the archdiocese, which stretches to the Catskills in the north from Staten Island in the south, but only 17 percent of the average head count at weekend Masses.

Parishes that were created a century ago to serve booming immigrant neighborhoods now sit largely empty, while many, especially in the northern suburbs of the archdiocese, are overflowing.

Nativity is a clear example what has happened. According to the archdiocese's numbers, the church attracts fewer than 350 people for weekend Mass. The average crowd at a weekday Mass is five people, who worship in a tiny room that doubles as a chapel so the church does not have to heat the sanctuary. A staff of four has dwindled to one.

. . .

Nativity's demise has long been on the horizon, with rising rents and gentrification inexorably leaving its imprint.

"It used to be full, basically," said Roberto Rodriguez, 31, whose family moved to the neighborhood from the Dominican Republic nearly two decades ago. "Little by little the neighborhood kept changing and changing and the people kept disappearing."

. . .

Over the last decade, it has become increasingly clear . . . that the area was changing and that did not necessarily bode well for the church.

"Young people were moving in with good salaries," [Jesuit Father George Anderson] said. "Landlords began raising rents. We lost a lot of parishioners who were low income."

The circumstances that put Nativity on the closing list are hardly exceptional, but the parish can still claim a unique history. As the Times notes, Dorothy Day was a longtime parishioner at Nativity. Many generations of Jesuits have been nourished in their sense of vocation through experiences living and working at Nativity; for one example, read these reflections by the aforementioned Father Anderson, an associate editor at America who has been part of the Nativity community for the past decade. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Nativity Parish is Nativity Mission Center, a Jesuit-sponsored middle school serving disadvantaged youth on the Lower East Side since 1971. The success of this school has led to the establishment of other Nativity Model schools throughout the United States. The Nativity Network currently includes 44 schools in 28 cities - there's even one in New Bedford. Paradoxically, the legacy of Nativity Church continues to spread even as the parish itself disappears. Sad as they must be, I hope that Nativity's parishioners can take pride in knowing that their church's name will live on. AMDG.


At April 07, 2006 2:19 PM, Blogger Karen said...

Too depressing.


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