New York's Last French Church Fights to Survive
It has long served as the spiritual home of New York's French-speaking Catholics, but the Church of St. Vincent de Paul is nearing its end as the faithful grow fewer and the building lies in disrepair.
But Manhattan's last francophone parish, where French singer Edith Piaf got married in 1952, is resisting a decision taken five years ago by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York to shutter it for good.
Dedicated in 1869, the church is a shadow of its former self. 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.
Some pews can no longer be used and the plaster is crumbling. Refurbishing the church would cost an estimated $5-10 million, and the archdiocese has decided it is not worth it.
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.
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 lawyer 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. St. Vincent was also the first integrated church in New York.
Volunteers began distributing flyers after Mass in April to rally the faithful, and funds were collected 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.
Choir director Sylvestre Kouadio said it's not just a building that's at stake -- it's an entire community.
-- 'A dying church' --
"We don't live in the same neighborhoods, and this community, which comes together despite socioeconomic differences, is going to be destroyed," he said.
Hulot noted that the parish is bristling with social activities such as a food pantry, clothing donations and French and English lessons.
But 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.
After years of waiting for the hammer to fall, Kouadio expressed hope that somehow his church would be saved.
So far, he said, someone has been listening to his prayers.
"This plot of land would be a very valuable place on which to build a condominium or whatever other commercial structure. And I think that that is the reason" for the archdiocese's decision to close St. Vincent, Statz said.
"It's not because this is a dying church."
But Zwilling said no date has yet been set to close the church, and that the New York archdiocese is looking for another solution for the faithful to continue to attend services in their native language.