Gasps were heard and tears were seen when Pastor Kevin Madigan informed parishioners this past Sunday at each Mass that their church was likely to close next August. It was a stunning blow for the vibrant church community that had received numerous assurances that St. Thomas More Catholic Church was safe.
St. Thomas More serves a highly affluent family community on Manhattan's Upper East Side with regular Masses, as well as with many informative and noteworthy events. The church is free of debt and its operations are financially sound. Housed within the church structure, which was built in the early 1870's, is the prestigious St. Thomas More Playgroup, a nonsectarian nursery school that serves as a feeder for the many private schools located nearby.
The plan announced on Sunday would merge St. Thomas More with St. Ignatius Loyola, located seven blocks away. Masses would no longer be said at St. Thomas More beginning next August, and parishioners would be invited to join the Loyola Parish.
The Archdiocese of New York has faced a myriad of challenges in recent years. There have been shifts in the Catholic population, as many families have moved out of Manhattan. It has been difficult to staff churches and meet other demands because there are fewer priests. Regular church attendance is down in most parishes, in part because of concerns rising out of the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church over the past decade.
The Archdiocese is hoping that Pope Francis comes to New York when he visits the United States next September for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The Vatican has yet not announced what additional U.S. cities the Pontiff will visit.
Meanwhile, there is a $100 million shortfall in donations for the restoration of New York's St. Patrick Cathedral, which is scheduled for completion next December. The Archdiocese has raised $75 million of the $175 million that was first budgeted for the project according to its website. Many suspect that the intention of the Archdiocese is to sell St. Thomas More, which would be worth millions of dollars, in order to bolster its finances.
St Thomas More has been an important part of the community since it was first constructed as an Episcopal Church beginning in 1870 to "serve the spiritual needs of St. Luke's Home for Indigent Christian Women." That home has been replaced by a 40-story apartment building. In 1925, the church merged with the nearby Church of Heavenly Rest Episcopal Church. Four years later the church was rededicated as the Reformed Church of Harlem.
In 1950, the Archdiocese of New York, then under Francis Cardinal Spellman, sought to acquire the church to meet the needs of the local Catholic community. Since July 9, 1950, St. Thomas More has been serving the local community, including many prominent New Yorkers, such as the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The memorial for her son was held at the church. "In the simple stone church where his mother brought him to worship as a small boy, John F. Kennedy Jr., the country's most famous namesake, was remembered as a young man who shouldered the ponderous weight of legend and was still 'becoming the person he would be' in a memorial Mass yesterday that united generations and ideologies," The New York Times wrote in July 1999.
A few months before Kennedy's memorial, The New York Times had an article about the church, describing it as a "Gothic-style building (that) has the air of a picturesque English country church." Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of Columbia University's Historic Preservation, said in the article, "It has almost every little quirky detail of the London church...The chamfered corners, the varying planes of the facade, the asymmetrical pinnacle at the top of the tower. It really captures your attention.''
The Archdiocese of New York has now gotten the attention of the parishioners of St. Thomas More. Meetings have been scheduled, a petition and a letter campaign are being organized, and a Facebook page for "Save St. Thomas More - Manhattan" has been set up. None of this is likely to impact Cardinal Timothy Dolan's decision. Ironically, Dolan visited the parish a few months ago and answered questions before a packed church. There was not a hint of closure. In fact, the visit was reassuring for many parishioners.
When the church was first dedicated 144 years ago, a large stone eagle, the symbol of St. John the Evangelist, was located over the main portal with the inscription, "We love him because he first loved us." Now the question for this beloved church and its devoted parishioners is will love be enough to save their church from the wrecking ball.