A Church Hoping for a Miracle

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:14

Our Lady of Peace on East 62nd Street may face closure, to the dismay of its loyal parishioners

Upper East Side Many of the congregants at Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic church have attended the parish their whole lives.Baptisms, first communions, weddings, funerals have all been held at the small church on East 62nd Street, between Second and Third Avenues, and parishioners speak of the close community. Congregants recognize one another at Mass every Sunday, help their elderly neighbors get to services and pitch in financially when their church needs repairs.

But the congregation of Our Lady of Peace, committed but small at only about 350 people, is in danger of losing its spiritual home. Facing a crisis of low attendance throughout Manhattan, the Catholic archdiocese needs to consolidate parishes, and it has targeted Our Lady of Peace for potential closure and merger with nearby St. Vincent Ferrer, on Lexington near East 66th Street. It may be close by, but members of Our Lady of Peace have no desire to leave their church for another.

"This is what they call a personal church in the sense that we have no geographical boundaries," said Bruno Cappellini, a longtime member at Our Lady of Peace who is fervently working to prevent its closure. He lives in Queens now but still comes to his Upper East Side church every week to celebrate Mass.

"We've been writing letters to the pastor and mobilizing and making an issue out of it," Cappellini said. "We do not want this church to close, it's beautiful. It's also a landmark."

The church was constructed by Italian Catholic immigrants in 1918; the chandeliers were imported from Venice and the artwork was all done by Italian artists. The names of original parishioners are carved into marble in the foyer of the church, next to the amounts they contributed to get the church built: $50, $100 ? huge sums for immigrants in the early 20th century.

At a recent Sunday Mass, about 100 people came to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Father James Loughran, who has been at Our Lady of Peace for the past 19 years. The congregation is relatively diverse, and there are young families with children as well as older members. In his sermon, Fr. Loughran emphasized the diversity of their community, and spoke about the mission of inclusiveness and acceptance. "God does not throw anyone out," he said. "God only invites."

It wasn't exactly a strongly-worded call to the diocesan authorities, but Fr. Loughran hinted at the plight of his parish, which is the most he can do within his role as a priest. The Catholic church, after all, isn't a democracy, and the final decision about which churches to close and which to consolidate lies solely with Archbishop Timothy Dolan. His office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Parishioners insist that there is no reason to close their church, since it's financially solvent; while many Catholic parishes need funds from the archdiocese to stay operational, Our Lady of Peace is able to contribute money back to the archdiocese after paying its expenses.

"I'm going to spend the rest of my life protesting," said Gene Bertoncini, a musician who has spent the past 50 of his 77 years attending Our Lady of Peace. "It's a beautiful church and there's no reason to close it, it's solvent."

According to a preliminary report given to parishioners in June, however, Our Lady of Peace may be facing closure for other reasons, including "the growing shortage of clergy, the small size, the number of weekend masses (5), and the lack of sacramental preparation and religious education programs" at the church. While the church façade is indeed landmarked, the property could still fetch millions for its prime Upper East Side locale, sandwiched between townhouses on a quiet, leafy block. On paper, there may be reasons to consolidate, but parishioners insist that the archdiocese will lose many members of the church altogether, especially the elderly congregants who would rather stay home or go to family members' parishes than transfer to a bigger congregation at an unknown parish like St. Vincent Ferrer.

"I was baptized here, I've lived in the neighborhood all my life, and I'll be 80 next month," said Mary Lou Raia, who is almost completely blind and needs help getting to church every week. If Our Lady of Peace closes, "I don't know what I would do. I'm not as able to walk as far as I used to. I would probably go to [mass in] New Jersey with my brother."

Raia has written a letter to Cardinal Dolan and has distributed copies to others to sign as well, echoing her personal concerns.

"Closing or merging Our Lady of Peace Church may not have a positive result as elderly parishioners may find it very difficult, if not impossible, to attend Mass at another location and may not be willing to contribute to the support of another church," Raia wrote in her type-written letter.

"I feel like it's my home," said Mary Marchini Losi, who has received all the sacraments at Our Lady of Peace and has been praying a Novena there every Monday since 1970. "If this church closes, that's a reason to leave town."

"We have a very very tight community-oriented parish. We try to help each other," said Frank Pannizzo. "I can see no reason to close this parish unless the diocese wants to sell it and pocket the money."

The archdiocese has been examining all its 368 parishes, forming cluster groups for some to share resources, classes and priests, and merging others to shed the significant upkeep expenses for churches that can't fill their pews consistently. Parishioners at Our Lady of Peace insist that though their numbers are few, they are one of the strongest congregations in Manhattan, and they don't want to dilute their close community by being absorbed into a larger church.

Bertoncini said that the connection goes beyond the church's physical beauty and location, and that what the community stands to lose is as much about religion as it is a sense of home.

"The intimacy of this place breeds a certain kind of spirituality," he said.

"We want to keep this, it's our church," said Cappellini. "I'm not going to come in from Queens to go to St. Vincent's."