"Why are they giving away these St. Stephen of Hungary coffee mugs?" I asked a member of that East 82nd Street church who attends the exercise group for age 60-plus people held in its rectory. "Because." she said, "they may be getting rid of things if the Archdiocese requires the church and also St. Elizabeth's to merge with St. Monica's on 79th Street." "Oh, no!" said this Protestant church member. "That is terrible!" She and others agreed, but said, "But what can we do about it?"
"Well, I sure will write about it," I said. Infinitely more needs to be said about how so many secular groups, like these low-cost exercise classes sponsored by The Crown Community Group, find affordable or free meeting places on faith group premises. And especially vital to the health of society- at-large, are the Alcoholics and other Anonymous groups which meet on faith group premises, including those of St. Stephen's of Hungary.
I find this church a uniquely community-concerned church, on week day levels, and on holidays. On Thanksgiving, "so no one is alone on this holiday," it hosts a splendid dinner for its members and the community in its spacious gym/auditorium. And speaking of inclusion and accessibility, its rectory building also has an automatic wheel-chair lift. And so much more, including a Saturday Greenmarket held on its sidewalk and in the adjacent churchyard. Now if only the crowds clamoring there for "food for the body" would somehow support the existence of this "food for the soul" church.
"What can we do about it?" Well, the next week I brought copies of Our Town to the group with its providential front page story, "A Church Hoping for a Miracle" by editor Megan Bungerorth (8/28) about Our Lady of Peace church located on East 62nd between First and Second facing closure and a merger with St. Vincent Ferrer located on Lexington and East 66th. Its members are most actively, but respectfully and movingly telling the Archdiocese why this is such a heart-breaking move.
The exercise group and its instructor, Betsy O'Neil, promised to widely share this so-needed story, and on the internet too. Also in need of protesting is the paper of record's story "Greetings from Yorkville" for omitting faith groups in its list of myriad area resources available to its influential new de Blasio family neighbors. Our concerned letters won't be printed now, but editors and also the public editor very much need to hear this demand for faith group inclusion.
The exercise group vowed to thank Our Town for this story which, again, so poignantly tells, not only how bereft parishioners would be by the closure of this longtime neighborhood church, but how it has enriched, even saved their health and their lives. And with the population aging, we must somehow stress how these houses of worship create community in an ever more impersonal and secularized society and with families scattered all over the globe. Churches can be support systems of the very first kind, and saving them should be the subject of sermons and in endangered synagogues too.
Maybe saving these community builders will be addressed by the very active East 79th Street Neighborhood Association's September meeting held at Temple Sharray Tefila located on the 79th and Second Avenue corner. And as this year's usual second Thursday of the month meeting date falls on September 11; association president Betty Cooper Wallerstein said, "Of course it will be reverently remembered." And may she again query elected officials, including guest speaker Senator Liz Krueger, about the location of designated emergency public shelters. Rarely, if ever considered is how the massive replacement of public buildings (churches, temples, hospitals, schools etc.) by private high-rise housing, means that public shelter places will be few and far between. And I think of St. Stephen's large gym/auditorium - large spaces which most faith group buildings have.
And in an era of ever more characterless, towering glass and steel flat-topped file cabinet architecture, faith group-inspired designs not only comfort the eye but the mind, in believing that these places still are, to use Christopher Lasch's impassioned defense of families, "a haven in a heartless world." They need to be saved. And it can be done if enough of us try!