Saturday, March 17, 2007

Too little, too late

By the time there was a Friends of Cabrini Church, it was too late.

First there was the complete neglect of the site by the Archdiocese, in spite of a multi-million insurance policy carried by the parish (which owned its church), money that will now likley default to the Archdiocese to spend as it sees fit.

Then there was the neighborhood frenzy to see the church demolished, as desperate homeowners fed on the rumors that their properties would triple in value if Holy Cross School came, forsaking its historic Ninth Ward location for the site of Cabrini and Seton High School. The school insisited, however, that the church be demolished so that they could build a modern campus with all of the ameneties tuition-paying parents expect.

By the time the Friends of Cabrini first met in the cold, windy parking lot next to the church, the demolition was already underway. Workers had removed the single-piece, eight ton Carerra marble altar imported from Italy, dropping and breaking it into pieces in the process. They tend proceeded to strip the asbestos insulation from the interior, in the process demolishing mosaics and tossing them into debris piles, and scrapping away the gold leaf on the ceiling which the building's architects had voluntarily purchased and applied when the building fund ran short. They then began to remove the imported French stained glass--made by the descendents of the window makers of Chartres--breaking some of that as well and discarding some as debris.

What remained was the shell of a building and not a church. It has ceased to be a church by fiat of the archdiocese months earlier, an archdiocese that saw it only as real estate and sent in a clean up crew that tossed the parish's vestments into a debris pile from which one parishoner rescued them. A decision had been made with profound implications for the future of the neighborhood: this place shall no longer have a church.

The law governing historic preservation carries a strong presumption that ecclesiastical property is exempt if the church so decides. Without unified support from parishoners and the preservation community, saving the church was always a long shot, particularly for a building shy of the 50-year marker used as a baseline for historic status. FEMA's decision to step in and and consider if recovery money could be used for the demolition and school relocation offered a glimmer of hope, but the tide had already turned.

And so St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church will not survive the recovery. Its demolition will be fixed this week. What remains of a building that received top honors from the Church Architectural Guild of America and National Council of Churches will be reduced to rubble not by the flood but by the confusion and contention that have come to characterize the recovery.

The neighborhood will win a school, but it will lose its church.

Fr. Paul Watkins, the parochial vicar (associate pastor) of St. Dominic Catholic Church in Lakeview, told Brian Denser of WTUL's Community Gumbo several weeks ago that "we have spearheaded the recovery...everywhere the priests were allowed to return those neighborhoods have come back. The parishes that were closed...the neigborhoods are all exceptionally grim."

I don't wish the Oak Park or Vista Park residents ill. I want them to be able to come home. I want everyone to be able to come home. I sincerely hope that Holy Cross School will help anchor a recovering neighborhood.

The next qustion the neighborhood should ask itself is the one raised indirectly by Fr. Watkins: how much further along would Oak Park and Vista Park be with a functioning parish? What will happen to the insurance money? Will it be used to build a new neighborhood church, to further bolster their recovery?

They should ask the archdiocese: Fathers, why have your forsaken us?

One of the most surreal moments of the dispute was when the Picayune called the end game a "compromise." Compromises involve both sides winning something and that didn't happen here. The Church never compromises; it's an autocratic institution.
"The neighborhood will win a school, but it will lose its church."

This reminds me of what I was told about villages in Europe: if the village is Catholic, the largest building is a church; if the village is Protestant, the largest building is a school.

What have we become?
A lot of people have been let down by the Fathers. There are some seriously angry people from St. Bernard to the West Bank and beyond.

Trouble is brewing. Just watch.

I've been very involved with one of these stories, and it ain't pretty. I have faith, however, that incompetence and hardheartedness will be revealed for what they are.

Fr. Maestri's resignation as superintendant is only the tip of the iceberg.
Cabrini church was the heart of that neighborhood, a neighborhood that rarely was called Oak Park or Vista Park by the residents. Those names were reserved for the official subdivision designation. The neighborhood was called "Cabrini" or "Cabrini parish". I know. I grew up there and lived there from 1953 to 1972. The neighborhood will never become Holy Cross. The city already has a neighborhood by that name.
I had no interest in the church until I heard Maestri say that if the Archdiocese didn't get everything it wanted, the entire site would be allowed to deteriorate and there would be nothing to anchor the neighborhood's recovery around. Had the dispute been over the architectural value of the church, I wouldn't have cared, but everybody in the city should see the danger in giving into that kind of pressure.

A couple of weeks ago, just before the "compromise," I once again heard Maestri on the radio. This time the talk was about how well the neighborhood was recovering, which I thought would have undercut the archdiocese's position. Instead Maestri just that in the middle of recovering neighborhood with so much wonderful stuff already happening, it would be a shame to have an abandoned, neglected 20 acre site. But that's what we'd have if we gave in to the preservationists. I think he called them obstructionists. If the developers get their way so easily in future struggles, we can expect to lose much more.
According to people who have been in the FEMA meetings the spin coming out of the Archdiocese right now is all spin.

There is no compromise on the table
Precisely. This type of blackmail is not the way we should allow any project to be approached. The archdiocese's approach doesn't differ much from the threats from public housing advoctes to harrass and threaten tourists if they didn't get their way.

I'm surprise Maestri is still being allowed to talk on the radio. Was his take down jus window dressing? I find him an ugly little bastard.

Karen, FEMA has it in its power to require the memorialization is a condition, and the archdiocese and Holy Cross want the FEMA money as part of the deal, so I can't imagine they won't go along with it. I believe there's some sort of horseshoe entrance drive where the church is, so some sort of memorial wouldn't be a lot of work.
I think I'll just sit this one out....
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