Could Dozens Of Shuttered Catholic Churches Become Immigrant Sanctuaries?

Roman Catholic activists are calling on the Archdiocese of New York to take a stronger stance against deportation. While dozens of churches, mosques and synagogues across the city are opening their doors to immigrants, providing everything from know-your-rights training to physical sanctuary from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they say Cardinal Timothy Dolan isn’t doing his share.

Some are calling on Dolan to explicitly denounce deportation, while others see an opportunity in the dozens of empty churches across Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx: buildings that have stood empty since August 2015, when the Archdiocese consolidated parishes as part of a sweeping plan to save on maintenance costs, particularly in parishes with dwindling attendance.

Roughly 40 NYC churches have been merged into a neighboring parish since the consolidations, according to the archdiocese; 24 of them are closed for worship. The archdiocese, which also includes counties north of the city, shrank by 20 percent in one year.

Felix Cepeda, an advocate for immigration rights and church reform, told Gothamist that the recent uptick in immigration enforcement across the country has inspired him. While ICE agents can legally cross a church threshold with a judicial warrant in hand, houses of worship technically qualify as “sensitive locations,” which ICE is directed to “generally” avoid.

“A couple of these buildings need to be opened immediately,” Cepeda said. “At least one place that can be open 24 hours. We could really have an emergency immigrant center there.”

“Most of these churches have houses next to them where the priest used to live,” he added, imagining housing the homeless and hosting community meetings, as well. “Thirty or forty people could easily live there.”

“Catholic Churches in the Archdiocese of New York that are not currently being used for regular Mass and Sacraments are not appropriate places for sanctuaries,” said archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling in a statement. “They do not have the facilities necessary for people to reside there.”

Cepeda sees a fundamental disconnect between the younger generation of Catholics in New York City and their leadership. A shift towards a non-white Catholic majority has been recognized nationally—a 2016 US bishops study found that 54 percent of so-called “millennial generation” Catholics, born after 1982, are Hispanic or Latino.

“The future of the church here in NYC is black and brown people from Latin America,” Cepeda predicted, adding, “If women who looked like [Dolan’s] mom and sister were being deported, would he be taking so long?”

Another group of pro-immigration activists, organizing as Matthew 25 after the passage from the Gospel that calls for welcoming strangers, holds a prayer vigil outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral every Friday. They don’t believe that church occupation is the best way to offer sanctuary as many of the buildings are in rough shape, but are nonetheless demanding more of Dolan.

“We are asking church leadership to put themselves between ICE and parishioners,” said one Matthew 25 member, who asked that her name be withheld because of her position in the church. “Sanctuary is the concept that people at the door will put themselves in between ICE and parishioners. It’s housing, forming a blockade, helping more people.”

Late last month, San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy called on Catholics to “disrupt those who would send troops into our streets to deport the undocumented.” This month, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark attended an ICE check-in with a Catholic facing deportation.

The Catholic Church is supporting immigrants in New York, as well. Catholic Charities of New York, which is affiliated with the archdiocese, sent lawyers to JFK and Newark airports when the first travel ban went into effect. In a December letter to his parishes, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, whose diocese represents Brooklyn and Queens, wrote that “we will always welcome the stranger amongst us, no matter what your legal status.”

Cardinal Dolan criticized the travel ban in a January Daily News op-ed, describing it as “impetuous and terribly unfair,” but also attended the presidential inauguration at Trump’s invitation. Speaking to reporters after a fundraiser in January, one day after the mass JFK protest, Cardinal Dolan said that the orders were cause for “some apprehension,” but that it was important for him to speak “with civility” on the matter.

“Cardinal Dolan has spoken out repeatedly and forcefully on immigration,” Zwilling, the archdiocese spokesman, said.

“He prayed over Trump,” Cepeda said. “He wants to play both sides.”

Onleilove Alston, director of Faith in New York, trains churches in how to offer sanctuary. She she is still waiting to see a concerted sanctuary effort from the archdiocese.

“Most of our undocumented members come from Catholic parishes,” she explained. “It has been difficult for the parishes to declare sanctuary, and I think more needs to be done with the leadership and the cardinal.”

Juan Carlos Ruiz is co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC, a network of more than 100 places of worship organizing in defense of immigrants. Formerly a Catholic minister, Ruiz switched over to the Lutheran church in 2007, because of what he describes as that church’s “inclusive stance.”

Ruiz told Gothamist that the Catholic footprint in his organization is “minimal, but growing.” St. John of the Cross on 42nd Street, St. Francis of Assisi on 31st near Penn Station, and Church of St. Francis Xavier Union Square are all at “different stages” of getting involved, he added.

According to Zwilling, decisions about the shuttered churches “will have to be made by the parishes themselves.”

But one effort to repurpose a merged church, the Church of the Nativity on Second Avenue, has been met with resistance from the top. Dorothy Day, a Catholic journalist and activist, founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in the 1930s; she attended Nativity before her death, and the Catholic Worker is still headquartered downtown. Its members would like to see the church reopened, with a chapel and education center in Day’s name, and mailboxes and showers for the homeless.

“The archdiocese has not exactly responded,” said Martha Hennessy, a Catholic Worker volunteer and granddaughter of Dorothy Day. “When you are dealing with a hierarchical, nearly-corporate entity like the New York Archdiocese, it’s very difficult.”

The archdiocese has a reputation for excess, even as it continues to close and consolidate its schools and churches (six more school closings were announced last month). Dolan recently moved to appease an anonymous wealthy donor who was troubled by Pope Francis’s anti-capitalist message. He told NBC that he assured the donor, “The pope loves poor people. He also loves rich people.”

Some advocates are concerned that Dolan plans to sell the shuttered churches to real estate developers, as it has in the past. Last fall, the archdiocese sold a Chelsea church and two other parcels to a hotel owner for $50 million.

In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, Dolan said some of the churches might ultimately be sold, but likely not for several years. Eventual proceeds would go to the merged parish in question, according to the archdiocese. To date, only Our Lady of Peace on East 62nd Street is up for consideration; it’s currently leased to the Egyptian Orthodox Church.

“I know our money goes towards our schools, poor kids, charities, social services,” Cepeda said. “But at the same time we don’t do enough challenging capitalism.”

Cepeda acknowledged the cost of utilities and repairs—no small sum in large, old buildings. St. Stephen’s, in Kips Bay, for example is over 150 years old and has recently undergone repairs for a crumbling roof. He’d like to see the archdiocese partner with local nonprofit groups; he’d also fundraise for utility costs, he said.

Ruiz supports Cepeda’s idea, though he believes that it will require a lot of careful organizing and appeals to church leadership. Ruiz’s neighborhood, Sunset Park, has many Spanish-speaking residents who would benefit from the space, he said—for sanctuary, but also simply to gather in community.

“They don’t have spaces to recreate themselves, to breathe,” Ruiz said. “Which I think, really, is like a crime, like an insult. We have this [large] amount of resources, you know?”

“What is the message we are saying loud and clear?” he added. “That our buildings are more important than the welfare of our people?”