Ocean Hill-Brownsville church is threatened with demolition
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Our Lady of Loreto has a new protector: State Sen. Tony Avella.
The Queens Democrat — and mayoral candidate — has stepped forward in the face of fresh threats by a Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens subsidiary to demolish the shuttered century-old church in the Ocean Hill section of Brownsville.
Avella has joined a campaign by the Brownsville Cultural Coalition and the group's long-time supporter, Assemblymember Latrice Walker (D-Brownsville), that calls for the landmarking of Our Lady of Loreto and its adaptive reuse as a cultural center.
Why has Avella gotten involved in the effort to save a church that's not in his state senate district, or even his home borough?
"I have a long-standing reputation of being a preservationist dating back to my days in the City Council," he told the Brooklyn Eagle Thursday afternoon before a press conference outside the cast-stone church at 124 Sackman St.
"A number of groups reached out to me [about Our Lady of Loreto]. When anybody asks me for help, I go."
Catholic Charities Progress of Peoples Development Corp. (POP), which is now threatening to tear down the church, was going to do so several years ago in order to build low-income housing.
But following protests by Brownsville activists, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation determined that Our Lady of Loreto and the rectory next to it were eligible for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
In 2010, the state organization crafted a letter of resolution saying that the rectory could be torn down and replaced by low-income housing, but the church building should not be torn down. Its continued existence would be the “primary mitigation” to make up for the demolition of the rectory.
The state organization signed the letter of resolution. So did POP and three government housing agencies.
Now, speaking of that letter of resolution, Avella told the Eagle, "The church has failed to live up to their agreement with the state. That is really distressing."
Avella is a Catholic, he told the Eagle. His home parish is St. Mel's in Flushing, Queens.
'A gem that should not be destroyed'
At the press conference, Avella vowed to work with the Brownsville Cultural Coalition and Assemblymember Walker to get the historic church turned into a cultural center.
Supporters of Our Lady of Loreto's preservation want to make the historic site "a cultural beacon," Walker said at the press conference.
"Our advocacy, our resiliency will not be muted," she said.
Miriam Robertson, the executive director of Brownsville Heritage House, called out Catholic Charities during the press conference.
"You have allowed the building to go into disrepair," Robertson said, pointing to of Our Lady of Loreto, whose lovely stained-glass windows have been removed and either replaced with plywood or left open to the weather.
She's one of the leaders of the Brownsville Cultural Coalition.
Another one of the group's leaders, Les Ford of Nia Theatrical Production Company, said Brownsville kids who want to grow up to be sculptors, playwrights and dancers need a place in the neighborhood to call their own. And Our Lady of Loreto should be that place.
“This church is a gem that should not be destroyed,” Ford said.
Another coalition member, Louis J. Gallo Jr., said at the press conference that demolishing Our Lady of Loreto would amount to “artistic and aesthetic criminality.”
Gallo is the New York State chairman of the Commission for Social Justice, the anti-defamation arm of the Order Sons of Italy in America.
The Brownsville Cultural Coalition is a group of neighborhood activists and arts organization heads, former parishioners and preservation-minded Italian-Americans.
Avella has been urging Monsignor Alfred LoPinto, CEO of the Catholic Charities Progress of Peoples Development Corp., to meet with the coalition. The Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens subsidiary has leased Our Lady of Loreto for 53 years with an option to extend the lease term to 99 years.
“[I]t has been made very clear that Catholic Charities has not fulfilled its responsibilities to make good faith efforts to preserve [Our Lady of Loreto] and instead is hastening its efforts to have the Church demolished,” Avella wrote in a letter to Monsignor LoPinto and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
In a letter to Avella, Monsignor LoPinto said that it would cost $9 million to stabilize Our Lady of Loreto. The monsignor said the former church building will be demolished once a demolition permit is received, and affordable housing will be constructed on the site where it now stands.
In a letter to City Councilmember Rafael Espinal, who reps the area where Our Lady of Loreto is located, Avella said Our Lady of Loreto is “eminently qualified to be a protected New York City landmark.”
Avella added, “It would be a travesty were this incredible landmark destroyed.”
Our Lady of Loreto, whose architectural style is neoclassical Roman Renaissance, was designed and built by Italian immigrants, and for Italian immigrants.
It was a place of refuge from the prejudice of Catholics of other ethnicities. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Italians were a downtrodden minority in New York City. They were often forced to sit in the basements or the back sections of other ethnic groups' churches.
Avella has a track record as a champion of Italian-Americans' cultural heritage. During his tenure in the City Council before being elected state senator, he was the founder and chairman of the first Italian-American Caucus of the City Council.
The caucus fought against stereotyping of the ethnic group.
A $12,000 grant from the Landmarks Conservancy
Brownsville Cultural Coalition members are thankful Avella is their ally.
“We feel very much encouraged by all the great support we've been getting from politicians and the community,” Ford told the Eagle in an interview prior to the press conference. “The community is solidly behind us.”
Other support includes a $12,000 grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy for a conditions assessment and feasibility analysis for Our Lady of Loreto, Robertson told the Eagle in an interview prior to the press conference. The grant was awarded on the condition that the coalition gets access to the church building.
Robertson said the Landmarks Conservancy has also lined up possible funding for the creation of the cultural center.
There is already an enormous amount of affordable housing in Brownsville, including New York City Housing Authority developments, Robertson said.
"When you've got affordable housing, you need amenities," she pointed out.
"A cultural center brings economic development. If you've got a cultural center, it brings more restaurants and other cultural things," she said.
"With change coming to Brownsville, this building is a focal point. By preserving it, we can keep a sense of history, which represents the past, and bring a sense of hope, which represents the present and the future.
"This church is meant to be saved," Robertson added. "The fact it is still standing is divine intervention."