RELIGION: Bishop of Long Island offers solidarity to all who mourn Richard Schwartz

Christ Church — the building

A lightning bolt from an electrical storm on Thursday night is blamed for the death of Cobble Hill resident Richard Schwartz and for structural damage to Christ Church-Cobble Hill, a landmark at the southwest corner of Clinton and Kane streets.

Mr. Schwartz was walking under the scaffolding on the Kane Street side of the church when lightning hit the tower, causing masonry and scaffolding to collapse onto him. (An obituary on Mr. Schwartz appears elsewhere in this edition.) While the building —  the oldest and tallest in the neighborhood — had been hit by lightning several times, until Thursday, damage caused by lightning strikes had never claimed a life.

Christ Church’s leaders had already begun examining its tower at least a month before the July 26 disaster, a point that many of the broadcast media reports last week overlooked. The parish had a June 30 post on its Facebook Page, titled “What’s Going on with the Tower?” It stated the need for structural examination and a plan of repair and restoration. An excerpt reads:

"Over the past 10 years the tower has been hit by lightning and, then, shaken in the earthquake in August 2011. These events, together with normal wind, rain, ice and sun, have caused mortar and some small stones to loosen. While the tower is very sturdy (the stone is 8 feet thick at the base), engineers employed by the Diocese of Long Island have decided to have scaffolding (and sidewalk bridges) erected in order to make the tower accessible to allow close examination of the stonework so that a plan for restoration and stabilization can be determined and repairs begun. The scaffolding and sidewalk bridges are necessary to help ensure your safety during the tower examination and ensuing work.”

Mr. Schwartz’s untimely death and the damage from the July 26 storm led NYC safety personnel on Saturday to close off a section of the neighborhood. According to a NYC Alerts Notification distributed on Saturday, “Due to an unstable building in the vicinity, the following streets are closed to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic: Clinton Street from DeGraw Street to Kane Street; Kane Street from Strong Place to Court Street. These closures are projected to last at least five days.” The rector of Christ Church, Fr. Ronald T. Lau, told the Brookyn Eagle / Heights Press on Monday that the street barricades protect others “while the crane with the cage is in use for closer examination of the upper tower by engineers.”

Ironically, Saturday, July 28, also marked a history milestone for Christ Church. It was on this date, July 28, 1842 (170 years ago), that Bishop Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk consecrated the completed building. The cornerstone had been laid on June 26, 1841, and the tower, which is now 171 years old, was built that year. It is 117-feet high. This makes Christ Church the oldest Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, and a key neighborhood landmark. Christ Church pre-dates the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island (established in 1868) by 27 years. Bishop Onderdonk led the Diocese of New York.

The Trustees of the Diocese of Long Island hold the title to the Christ Church building and real estate property.

As this column went to press, insurance adjusters and engineers and other officials had already begun assessing the damage from the July 26 disaster, explained the Rev. John Betit, Canon to the Ordinary. Canon Betit, who serves as assistant to Bishop Lawrence Provenzano, told the Heights Press on Friday afternoon, “Until those professional evaluators have submitted a final statement, it’s hard to know how that all will be handled.” Although Canon Betit could not give a time frame on the damage assessment, he did outline the Diocese’s priority.

“In terms of the city engineers, I think that their main focus is going to be the immediate disaster situation, the safety issues to the neighborhood… Basically, they’re going to be evaluating what the damage has done to the integrity to that part of the building. Not being an engineer, I am not able to speak to that. But I am relying on our city engineers, and our people on the ground, and also the engineer from the insurance company to help come up with an evaluation that we can understand and talk about intelligibly.”

Most important to the Bishop at present, said Canon Betit, was helping the community in their grief.

Christ Church — the community of faith

Canon Betit explained that, in addition to prayers and condolences, and a statement to all Episcopal parishes in the diocese to pray for Mr. Schwartz and his family, the Bishop is organizing a system of outreach to the community, right now identifying contact information.

“Bishop Provenzano himself would really like to find a way to express sympathy personally to the family. Our need to want to do that has to be balanced with their need to want to have a conversation with us. That would be our hope, to find a way to make a personal connection with the family.” Canon Betit added that “Fr. Lau is assisting us in identifying a way for us to have a personal conversation with the immediate survivors.”

Canon Betit said that Bishop Provenzano will come out to Cobble Hill. “We express our condolence to friends and family of Mr. Schwartz. The Bishop is standing with — not just the church community but the Cobble Hill community and the Heights community to express his deep sadness.”  

The Very Rev. Ronald T. Lau, dean of St. Mark’s Deanery (a cluster of Episcopal parishes around western Brooklyn) and a neighborhood leader in addition to his duties as rector of Christ Church, is working with Bishop Lawrence Provenzano and his staff to help the family and friends of Richard Schwartz and the community in their grief.

Fr. Lau also told the Brooklyn Eagle / Heights Press on Friday that his parish and the community are resilient.

“I belong to a religion of hope and Resurrection. And that is how we will move forward into the future," he said. "This is not the worst calamity that has happened to this building. The fire of 1939 was far more devastating. This is a very tight-knit, tough congregation…There is a difference between a church of the building, and a church of the people who worship in the building. And my principal concern is the church of the people here who make up this the community; and our larger community, which includes many of our neighbors and our partnerships. Because, in a given week, over a thousand people use the building.”

Before last week’s disaster, Christ Church had been holding its summer Sunday services in the air conditioned Parish Hall or the church garden. Last Sunday, neighboring St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, at Clinton and Carroll streets, hosted Christ Church clergy, parishioners and neighbors. As of press time on Monday, Fr. Lau had not yet responded to a query on where Sunday services will be held on Aug. 5.

Among those issuing statements of condolence, both on Richard Schwartz’s death and in solidarity with the Christ Church community, were the Rev. John Denaro, priest-in-charge of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church at Clinton and Montague Streets in Brooklyn Heights, and Raymond Trapp, dean of the American Guild of Organists-Brooklyn Chapter. Don Barnum, a board member and past dean, is the organist/choir director at Christ Church.