Sacred Sites Program

Historic Catholic Churches in Crisis

Historic Catholic Churches in Crisis
Historic Catholic Churches in Crisis
Constructed in 1907, St. Thomas the Apostle Church was designed by the renowned ecclesiastical architect Thomas H. Poole and is one of many historic Roman Catholic churches facing demolition. Its detailed spire has already been removed.
Historic Catholic Churches in Crisis
Historic Catholic Churches in Crisis
We are still lobbying to save one of the oldest Catholic churches in the city, St. Brigid's on Tompkins Square, which was built in 1848 with a sanctuary attributed to Patrick Keely.
Historic Catholic Churches in Crisis
Historic Catholic Churches in Crisis
We helped save Holy Innocents Church, a proto-modern church in Flatbush, Brooklyn that was designed by skyscraper architects

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York has pursued redevelopment plans for several of its historic churches across Manhattan. As a result, 19th and early 20th century Roman Catholic churches from Harlem to the Lower East Side have been closed or threatened with closure. The Conservancy and our Sacred Sites staff have served as an influential clearinghouse to help advocate for vulnerable churches, particularly St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem and St. Brigid’s on Tompkins Square.

In July, the Archdiocese announced plans to demolish St. Thomas to build low-income senior housing, and by August, it began dismantling the intricate terra cotta pinnacles at the upper facade. In September, pressure from Harlem residents, political representatives, the Conservancy, and other advocates helped temporarily suspend demolition. In December, Congressman Charles Rangel intervened to help secure a brief inspection by Conservancy staff and our consultants, engineer Robert Silman and architect Chuck DiSanto of Walter Melvin Architects. This consultation generated an independent assessment of the building envelope and will help estimate costs of its potential adaptive use. St. Thomas is eligible for National Registry status.

Downtown, the Conservancy advised a coalition of former parishioners and neighborhood advocates working to save St. Brigid’s, the oldest surviving church built by Irish immigrants to New York and among the oldest Catholic churches in the City. Although the congregation has raised more than $100,000 toward the necessary $250,000-$500,00 total repair, the Diocese closed the church pending redevelopment of the site. The parishioners are still fighting.

In neighborhoods less pressured by redevelopment, we have made progress in saving churches, such as Holy Innocents Church in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. We helped convince the Brooklyn-Queens Roman Catholic Diocese to allow the congregation to pursue full National Register listing. We also awarded Holy Innocents a Consulting Grant to fund a comprehensive conditions assessment.

If a substantial number of Catholic churches are closed or redeveloped, all New York City neighborhoods and other denominations will be impacted. Proactively, Conservancy staff conducted a windshield survey of over 20 churches in northern Manhattan, prepared a preliminary survey of the 100 Roman Catholic churches in Manhattan, and created a data base to facilitate sorting of survey information. Next, the Conservancy called a ‘summit’ meeting of leaders from local sister organizations and the state historic preservation office. Participants agreed to complete a survey of 100 Roman Catholic churches begun by Conservancy. Participants also agreed to proactively reach out to threatened parishes to encourage repairs, maintenance, adaptive use, and marketing strategies.

While many historic Catholic churches are being closed, other denominations face similar pressures and declining buildings. We will continue networking parishes and alerting public officials, political representatives, preservation and neighborhood advocates, and the media to help save these churches.