Dyker Heights church to face the wrecking ball

March 14, 2018 Meaghan McGoldrick
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In the shadow of the fight to save the storied Angel Guardian Home lurks the slated demolition of a nearby church with similar, century-old roots.

According to a February church bulletin distributed to parishioners, St. Rosalia Church, 6301 14th Avenue, is in the process of being sold by the Brooklyn Diocese and the site, which has housed the historic church, founded in 1902 as an Italian national parish, will be offered up as an empty lot. The impending sale was first announced last spring via a decree from the Diocese.

Now, “The Diocese has hired a broker to receive offers to buy the property,” wrote Monsignor Ronald Marino in the bulletin. “It will be sold without the church building on it.”

The Diocese, he said, “is handling the sale of the property and the knockdown of the church building.”

The church stopped celebrating mass and the sacraments in June, 2016 by order of Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Marino said, “to remove the religious value of the building.” In addition, the monsignor said, “The Bishop decreed that the Church should be officially closed forever.”

The reasoning, Marino stressed, was the high cost of maintaining two churches within a single parish, formally St. Rosalia-Basilica of Regina Pacis Parish.

“Taking into consideration the needs of the entire Diocese of Brooklyn, especially in light of the shortage of priests available for ministry as well as the significant financial burden that this structure is imposing on the Parish of the Basilica of Regina Pacis and in view of the current demographical shifts that have resulted in a diminished number of faithful in the surrounding area, I have decided to permanently relegate this space to the profane but not sordid use,” DiMarzio wrote in the decree, dated May 2, 2017, nearly a year after religious rites at the church ceased.

The 21,000-square-foot lot is zoned M1-1, the lowest density manufacturing district, which permits light manufacturing as well as most business and retail uses and houses of worship. While older homes may be found in M1 districts, because they predate the 1961 Zoning Resolution, new home construction is not permitted as of right.

The Department of City Planning’s Zoning Handbook identifies the site’s FAR as a relatively low 1.0, with FAR being a measurement that reflects the ratio between the total floor area of the building and the square footage of the lot on which it is built.

St. Rosalia Church is just blocks away from the Angel Guardian Home, another Dyker Heights property with rich history facing the chopping block. That 140,000-square-foot property, which spans an entire block, was sold by its owners – the Sister of Mercy – to a mystery buyer late last year. Fearing the worst, residents and elected officials have rallied for its preservation, most recently seeking support from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and the Vatican.

LPC said it is currently reviewing a request to evaluate St. Rosalia for landmark status. If LPC determines that the site merits consideration, it will be added to the agency’s survey list. This does not mean it will be recommended or formally considered or designated at that time; however, it does stop the clock on any potential changes to the structure.

Kelly Carroll, director of advocacy and community outreach at the Historic Districts Council, says the pending demolition speaks to a larger issue not just in southwest Brooklyn, but across the country.

“I think the overarching issue here is that this is happening all over the country where the diocese is closing churches and, being the sole property owner, they do so without a sounding board,” she said. While, she noted, “all private property is able to be demolished without public review or consent of the community…houses of worship feel like they are public assets because they are so ingrained in neighborhoods and are community spaces. These sanctuaries which people have very strong connections to are being closed and demolished without consent and the public has no recourse except to be very upset.”

The issue with St. Rosalia, Carroll said, hits even closer to home.

“St. Rosalia is the patron saint of Palermo [a city in Sicily],” she explained, citing “a direct connection” to Bensonhurst’s yearly celebration of the Feast of Santa Rosalia, a multi-day festival which dates back to 1624 in Italy, and to 1975 on 18th Avenue. It is the largest Italian-American celebration in the borough.

Carroll also said that, even though it was eventually absorbed by the much larger Regina Pacis, St. Rosalia “still represents the mother church.”

Local leaders have already begun pushback.

On March 9, Federation of Italian-American Organizations of Brooklyn Executive Director Nancy Sottile penned a letter to DiMarzio and Christopher Pierre, ambassador to the Vatican, stressing St. Rosalia’s cultural significance.

“Please keep in mind that, since 1902, when the Church was established, St. Rosalia R.C. Church has been the nerve center of a community where thousands of Italian immigrants called ‘la mia chiesa,’” she wrote. “It would be a sad day in the history of the Italian Americans and Catholicism in general to disregard the affective significance that this Church means to generations of parishioners.

“I don’t think you need a lesson in the preservation of deep rooted values or religious beliefs,” Sottile went on. “At a time in history when powerful forces are pushing humanity to a Godless society, I think it would be the responsible thing to do, on the part of our leaders, to preserve the symbols, the values, the faith and, yes, the Churches that have kept communities together.”

Dyker Heights Civic Association President Fran Vella-Marrone shared similar sentiments.

“There is so much history there for the Italian-American community especially, but I think for the Catholic community and the Dyker Heights community at large as well,” she said. “It’s absolutely something that should remain and I’m sad to see it for sale.”

Carroll hopes this discussion will lead to a larger one when it comes to preserving neighborhoods like Dyker Heights.

“What I’ve been trying to drive home here is that, whether we’re talking about Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge, Gravesend or Bensonhurst, these neighborhoods really lack in representation and parity with surrounding communities in terms of landmark status,” she said. “For a long time, these were quiet residential communities that really staved off the real estate development pressure that’s been long-facing other parts of Brooklyn. But, here we are yet again with yet another demolition.”

In the meantime, the Dyker Heights church has donated such items as its memorial plaques, piano, vestments, vessels, chairs and even its main altar to other parishes and Catholic institutions, including St. Agatha, Our Lady of Grace, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Rose of Lima, and St. Mary’s High School.

“It is a sad moment in the history of our parish, but we will move forward as usual,” Marino concluded.

According to the Diocese, a date has not yet been set “for the knockdown of the church.” People hoping to save St. Rosalia are urged to contact DiMarzio and Pierre.

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