High rent may doom Catholic chapel that survived 9/11
Parishioners at a New York City chapel that sheltered 9/11 first responders are praying for a miracle to save it from falling victim itself to the prosperity of its resurgent neighborhood.
St. Joseph’s Chapel is living on archdiocese subsidies after the rent for the relatively small space tripled in 2014 to $264,000 a year.
"If it should disappear and become a Gap or something — nothing against Gap, but it’s really not OK," said Justine Cuccia, 55, a leader of the effort to save the tiny Roman Catholic chapel, part of the oldest Catholic parish in the state.
St. Joseph’s occupies ground-floor space in an apartment complex in Battery Park City, a community fewer than two blocks from the World Trade Center. The chapel is a mission of St. Peter’s Church about a half-mile away, where worshippers will be expected to go if St. Joseph’s closes.
Patricia Baumann, who attended midday Mass at St. Joseph’s last week, called the chapel "a special, meaningful place" where her children were baptized and had their first Holy Communions.
"I still hope that it will be here for my family," Baumann said. "But if not, then we’ll go to St. Peter’s."
When the World Trade Center fell, modest St. Joseph’s sat undamaged just outside the rubble zone.
Emergency workers and volunteers took out its pews and used the chapel as a command center for several months. Priests celebrated Mass in a tent outside. Rescue workers slept on its floors.
St. Joseph’s was rededicated in 2005 as a memorial to those who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks, with statues including St. Florian, patron saint of firefighters, and St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of police officers.
"Everything about the space is a 9/11 memorial," said Cuccia.
For the archdiocese, though, it is also a financial drain.
The chapel’s rent spiked in 2014 from $80,000 in 2009 as new trade center towers went up and developers competed to build luxury apartments and high-end stores in the area.
St. Joseph’s is the only Roman Catholic church in the New York Archdiocese that is a long-term renter, rather than owner, of its space, archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said.
Parishioners are seeking a break on the rent, but Cuccia said the landlord’s offer of a reduction from $80 to $70 per square foot, or about $230,000 a year, is still far more than the parish can pay.
A spokeswoman for landlord Gateway said only that Gateway has offered "a significant reduction in rent" to the chapel.
According to financial information on the parish website, St. Joseph’s paid $359,000 in rent and real estate taxes and fines in the year ending Aug. 31, 2016 but took in only $164,000 in collections.
The parish as a whole, including St. Peter’s, St. Joseph’s and another church, borrowed $540,000 from the archdiocese last year. A statement on the website says the parish’s trustees and finance council "believe that this significant operating loss is not sustainable and that parish expenses must be brought in line with operating revenues."
Parishioners say they fear that means St. Joseph’s will close soon. The Rev. Jarlath Quinn, the pastor, directed questions to Zwilling, who said the archdiocese is "trying to exhaust every option" to keep the chapel open.
If it closes, the chapel will join dozens of Catholic churches in New York City that have shut their doors over the last several years as churchgoing has declined.
Catholics in lower Manhattan say St. Joseph’s connection to the Sept. 11 terror attacks makes it a special case.
"We need this down here, especially after all we’ve been through with 9/11," Baumann said.
Cuccia agreed: "The chapel is some place I come to and pray for the people who died. The church is a place where I can go and find solace and healing, and I really don’t want it to go away."