Thursday, June 27, 2013

June is the cruelest month

This month marks the death of two old and beloved North Shore Catholic schools: Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph's.

In what little I'd seen of Immaculate Conception, I wasn't completely surprised by that decision, even though it seemed like they had a caring teaching staff, and a large student body who really loved their school and were enthusiastic about their education. After all,  the neighborhood is considered "low-income" and the student body is predominantly, if not completely, African American and Latino, which translates into tuition assistance schemes and high non-Catholic enrollment. The school simply couldn't support itself.

I was more surprised by the closing of St. Joseph, which is in the heart of still heavily Italian Rosebank. According to the article, the school only had 170 students. According to this article, when nearby St. Mary's school closed last year, "many" of the 57% of parents who chose to keep their children in the Catholic school system chose to send them to schools in New Dorp, Dongan Hills and Oakwood, rather than send them to St. Joseph's, which is just up the street. Why?

Was it because parents suspected that St. Joseph's would be next on the chopping block? Or was there some issue with the pastor or the principal (negative, but vague, comments about both seem to fill the comments section). I noted the lack of attendance and apathy at Mass there when I went. Certain comments in the silive articles state that the pastor notified the people of the situation for years and begged for help but no one did anything. The comments also say that parents were resentful about having to help out at Bingo and at school fairs. The previous article also noted that many of the student body come from "economically disadvantaged homes." Is there an angle to the story that we're not being told? What has happened to Rosebank? Does this "close-knit" Italian community only consist of nonno and nonni these days? Have the young people fled, which is what happened to so many North Shore communities and inner-city neighborhoods all over America? Can anyone enlighten us as to what is going on at St. Joseph's and in Rosebank?

Now the Cardinal has announced that St. Joseph's, St. Mary's and Immaculate Conception will be put under the leadership of one pastor, the Rev. Victor Buebendorf, the current pastor of St. Mary's who is most known for conducting an annual ecumenical Palm Sunday service with the nearby Episcopal church. Google tells us that he has an interest in liturgical music and is, or was, a member of the Staten Island Council of Churches, specializing in interfaith dialogue. The Cardinal is acknowledges that the 3 churches "will be working together to determine their future viability" over the next year and a half, after which it is possible that one or all of them may be closed. So my question is what will this man- who couldn't save his own parish's school and whose main focus seems to be ecumenical games- do to revitalize these three parishes before the Cardinal makes his final decision on January 1, 2015? Does he have a plan? Does anyone have a plan? Or a clue?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mount Manresa to Mount McTownhouses. A Trust Betrayed.

It was announced that the Jesuit Order has found a buyer for the beautiful 15 acre Mount Manresa, the "birthplace of the lay retreat movement in the United States." The property has been sold for 15 million dollars to the Savo Brothers, a company which specializes in building the strip malls and gaudy McMansions which have ruined so much of Staten Island with incredibly hideous overdevelopment. To put this is perspective, the Northwestern Province of the Jesuits has agreed to pay 166 million to settle a sex abuse lawsuit. The New York Province so desperately needed this 15 million???

The faithful on Staten Island are understandably frustrated. Joseph Billotti, the long-time leader of the Rosary group at the Mount, notes that he had found a developer who would promise to save the chapel if the property had to be sold, but the Jesuits turned him down, in order to get a little more money from the Savo Brothers, I suppose. Billotti notes that through the years he had arranged for workmen and contractors to contribute labor and improvements to Mount Manresa free of charge. He also heard that religious artifacts that have been donated to Mount Manresa will either be moved to a Jesuit House in New Jersey or "bulldozed." The Rosary group, and other outraged citizens have banded together to stop the sale. Apparently, their efforts have amounted to starting a website, holding some rallies and getting 3,000 signatures on an online petition. These good (but naive) Catholics and citizens have apparently not learned the lesson of the past 50 years on Staten Island: the little people never win.

The Advance editors insultingly (but accurately) dismissed the opponents of the sale by saying that they were "several years too late and $15 million short." Easing up a bit, the editors then urged the Savo Brothers to save the chapel, suggesting its use as a "community center for plays, concerts and meetings."

That secular perspective seems to be the viewpoint of most people who have commented on the story, the majority of whom are, presumably, Catholic (this being Staten Island). They are upset that a large open space will be paved over and developed. They are upset that historic structures will be torn down. Some are even upset that buildings which hosted 9/11 first responders will be "desecrated." No one seems to be upset that the holy places of God are being bulldozed or that the Church is yet again beating a humiliating and demotivational retreat. It seems that all Staten Island Catholics are concerned about is the preservation of the property's bucolic condition. Like all native Staten Islanders, I hate townhouses and overdevelopment too, but it seems like we have our priorities a little askew.

The Jesuits and the media obliquely blame the laity for this, by saying that there's no interest in retreats anymore. I take exception to that. Since I visited Mount Manresa for an afternoon as a high school senior, I have heard nothing from them, directly to me or indirectly through my parish. Occasionally I would see a short notice of an upcoming retreat in the classified section of Catholic New York, but it is true that I had no interest in paying $100 for a weekend retreat. Surely, this wasn't the model for how they operated in their heyday? Can anyone enlighten us as to how Mount Manresa ran retreats 40 or 50 years ago? I would wager that there wasn't such a heavy financial requirement, and I would guess that parish priests were heavily involved in promoting parish retreats. In any case, in recent times the only things Mount Manresa was known for were their Zen Buddhist meditation sessions, Mandala classes, leftist speakers and other heterodox events. I would be putting my Faith at jeopardy to put in the hands of those disobedient Jesuits. The blather that was passed off as a sermon at the closing ceremony must be read to be believed.

The liars who ran the place knew, when they held their 100th anniversary gala in late 2011, that the property would be put up for sale within months. Yet one of their VIPs stated that "he hoped Mount Manresa would spend the next 100 years "offering the community what it needs." Generations of Catholics, who cultivated that property with labor and money thought they were in agreement with its Jesuit caretakers about what our community needed: a place of our own where we and our children could go for renewal and strengthening of our Catholic Faith. Let us reflect on the disingenuous wish of that VIP, when we observe the chapel and the holy grottoes being bulldozed into the ground and the statues of Jesus being smashed to pieces. The sale of Mount Manresa is nothing more than a trust betrayed.