Brownsville residents and members of the New York City preservation community are hoping the historic Our Lady of Loreto Church can find a second act.
The long-dormant and crumbling building is significant as both a neighborhood staple and an architectural marvel, preservationists and Italian-American historians argue.
First constructed in 1907, the church was the first example of Roman Renaissance style in New York City, according to Mario Toglia, who researched the church for the Italian American Studies Association.
The front pediment features the only sculpted representation of the “House of Mary,” and above the central arch are large statues of St. Peter and St. Paul.
It was constructed and designed entirely by Italians at the behest of Reverend V. Sorrentino, who was the pastor of the congregation at the time.
“This church was built as a response to the nativist prejudice against Italian immigrants,” Toglia said. “He was making a statement: this is our culture and this is what we built.
“Basically, when that church goes down, nobody will know that Italians lived here,” he added.
According to Toglia, the Diocese of Brooklyn and Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens are planning to demolish the building for affordable housing after claiming it would cost $9 million to secure the property to keep it as is.
As of press time, permits have not been secured for the demolition.
Toglia claims that the diocese is being purposefully misleading however, noting in 2010 diocese officials signed a resolution to save the church. In 2013, an Evangelical congregation was interested in moving in, but the diocese said it didn’t want it used as a church.
“The diocese did not tell Albany,” Toglia said. “But according to their resolution, they were supposed to let Albany know.”
Now, after letting it sit another three years, they put forth a plan to demolish the church and build 88 units of affordable housing.
A statement from Msgr. Alfred LoPinto, CEO of Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, said he would love to save the church, but doesn’t believe it’s viable.
“When Catholic Charities acquired Our Lady of Loreto Church, we had high hopes to preserve the property,” he said. “This was my home parish and the place where I was baptized, received First Communion and Confirmation, and where I worked as a youth coordinator prior to entering the seminary. It was a parish with a great history of serving Italian immigrants and their children and grandchildren.”
However, due to disrepair and other issues, Catholic Charities believe it’s best to demolish the church and build affordable housing, which is badly needed in Brownsville.
“It would be irresponsible, neglectful and dangerous to leave the site abandoned and in disrepair,” LoPinto said. “We are concerned for the safety of the residents in the neighborhood. The building has dangerous levels of asbestos and lead and there is no active heating.”
But a coalition of community organizations is trying to have the site landmarked before any demolition can take place.
“The behavior of Catholic Charities in regards to this project is completely unacceptable,” said state senator and mayoral candidate Tony Avella. “Their refusal to uphold the 2010 resolution is clearly a demolition by neglect tactic in order to expedite their efforts to have the church demolished.”
According to Toglia, if the church is granted landmark status it would be eligible for grants to make repairs and potentially transform it into a community space.
Les Ford with NIA Theatrical Production Company envisions the historic church serving as an arts and culture center.
“It would be the first of its kind in Brownsville,” he said. “The city is right now in Brownsville working with arts and cultural organizations such as myself trying to help them expand or increase their capacity for arts and culture. This building fits right into that plan.”
But with the de Blasio administration focused on creating affordable housing, landmark supporters might not get much help from City Hall.
The local councilman, Rafael Espinal, has not taken an official stance on the landmark designation.
“Our Lady of Loreto Church is under the private ownership of the Catholic Diocese and we have to respect the decision of the private owners of the property to use the space in a manner in which they see fit,” he said in a statement. “A proposal for affordable housing should not be taken lightly, especially now as we are dealing with a housing crisis.
“At the end of the day it is not my decision, but of course I will work closely with both the community and the Diocese to ensure a positive outcome for Brownsville,” he said. “My main priority is making sure this transforms into a space that benefits the Brownsville residents.”