The Brooklyn Diocese will shut a struggling 60-year-old church in Bedford-Stuyvesant — and parishioners believe the house of worship was targeted because its pastor took on church hierarchy and local pols.
Our Lady of Montserrat Church is one of 19 institutions that will close or merge throughout the borough in what the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn says was motivated by a need to cut costs and eliminate struggling parishes.
But at the Vernon Avenue church on Sunday, congregants said they believe that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio’s decision was retribution for Pastor Jim O’Shea’s opposition to a state bill that would help the Diocese avoid some pedophile priest lawsuits, and his objection to the city’s plan to rezone the Broadway Triangle to spur the development of housing.
Both initiatives had the backing of DiMarzio and Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D–Bushwick), the neighborhood’s powerful force.
But O’Shea made it clear that he and his parishioners opposed the rezoning, claiming that the planning process excluded more than 40 other community groups. He was also involved in a lawsuit filed after the project passed the City Council.
For his positions, O’Shea was ousted as head of the Williamsburg-based Churches United and was muzzled by the Diocese from speaking out again. But he filed an affidavit in that lawsuit, which reportedly angered DiMarzio further.
“It has a lot to do with politics,” said Montserrat parishioner Anita Dunbar. “Father O’Shea lost his job over that. They want him gone. I want to ask [Bishop DiMarzio] what would Jesus do. Is this how the Lord would want you to run the church?”
A pastor on the church’s strategic planning committee said that the group made its recommendations based on a thorough review of its financial situation and there was “no basis at all” in parishioners’ arguments that DiMarzio was punishing the congregation based on O’Shea’s actions.
“We asked whether the parish was able to maintain itself three to five years forward,” said Monsignor Edward Sharfenberger, who said that Montserrat worshippers would be encouraged to attend services at All Saints Church on Throop Avenue, the far larger church within the parish.
“We asked, ‘Is this parish able to maintain two worship sites?’ It appeared that it could not.”
The Diocese also issued a statement this week to rebut claims that politics were involved in the closure decision.
“The decision … was recommended by [a] commission to Bishop DiMarzio, which he reviewed with the Presbyteral Council, and the Diocesan College of Consulters and Finance Council before making his final decision,” Diocese spokesman Shane Kavanagh said. “These are the only constituencies to whom the Bishop is listening — with no account to any political interests or considerations.”
Kavanagh added that the Diocese had pumped $2.1 million into Monserrat over the past decade, including forgiving the church’s $1.7-million debt. Since then, the church “accrued new debt with the Diocese of approximately $395,000.”
Several Montserrat parishioners disputed those figures, claiming that the church was financially stable, bringing in $4,000 per month in collections, $1,500 a month in parking fees, and had $275,000 in an account.
For now, parishioners are scrambling to pressure DiMarzio to keep the church open. Church supporters delivered 283 signatures to the Diocese and demanded a meeting with the bishop, but were rejected.
Meanwhile, O’Shea is in Minnesota recuperating from the stress of the closer, which will officially close his church on Jan. 31.
“The closure news has put a strain on Father O’Shea’s health,” said Juan Ramos, who asked parishioners to pray for O’Shea’s health. “He feels responsible.”