No place like home: Demolition of Angel Guardian building in Dyker Heights would be ‘heartbreaking,’ old residents say

An orphan’s home: Photojournalist Greg Mango, who was adopted from the Angel Guardian home in 1966, is one of the many former orphans who was crushed to hear that the more than century old and recently sold building will likely be demolished.
Photo by Jordan Rathkopf

They don’t want to say goodbye to all that.

Former orphans adopted from the Angel Guardian campus lamented the possibility that the historic structure they once called home will be bulldozed by the mystery developer who recently bought the sprawling property.

One former orphan said the 12th Avenue campus — which the Sisters of Mercy built in 1899 and takes up an entire city block — should be preserved, and that its destruction would prove devastating.

“It just has a feeling of another time and another place,” said Greg Mango, a professional photographer who was adopted from the Angel Guardian home as a 10-month-old in January 1966. “It’d be heartbreaking [if it was torn down]. I’d be pretty upset.”

The home housed thousands of orphaned children from the time the Sisters had it built until 1973, and then housed the Sisters’ foster program, MercyFirst, according to the program’s CEO, Jerry McCaffery, who added that the Sisters also took care of some babies in the building during the crack cocaine and AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The nuns also took young, homeless, and unmarried mothers into the Angel Guardian home until 1959, McCaffery said.

After the orphanage closed down, the grounds housed a medical clinic for the foster program’s babies and a convent for the nuns, who left about three years ago, according to McCaffery. The soon-to-depart Narrows Senior Center set up shop in part of the building in 2003.

Locals who called for the nuns to choose a developer who would create affordable senior housing or a school for kids of the overcrowded nabe have been sounding the alarm ever since our sister publication the Bay Ridge Courier last year broke the news of the secret sale — rumored to be worth up to $24 million — to a developer who a spokeswoman for the Sisters said intends to include “some affordable housing and open space.”

But Mango said that he wished the nuns had sold the property to a developer who was sure to include the community in its plans for the future — and that they were more forthcoming about the details of the sale.

“Even though it’s private property and they have the right to do whatever they want with it, one would hope that the Sisters of Mercy have their thinking caps on and think, ‘How can we do this so we get a decent price for the property and also benefit the community in some way?’ ” Mango said. “And if they’re not doing that, that’s a problem. It’s unfortunate that it’s all being done in a secretive way. They’re supposed to be in the business of helping underserved communities.”

Another former orphan agreed, adding that the Sisters could have honored the building’s legacy by once again making it a space for youngsters or the elderly.

A new life: Angel Guardian orphan Joanne Sullivan Silva with her parents, Mary and John Sullivan, at 3-and-a-half years old at home in Garden City, Long Island, after they adopted her from the home that same year.
Joanne Sullivan Silva

“I think it would’ve been very nice if the history had come into play in determining the future of the property,” said Joanne Silva, who said her parents, John and Mary Sullivan, adopted her from the home when she was 3-years-old, in 1954. “I think the idea of a school or of having an old-age home would’ve been an excellent idea.”

Silva said she even remembers details of the historic structure because she was adopted as a toddler, rather than as an infant.

“I remember the brick and I remember the wrought-iron gate,” she said.

Silva said she is forever grateful to the Sisters for setting her up for an ideal childhood on Long Island, despite the current controversy surrounding the property. She eventually moved to Connecticut, where she raised her three children, and then to Pennsylvania, where she worked her way up to becoming executive editor of a weekly newspaper, the Chester County Press.

“I was very fortunate to be adopted,” Silva said. “I just loved my life. And I love the Sisters of Mercy, I have wonderful memories of them.”

Mango shared similar sentiments. His parents, Gloria and Alfred Mango, raised him on Long Island and gave him a childhood filled with home-cooked meals and vacations. He’s now a freelance photographer who regularly works for the New York Post.

“I couldn’t have asked for any better parents, quite frankly,” Mango said. “The Sisters of Mercy saved my life.”

Another former Angel orphan said that she doubted the new structure could match the splendor or character of the current one, and that she feared the rumored luxury condos that may replace it wouldn’t hold the same significance for locals and for the orphans who spent parts of their childhoods in the building.

“It’s a beautiful building with a lot of character and architecture that new construction is never capable of replicating,” said Jenny Holdorff, who spent the first three months of her life in the home with her identical twin sister, Barbara, in 1973, before they were adopted together. “And what they did there, what that building was for and what they did for people, I think is remarkable and compassionate. When you go and knock something down and make it a luxury condominium, you’re just changing the entire essence of the neighborhood and what it stands for.”

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
All grown up: Former orphan Joanne Sullivan Silva today.
Joanne Sullivan Silva

More from Around New York