Praying for protection: Devout Dyker parishioners try to save Italian church from destruction

Praying for protection: Devout Dyker parishioners try to save Italian church from destruction
Photo by Taylor Balkom

This church is living on a prayer.

A posse of preservationists in Dyker Heights is pushing the city to landmark a beloved church that parishioners are worried the Brooklyn Diocese is planning to bulldoze in pursuit of profit over piousness. The city must save St. Rosalia Church at 14th Avenue and 63rd Street because it represents yet another property with ties to the Catholic Church that could soon be erased from the history books, according to a member of the civic group pushing for its preservation.

“It’s really a shame that another part of history — Catholic history — is going away,” said Dyker resident Fran Vella-Marrone, a member of the Guardians of the Guardian committee — the same civic group leading the landmarking effort for the nearby Angel Guardian home.

News of the landmarking bid was first reported by the Brooklyn Home Reporter, but a rep from the Landmarks Preservation Commission confirmed to this paper separately that the Guardians submitted their request for evaluation of the property to the city agency on Feb. 15.

The Diocese of Brooklyn stopped hosting religious services in the church in 2016, citing the “significant financial hardships” it faced and the parish’s other house of worship, the nearby Basilica of Regina Pacis at 65th Street and 12th Avenue. And just a few weeks ago, the parish pastor, Monsignor Ronald Marino, announced the sale of St. Rosalia in a church bulletin, adding that the lot would be sold without the building on it — an indication the church would be demolished.

The property is zoned for retail use, including offices and hotels.

A rep from the Diocese insisted the sale was to “ensure the future of the parish,” adding that funds from it would be directed to Regina Pacis, but did not respond to a request for comment about why the property would be sold as an empty lot. But another member of the Guardians group alleged that the sale of the soon-to-be empty land is simply a greed-fueled quest for profit.

“They — the Diocese and the pastor — had it in their minds that they wanted to sell it, and that was it,” said Dyker resident Carl Esposito.

Monsignor Marino could not be reached for comment by press time.

Italian immigrants founded the church, named after the patron of the Italian city of Palermo, in 1902. The parishoners then founded Regina Pacis — which translates to “queen of peace” — nearly 50 years later to thank the saint for the American victory in World War II, making it all the more cruel that the “mother church” of the parish is the one that will be bulldozed, according to Vella-Marrone and Esposito.

“This little church was there long before Regina Pacis was, and was responsible for that big church being there,” Esposito said.

Vella-Marrone added that St. Rosalia and the Angel Guardian home just two blocks away — which the Sisters of Mercy sold to a mystery developer that locals and the home’s former orphans fear will bulldoze the buildings — are both neighborhood treasures that deserve to stay standing.

“There’s a lot of similarities. They both have major importance as far as the history of the community,” she said.

The Guardians’ landmarking application is no guarantee that the Landmarks Preservation Commission will look at the church, since the agency independently determines which properties to evaluate.

And even if the commission does decide to study the church’s historic significance, that wouldn’t guarantee that the building would actually be considered for landmarking, a rep said.

But the commission recently rushed to save Sunset Park’s only mansion, the Maurice Lewis house, from demolition after locals banded together against the developer who purchased it last November for $2.8 million and planned to put up condos on the site, proving that the Dyker parishioners’ prayers for St. Rosalia to be saved are not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

Esposito said the church has been a cornerstone of the community — and of his own family history — for his whole life and long before it, making its looming demolition a personally devastating prospect for him and other long-time residents of the nabe.

“We always went to that church,” he said, adding it was the site of his grandparents’ baptism and marriage, his mother’s funeral, and his son’s christening. “It’s going to be a very sad day when I see them knocking it down.”

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.