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Parishioners still hopeful they can save St. Brigid’s

NCR Staff
San Francisco

The basement community room of the Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco fills up every Wednesday night with Roman Catholics. The group first took refuge here four years ago after the closing of their parish, St. Brigid’s. Some wear bright blue sweatshirts with white letters reading, “Save St. Brigid’s.”

They have come together every week to attempt to save their church -- an “architectural gem ... the center of our spiritual community” -- from bulldozers and eager, urban real estate developers.

Since Archbishop John R. Quinn closed St. Brigid’s in 1994, Catholics here have struggled to have the church reopened.

The Committee to Save St. Brigid’s Church has organized Vatican appeals, filled petitions with 18,000 signatures, carried out numerous vigils and held regular Masses on the church steps and later in a local park. Even without a building, they have kept alive many of the programs run by the congregation before the closure -- aid to the homeless, social events, worship, soccer teams, care for the infirm.

“We think when you shut down a major church with a large attendance for money, that’s not what God wants,” said Robert Bryan, a San Francisco attorney and a leader of the group.

St. Brigid’s, like several of the other 11 churches that were slated to close under Quinn, did not fit the typical profile of a parish dying of urban blight and abandonment. According to members of the committee, theirs was a vital parish and parish school, with 17 active organizations, one of the highest levels of contributions to the bishops’ annual appeal and separate cash reserves of about $700,000.

Like others disgruntled by church closings here, St. Brigid’s parishioners cited the “cash strapped” predicament of the archdiocese as the real reason they believe the church was targeted: The land it stands on was worth an estimated $16.6 million in 1995, according to a confidential archdiocesan report.

Archdiocesan officials at the time claimed that reasons for the 12 planned closures included high costs of earthquake retrofitting required by city ordinances, priest shortages and changing demographics.

So far, St. Brigid’s has been spared the wrecking ball. Since Archbishop William Levada succeeded Quinn in 1995, the parishioners have been kept in limbo about the status of the church.

The pews and classrooms of St. Brigid’s were an integral part of life for Janie Yee, who arrived from Burma 24 years ago, and her three children. Yee and her sister Lily Wong are still pillars of the parish, leading prayers and inspiring the Wednesday night group to continue.

“We hope the bishop will hear our cries, feel our pain and open our church as soon as possible,” Yee said.

Some members of the St. Brigid’s community are cautiously hopeful about the future of their parish under Levada.

“His leadership style is much more open than that of his predecessor, and he seems to have a genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of the individuals in his care,” a 1997 newsletter from the St. Brigid’s Committee stated. “San Francisco Catholics have reason to hope for improvement.”

Indeed, pressured in some cases by members of the community, Levada has found creative uses for several former parish church buildings.

But the optimism is not universal. Anger and resentment over the way both archbishops handled the closings are still close to the surface in some areas of the archdiocese. Most who speak out about the closings object more to the way the process was carried out than the fact that tough decisions have to be made.

“We said to them repeatedly that all we want is the truth, and I don’t think we’ve had it yet,” said Linda Shah, a longtime parishioner who led appeals for St. Thomas More Parish, which had been closed but was reopened by Levada as a Newman Center.

“This pervasive sense of keeping secrets bothered people more than the closures. And now there’s a general feeling that while some changes have been made, nothing has really changed. There’s still not enough input from the laity. It’s all controlled, and any kind of reorganization is scripted.”

Shah said that even with Levada’s more accessible style, the events that surrounded the church closings left many people unconvinced “that the church loves them and wants them to be an active part again.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998