St. Roch on the chopping block

St. Roch’s parishioners are deeply distraught that their church on Wales Avenue is slated to close , after the Archdiocese of New York announced the largest reorganization in its history.

The Church of St. Roch after Mass.
The Church of St. Roch after a recent Mass.

Archdiocese announces closing of area church

Lindsey Guzman can still remember her mother and grandmother baking empanadas for the entire congregation at the Church of St. Roch on Wales Avenue. Steve Scarogni held his father’s funeral there. And Antonio Centeno has been teaching as a catechist for years.

Along with so many of St. Roch’s parishioners who have marked life’s milestones at the church, they are deeply distraught that the church bell will call the faithful to worship for the last time next August.

“How could this be happening?” asked Guzman, 31. “How are they going to close the church if God said my house will always be open?”

“When someone grows up in a church, that’s your church,” added Centeno. “You cannot transfer those memories to another.”

The news arrived on Nov. 2 as Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan announced the largest reorganization in the history of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. The citywide program of retrenchment will merge 112 parishes into 55 new parishes. As many as 33 churches will be closed for Mass. St. Roch’s will merge with the Church of St. Anselm six blocks away on Tinton Avenue.

Founded as a parish in 1899, St. Roch’s serves about 450 parishioners with three weekend Masses in its location on Wales Avenue and East 149th Street. The Byzantine-style building, built more than 80 years ago, is scheduled to close August 1, just two weeks shy of St. Roch’s Day, the annual procession devoted to the patron saint of dogs who also guards against plague.

According to Joseph Zwilling, the director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, many factors went into the decision of which churches to merge, and the decision took many years to finalize.

“There wasn’t just one specific factor for why a particular church was chosen,” said Zwilling, but, he said, the archdiocese considered the proximity to other churches, the number of parishioners, the number of activities at the church, and the presence of a catechism school.

Yet, for many church-goers, the vague, non-specific reasons for why their particular church is closing has made it difficult for them to accept.

Scarogni, who owns Venice restaurant just down the block from St. Roch’s, has already resolved not to go to St. Anselm’s when the churches merge. He and others assume that many of the more elderly St. Roch’s parishioners will feel the same.

“It looks close if you look online, on a map, but it’s not,” said parishioner Virginia Gonzalez. “Let’s see them walk it in the snow through all of the construction going on in the area.”

Father Jose Martinez, St. Roch’s priest, said the church had no structural concerns and that its finances were not part of the reason for its closing.

“We maintain our church,” Jeanette Guzman said. “If we need somebody to paint it, we don’t pay a company. Parishioners that know how to paint, they come and they do the job.”

A year ago, Lindsey Guzman was diagnosed with leukemia. While in remission, she added additional duties to her volunteer efforts at St. Roch’s — answering phone calls, preparing certificates, and opening the doors in the morning. For her and many others who have weathered hard times with the help of the church, the loss is especially painful.

“We feel heart-broken and displaced,” said Gonzalez, a lifetime member of the church that she calls home. “It’s not only a place of worship for us — it’s beyond that.”

This is not the first time some of St. Roch’s parishioners have been displaced. In 2010, about 100 parishioners and supporters gathered outside St. Athanasius Church in Longwood for an organized speak-out against Pastor Jose Rivas, just two months after he was appointed by Cardinal Dolan. At that time, dozens of parishioners and catechists, including Centeno, decided to leave and make St. Roch’s their new house of worship. After all that, parishioners are once again looking for a new home.

“It is hard to get a good amount of people in the Hunts Point area to have faith and attend church,” Centeno said. “Instead of coming up with a strategy, the archdiocese just wants to close and save money.”

Many parishioners are protesting the decision, circulating petitions and holding strategy meetings to discuss what actions they will take to protest. Parishioners said they are also in the process of filing a document that will go to Rome, requesting that the archdiocese’s decision be reconsidered.

“We all have hope, and God willing we will move on and something good is going to come out of this,” said Guzman, who added that the cardinal should at least come visit St. Roch’s. “Come see for your own eyes,” Guzman would say to the cardinal if she had the chance, “what you want to close.”