OCA at War With Landmark Preservation Board

(Dcn Joseph Suaiden) If they can’t make lots of money of it, they want to destroy it? Is it really that simple?

In 2008, the OCA applied to convert the Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral to an apartment complex. Since then, the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation has attempted to apply for the designation of the building as a landmark. The following is my letter to Chairman Tierney of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission:

Dear Chair Tierney:

I strongly support the proposed landmark designation of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection at 59 East 2nd Street in the East Village. Recent plans to build a condo-tower on top of the church show the very real need for landmark protections for this historic edifice.

The Orthodox Church has always historically considered it a sacrilege to sell blessed items, and although buildings have been removed from status as a temple to allow its sale in the past, this is far from normative and usually forced. In general, the sale of a Church building is something that is avoided because once a Church has been consecrated, the building itself becomes a witness to the Christian faith. Indeed, what is happening in the Roman Catholic Church with the
sales of Church properties are considered by many to be the ultimate goal of their opposition– not simply the payout of renumeration for past crimes but the closings of the buildings themselves.

In light of long-held practice and current Church-closing trends, the behavior of the pastoral leadership of the Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral can only be considered perplexing unless we take into account that this has been a long held goal due to a severely reduced membership. This building itself, perhaps more than the priest in it (especially now), is a demonstration of the beauty of the Eastern Orthodox faith in the native environs of the West. Never before in any
recent Church history have we seen that those actually consecrated to care for the Church (every rank of the Church’s hierarchy has some sort of care assigned to them for it both inside and outside the service) are so adamant about turning a Church building into an apartment complex– a scheme applied for, legally, in 2008. (By comparison, note the following.)

The Orthodox Church is to be the Body of Christ, not a land developer. Nowhere in our sacred canons does it say that if a parish has this many members fewer that the sale or complete renovation of a temple is possible into something other than a temple. There are even canons restricting the Bishops– the highest authorities in our Churches– from using the goods of the Church to make a profit.

Already the current leadership of this cathedral is demonstrating its intended plans to go forward will occur whether this building is landmarked or not (their suggested letter to your chair on their website indicates that “it could eventually lead to the parish being unable to make necessary ongoing repairs due the the stringent guidelines of the LPC, causing the building to slowly decay, and possibly be sold and converted from a community space church to condos or coops.”) such actions would be an awful shame to the Orthodox community at large in New York, affecting not only parish members, but all those who were affected by the Cathedral’s presence over the years. Since the rezoning of the neighborhood obviates such a plan the only solution left for the Cathedral clergy to achieve their own goals is to renovate or bulldoze the building itself for rental purposes,
itself considered a sin since the goods of the Church are not supposed to fall into secular hands.

This is a complete transgression of how the Orthodox Church should view property entrusted to Her by the faithful and I stand fully against it– and in favor of landmarking the building. Opponents of landmarking have likened it to the court-sponsored Soviet takeover of the St Nicholas Cathedral. This is incredibly offensive, since the landmarking process forever marks the Church as the part of the American landscape for its people, whom the OCA claims to serve, whereas the 1926 takeover of St Nicholas Cathedral on 97th street placed the Church building in the service of a foreign government hostile to the United States.

Many Churches in need of preserving their buildings in the face of declining populations look to landmarking as a way to preserve their historic treasures. That the leadership of the Cathedral sees this as a way to keep them from achieving their desired goals indicates they have no interest in future generations except as a way of producing income– whether as believer or renter no matter.
There are hundreds of communities, including my own, which would be filled with joy at the thought of having such a majestic space to worship, and it’s mind-boggling to countenance men who call themselves clergy willing to threaten to let a Church fall into disrepair if their ultimate goal– the creation of income-producing property in a neighborhood where property values are at a high.

I support the marking of this Church as a landmark, because it should not fall to the whims of men who, in a high-value property market, are seduced by the desire for financial gain, leaving a future and perhaps more conscientious generation of clergy who, properly, will do what is required to preserve the open and free worship of Orthodoxy to persevere. The Church is to be a light of the world, a city upon a hill, as the Gospel states– regardless of contemporary attempts to place that light under a bowl by its current leadership, which is
forever subject to the winds of change.

Such a move will be a regret to future generations, and I hope I can add my own to the voices calling for the preservation of this historic Church.

In Christ,
Deacon Joseph Suaiden
St Eulalia Orthodox Mission Chapel, Yonkers NY