NYC Church for the Deaf Fights to Keep Its Doors Open
The Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a hub for New York's deaf community, may have to close, leaving the fate of its special ministry uncertain.
You wouldn't know an intense game of Bingo was underway at an active senior center by the sounds of it. In the basement of the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, shouts of competitive banter are replaced with rapid hand movements. That's because everyone playing is deaf.
Msgr. Patrick McCahill says the so-called 83rd Street Church has been a hub for New York's deaf community since it was officially given to them by Cardinal Cooke in 1980.
"We're doing something unique," he said. "There is no other Catholic church for the deaf in the Metropolitan area that is specifically set up for deaf people. This is it."
And Msgr. McCahill is unique as well. He's the only priest in the Archdiocese of New York that speaks fluent sign language and caters his ministry to the deaf.
"They're warm, accepting, gracious people," he said. "And we've suffered together."
St. Elizabeth's was recently dealt a harsh blow from the Archdiocese when the congregation learned in November it would merge with local parishes and relocate this August. Joseph Zwilling with the Archdiocese says it's part of the Making All Things New program, which involves a series of statewide mergers to better meet the needs of the modern Catholic community.
"Just to give you an example, we still have roughly 25% of all our parishes just on the island of Manhattan, and now only about 12% of our Catholic population lives on the island of Manhattan," he said.
The problem is, Msgr. McCahill says their likely new home, St. Monica's on 79th street, is actually a detriment to the deaf.
"St. Elizabeth's is a small, intimate space," he said. "The pews are quite close to the front of the church so it makes deaf people able to see it much more clearly."
"St Monica's, on the other hand, is a big church. The distance between the altar and the pews is much larger. Downstairs, where we are used to gathering regularly, downstairs they can't legally use the place."
And that would mean the end of many things, including Bingo.
Helen Francia comes here every Tuesday to enjoy the company of her friends who are also deaf. Msgr. McCahill interprets her saying if they didn't have a place to communicate, they'd go crazy.
"The church is my home," she said.
A number of seniors echo Francia's sentiments, like Ruth Goldsmith, again with Msgr. McCahill interpreting.
"I have friends here who are deaf, all of them here," she said. "I love playing Bingo. To go home? No, I prefer I visit. I'm happy here."
McCahill says change can be difficult for anyone, but for the deaf it can be traumatic. That's why when St. Elizabeth's pleas to the Archdiocese to reverse the decision proved unsuccessful, they decided to ask a higher power.
Kalman Chany's on the Board of Trustees. He acting in accordance with Canon Law to personally appeal to the Vatican.
"We don't owe any money to the Archdiocese," he said. "We have ample reserves to cover emergencies, our building's in good shape. So it was a bit of a shock to us that we would be closed given the special ministry that we have."
Chany says he's expecting an initial response in February. But Joseph Zwilling with the Archdiocese says he's confident the Holy See will find their decision to be "right and proper." And he says closing the church doesn't mean they've forgotten the deaf community.
"Neither will they necessarily need to use St. Monica's, nor will the Archdiocese abandon its ministry to the deaf community," he said. "In fact, we're looking now for ways to strength that very important pastoral ministry."
Msgr. McCahill says the deaf will stick together no matter what. But folks like Nelly Perrara are fighting to the end to stay put.
"I've been coming here for 32 years, this is my church," she said. "I really love this place here."
McCahill says he's been very impressed by how members of the community, deaf and hearing alike, have banded together to save the church. He says hearing parishioners appreciate St. Elizabeth's is a special place for the deaf, and feel a great sense of service to ensure it continues to be a special place.
That's why the parish formed Friends of St. Elizabeth. It's a coalition that does outreach, particularly on social media, to garner outside support in the hopes of keeping the St. Elizabeth's parish alive.
One possible silver lining if all else fails? The Archdiocese says under Church Law, the merged parish will inherit all pre-existing properties. So there's a chance it could opt to continue using St. Elizabeth's basement for community activities, leaving hope Bingo can continue.