Uncertainty Builds, After St. Columba Church Canopy Collapse

In 1845, Irish immigrant parishioners employed as laborers on the West Side docks would spend evenings at 343 W. 25th St., building St. Columba Church. | Photo by Bonnie Rosenstock

BY BONNIE ROSENSTOCK | St. Columba Roman Catholic Church has been a staple of the Chelsea neighborhood since 1845. Located at 343 West 25th Street (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.), its considerable complex includes the Church and Rectory (at 343), the next-door school building (at 331), and the Convent (at 329), a residence for retired nuns (one of whom is over 100) who taught at the school. However, due to the recent collapse of its Sanctuary Canopy, which pulled down a large mural on the back wall, with possible reports of asbestos and a history of leaks, anxious parishioners worry that this may be the nail in the coffin for their beloved house of worship.

Many parishioners believe that the Archdiocese was planning to close the church, and the canopy collapse was just the excuse they needed. While it is not known at this time what plans the Archdiocese has for the church, it is not uncommon for churches to close, undergo condo redevelopment, or get torn down to make way for new developments, such as restaurants, nightclubs, and malls. In 2012, Curbed New York listed 16 religious buildings converted into co-ops or condos. Churches have been experiencing a waning number of congregants, but the pandemic has exacerbated this decline due to lockdowns and people’s fear of contracting the virus in an enclosed space.

What is known is through the weekly communication that the pastor of the church, Father Pancrose Kalist, writes to his congregation via the church’s website. In the July 17 newsletter, Father Kalist said that on Tuesday, July 12, when he opened the church for prayer, he discovered that the Canopy had collapsed sometime the night before. He took pictures and sent a message to the Cardinal, Bishop Whalen, and the office of the General Vicar, requesting guidance. “They notified the Insurance Division and the procedures for all the testing and the building evaluation units to investigate the cause of the collapse,” wrote Father Kalist. “They came on Wednesday and began the testing and evaluation procedures for asbestos, lead, and other elements. After this, the team of Engineers and Architecture experts will look into the cause of it and propose the viability of the structure. This Church has gloriously completed its 175 years. Its age and the material used for the construction in those days may not be the materials approved in the new building codes for the City Department of Buildings.”

The church interior. | Photo courtesy of a concerned party

In addition, he noted, “Since the collapsed building materials are not tested for asbestos and lead, it is not permissible for people to go into the Church. I have safely removed the Blessed Sacrament to Guardian Angel Tabernacle.”

Father Kalist posted a sign on the outside door reading, “Church is closed until further notice,” along with the schedule of masses celebrated at Guardian Angel Church, but he neglected to give its location. A parishioner mentioned this to the priest, and his response was that it wasn’t necessary; they’ll find it. The parishioner, who wished to remain anonymous said, “I don’t think he has leadership skills.” The same parishioner taped an additional note on the door giving the address: 193 10th Avenue, northwest corner of 21st Street. In 2015, St. Columba parish merged with that of Guardian Angel, and Father Kalist and other priests have their residence there.

The parishioner, whom CCNews spoke to by phone, added, “Many of the people who went to St. Columba either live at Penn South, or they live at the NYCHA housing. Both of these are NORCs [Naturally Occurring  Retirement Communities], and they can’t get to Guardian Angel. Some didn’t even know where it was.”

The parishioner went to the back, to the playground and basketball court directly behind the church, and took pictures and could see cracks. “Part of the ceiling and wall fell down,” the parishioner said. “Did anybody check the integrity of the wall? Should it be roped off? Could a rainstorm bring that down?”

Last week, the parishioner also saw people who said they were contracted to clean out the debris. The parishioner wanted to know if anyone was testing for asbestos. “They didn’t have masks on. Father Kalist hasn’t told us anything.”

St. Columba’s Convent at 329 W. 25th St. | Photo by Bonnie Rosenstock

The only other update to parishioners about the damage was in his August 14 letter, and nothing has been written about it since. At that time, Fr. Kalist wrote, “In last week’s bulletin message I wrote that I do not have new information regarding St. Columba Church. Last Friday evening Ms. Eileen Mulcahy from the Archdiocese called me to let me know that they are gathering all the relevant reports related to the collapse of the canopy and the structures. Once all the reports are in they will come to meet with us to explain what can be done. This is the message I could share at all the masses last weekend.”

When CCNews called Father Kalist to ask for an update, he rushed this reporter off the phone, saying he had no time to talk, there was nothing new to add, and that he should be contacted upon his return from a month-long trip to India. CCNews then contacted Ms. Mulcahy at the Archdiocese of New York and was directed to write to Joe Zwilling, the director of communications, which CCNews had already done, only to receive no response. Via email, Zwilling was asked about the cause of the collapse and the extent of the damage, as well as whether a permanent church closure would result its demolition along with the nearby convent and school building. Zwilling was also why the Keswell School moved [discussed below] and if asbestos and lead were present in the church.

On Wednesday, September 14, Zwilling apologized for the delay in responding. His succinct email said, “We have an engineering team currently assessing the damage at Saint Columba. Although it appears extensive, we won’t know the full scope of the damage until we receive their report.  Once we have the report, the information will be shared with the parish community. Hope that helps.” He did not address any of the other questions.

Saint Columba School was the oldest private elementary school in Chelsea for more than 150 years, but in June 2006, the Archdiocese of New York closed it. More recently, it was leased one year at a time to the Keswell School, a facility for the education of children and young adults on the autism spectrum. Two weeks ago, they moved to a new location at 219 Stanton Street, in the Our Lady of Sorrows School building. In his September 4 letter, Father Kalist professed shock they were leaving. A member of the Chelsea community noted, “It is unknown to me if they weren’t given a new lease, or if they decided to move to a place that was more stable.”

CCNews emailed and called the school to ascertain why they left. As of this writing, there hasn’t been a response.

According to the parishioner, the nuns also have a lease to rent the convent. It is unknown when their lease expires and if they will get a new one. CCNews called the convent, and the sister who answered the phone referred all questions to Father Kalist.

The parishioner said that before the pandemic, St. Columba attracted about 200 congregants, spread out over four masses on a weekend. The numbers came down with the pandemic, but did climb back up. “There are nowhere near that many that transferred over to Guardian Angel,” the parishioner said.

The parishioner emailed me later to reiterate their frustration with the lack of information, but also wanted to know how they will find “emotional closure” if indeed the church is closed. “We want to know how that will be done—we cannot go back into the church. There are many parishioners who are second generation and/or have gone to the school when it was open. Will the Archdiocese come and maybe say a Mass recognizing all that this church has done for the community and for the many students who attended the school over the years ? This is a feeling that the plans and/or the closing is mechanical and not addressing our emotions of sadness, loss, and celebration of all that we did for the church community and the Chelsea community over the 176 years,” the parishioner concluded.

—END (additional photos below)—

Notices on the Church door, posted by the pastor, indicate closure until further notice and give the mass schedule at Guardian Angel Church. A parishioner put up the notice giving the address of Guardian Angel Church. | Photo by Bonnie Rosenstock

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St. Columba School, at 331 W. 25th St., was closed by the Archdiocese in 2006, but recently housed the Keswell School for the education of children and young adults on the autism spectrum. They moved earlier this month. | Photo by Bonnie Rosenstock
St. Columba Rectory, attached to St. Columba Church at 343 W. 25th St. | Photo by Bonnie Rosenstock

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