Monday, May 26, 2008

A message of gratitude

As reward for the Committee to Save St. Brigid's dogged delaying through the courts the demolition of a church which, but for their unwavering fight, would have been lost long ago, comes a gift as rare as it is welcome: quietly, a citizen put money to good and lasting use. Loisaida is indebted to both graceful donor and perseverant Committee.

St. Brigid's anchors the history of Tompkins Square, along with the former Children's Aid Society, later housing a Hebrew schul, that Calvert Vaux built across the street from the church. The deep history of religious persecution in New York's past rests in memoriam between these two.

They were built in the roils of intense anti-Catholicism, when New York politics bitterly divided over the power of unwashed Irish Catholic labor expressed through Tammany Hall, and patrician Protestants like Frederick Law Olmstead, his architect and designer Calvert Vaux and his best friend, Charles Loring Brace, minister and founder of the Children's Aid Society.

The Society, a Protestant charity, opened its buildings facing Catholic churches to lure the children of desperate Irish immigrants, sending them out west by the train-full to be taken into "good Christian homes" -- and work the farms unpaid -- far from their Catholic roots. It was a marriage of economic and social convenience: Midwestern Protestants in non-slave states needed cheap labor; New York had an untapped wealth of Catholic children to reform. Another Protestant Brace friend, the immensely popular author Horatio Alger, justified in his stories the role of philanthropy in poor boys' exchange of rags for "riches." No one thought it harm.

Brace advocated 'placing out' the children as the sole way to save them from the dangerous influence of life in the slums of the city, including the "spiritual lifelessness of Romanism." The peculiar forerunner of foster care, the "Orphan Trains," inconceivable today, now hide in the shadows of history; an incredible story, but true:

or to witness in brick, walk up to the Mott Street entrance of the old St. Patrick's Cathedral and turn around: you'll see looming above you another dark red Vaux&Brace Children's Aid Society, uncannily like the one overlooking St. Brigid's.

Today we ship our unwashed youth to the upstate prison economy, a shorter journey for a longer term. It's a novel device to serve that very same marriage of economic and social convenience. In harsh, intolerant philanthropy's place we now provide generously stifling punishment. But we have progressed: rather than pretend to be good or kind, we pretend merely to be just.

There is, then, a story to be learnt from these buildings, from their history. They speak to us of their past; they conceal a message for our present.

And there's something, too, to be gained: still standing, immigrant working-class St. Brigid's celebrates a triumph of steadfastness in adversity, then as today, facing the park, a-shoulder to its gloomy, Victorian rival gazing fixedly in its direction. Long live St. Brigid's!

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