By Michael H. Wilson.
By Michael H. Wilson. Parishioners pray at St. Roch.
By Michael H. Wilson. Parishioners pray at St. Roch.

Decree allows parishioners back in for prayer, but not for Mass

As she took in the familiar surroundings—prayer candles and statues of the saints that decorate the 84 year-old walls of the sanctuary at St. Roch on Wales Ave in Mott Haven—Aida Berrios’ joy and admiration radiated through her smile. Berrios joined the chorus of more than 30 fellow parishioners as they sang happily at having been allowed back into the place where she has worshipped for almost 50 years..

“A lot of us cried because it was something big for us,” Berrios said, as she described walking into the sanctuary again on March 19 for the first time since Christmas day. “We used to be outside with the rain, you know, out there in the rain, the snow.”

Berrios tears up recalling the moment her she and the other congregants were allowed back inside the church nearly nine months after the Archdiocese of New York ordered the congregation to merge with the nearby parish of St. Anselm. The merger meant Sunday Masses would not be held unless it was a special occasion and that members would not have regular access to the building.

In March, another decree, this time directly from the Vatican, gave the St. Roch community reason for hope, opening the doors to the sanctuary in the process. But for Berrios and the other members of St. Roch, opening the doors was just one step toward their ultimate goal of regular Sunday service.

“This has been constant,” said Virginia Gonzalez, a member of St. Roch for 42 years. “For nine months we haven’t given up, and we have all the intention to keep on going.”

Gonzalez was the primary member of St. Roch to initiate the appeal process soon after the original decree from the archdiocese was released. She says the goal of the congregation was always to be allowed back into their church to celebrate weekly Mass again but larger issues have pressed the small church into a tough situation.

In 2014, Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced that 31 churches would be required to consolidate with nearby congregations due to struggles with declining attendance, fewer priests and “huge financial burdens on smaller parishes,” according to the original decree from the archdiocese.

The new decree from the Vatican was a welcomed reply according to Gonzalez, but it was not all the community had hoped for.

The Archdiocese says the new decree is in line with the original decision, which stated that the church would remain “open for public worship,” but that “Masses and other sacraments will not be celebrated on a regular basis at the church of Saint Roch.”

“What the Vatican has done is put that into the decree as an amendment, specifying that Mass could be celebrated on those occasions,” Joseph Zwilling, The Director of Communications for the Archdiocese, said. “To put it simply, they made formal what we had already said.”

Berrios and the loyal members of St. Roch parish gathered every day since it closed on August 1, 2015 to pray the rosary at the church. At first they stood outside the rusted metal gate on the sidewalk, then they moved into the lobby for the winter. But she stressed the importance of not rushing things to get what the St. Roch members really want—regular Sunday mass.

As part of the merger, the leadership of St. Anselm is responsible for the upkeep and operation of St. Roch. When, Father Palacios was responsible for opening the doors of the sanctuary in March, and it will be up to him and the other priests at St. Anselm to hold all masses in the future.

For their part, the members of St. Roch collect money at every prayer meeting now to partially lift the burden placed on the St. Anselm parish. It is one way the long-time members are fighting to regain their church and tradition.

“We take a lot of stuff for granted. We think things are given to us,” Gonzalez said “And sometimes when you have to stop and fight for what you have it gives you a different view of how things came about. People feel the pride and personal reward that they had something to do with it.”

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