Up in the attic of St. Augustine’s Church in Morrisania, Danny Torres, 46, looked through papers and files scattered across the floor. Torres, a fine arts teacher at Cardinal Hayes High School and Morrisania native, now lives in Queens, but often visits his mother who still resides a few blocks away in the house were he grew up. “This was the mother church of the South Bronx and this here is history going out the window,” he said, as he picked up a torn marriage certificate from the floor. Among papers that will soon be garbage, Torres rescued the original blueprints of the church, which he plans to frame.
The century-old church is a landmark on Franklin Avenue. The façade of the building is beautiful and inviting, but on the inside, the roof is falling and the walls are crumbling. After years of attempts to save the church, long time parishioners are saying their final goodbyes. The building is scheduled for demolition this month.
During Mass on Aug. 19, the Rev. Thomas Fenlon invited parishioners who now attend services a mile west at Our Lady of Victory to go into St. Augustine’s for the last time and take any remaining items to sell or to keep.
Among those who accepted that invitation was Brother Giles Naedler. “For me it’s been more like a wake,” he said. “And then when it’s gone it will be the funeral.” Naedler, 63, is the director of religious education at the parish and has worked with St. Augustine’s since he first arrived in the South Bronx in 1976.
“We at St. Augustine’s are troopers,” said Denise Wong, 58, as she decorated the aisle of Our Lady of Victory with white plastic bows for an afternoon wedding. Wong is strongly attached to the church where she was baptized and got married; she describes the St. Augustine’s congregation as an anchor for the community and hopes that it will be just as strong in Our Lady of Victory.
Mass has not been held inside St. Augustine’s since 2009 when pieces of the ceiling began to fall, and it was no longer safe to use the premises. Fenlon, 78, who is the head of St. Augustine’s and Our Lady of Victory, has accepted the loss of the church and says that it is time to move on. “It’s just not worth keeping, the repairs would cost close to $6 million,” he said. The land’s estimated value is set between $3.2 and $4.6 million. According to Fenlon, the demolition will cost about $3 million.
Marva Crocker, 73, a retired schoolteacher who has been attending mass at St. Augustine’s for over 40 years, says that even though she and her fellow parishioners have been working to keep the church open for some time, the final decision to tear down the building came as a shock. “It was a low blow,” she said. “We had no idea it was really going to come to this.”
Leaving St. Augustine’s has been hard on some of the longtime attendees. Crocker explains that getting used to a new church, with different traditions and different people, has taken time. But, she said, church is about community. “And as our father always says, ‘The building is not the church; we are the church.’”
Correction: A previous version of the story implied Danny Torres taught high school in Queens. Torres lives in Queens but teaches at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.