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The church still controls some of the city’s most valuable real estate. Amid the anxious consumerism of Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral rises largely unchanged over the past 150 years. When the church bought this land in 1810, in what was then the countrified city limits, “People thought it was a folly,” said Paul Moses, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College, who’s reported on the Catholic Church for decades. But the church’s understanding of demographics, its insight into the rhythms of birth, marriage and death in New York, was unmatched. The cathedral cost about $4 million to build, and now St. Patrick’s, which is also the seat of the archbishop of New York, has more than $191 million in assets, making it one of the 150 biggest landowners on the city’s assessment rolls.    

But even as the value of St. Patrick’s and other church properties has skyrocketed, many other Catholic parishes are in dire financial straits. “The church is land-rich and cash-poor,” said one person familiar with its holdings. “There is no question many of the properties are an economic drain.” Many of the buildings should be demolished, the source added, but a lot still enjoy “prime, prime locations.”

Though baptized Catholics still make up roughly 40 percent of the New York City population, according to researchers, church attendance is down locally 20 percent over the past decade (a challenge faced by many other mainstream Christian denominations), and the church has also faced diminishing enrollment in parochial schools. The archdiocese of New York, which includes Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island as well as several upstate counties, announced in 2007 that it would close two parishes and merge six with others-although a spokesman noted that the situation is ongoing and all are being used as worship sites.

The archdiocese also recently announced that 27 of 185 schools will close this year-the biggest reorganization in its history-including five schools that will close or merge in Manhattan. Since the closing of St. Vincent’s in early 2010, no Catholic hospitals are left in any of the five boroughs.
“Within the church,” Mr. Moses said, “there’s a real effort being made to use real estate as an asset. They’re facing such financial difficulties, and [real estate] will help them develop a solid financial base.”

The decisions can be heartbreaking, and sometimes deeply divisive. Closing a school or church is “like a death,” said Timothy King, a real estate agent at CPEX Realty, who has helped the church manage some of its assets. “The cardinal and bishop give a lot of prayerful consideration to all of these matters,” he said, “to have an outcome that’s going to assure the long-term benefit for everyone.”

On Sunday, The Brooklyn Paper reported that the Brooklyn diocese, which includes Queens as well, called in three squad cars to oversee the last Mass at Our Lady of Montserrat in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was closed, as scheduled, a day later. Its pastor, the Rev. Jim O’Shea, had vocally opposed the closing, backed by a number of parishioners. “It’s a complete shame that instead of making an appearance and thanking the community, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio sent the police in fear that people would protest because they know the truth behind the closure is political,” one worshiper told The Paper.

Meanwhile, Bishop DiMarzio put out a statement saying he was “deeply aware of the sacrifice that these changes mean for those who worship in these churches.”
Even after closing parishes or schools, the church usually chooses to hold on to its assets, sometimes leasing them to other institutions such as charter schools. The demographics could still change, and the church has also perhaps learned from the tragic example of St. Vincent’s Hospital, a Village institution run by the Sisters of Charity that the church sold off ward by ward until it was forced to close the entire hospital. A plan by the hospital and developer Rudin Management to build condos that would help support St. Vincent’s buckled under community opposition.

As the case of St. Vincent’s illustrates, finding new uses for the buildings is also not easy: What good is a church as anything other than a church? “Unless at some point we’re in need of a leper colony, prison or mental asylum,” a source said, the buildings are “functionally obsolete.”