Couple of weeks ago I was at a gala for Incarnation Children’s Center, an acclaimed residence, under Catholic Charities, in Washington Heights, which offers tender care, healing, and holistic treatment for children in need. It started almost a quarter-century ago as a short-term sanctuary for new born babies dying with AIDS, and developed into a longer term home for older children. A splendid facility!
I could — and perhaps will, in the future, — write a whole entry on this radiant apostolate, including a few words on how respectful partnerships between the government and Catholic Charities serve the most vulnerable and abandoned in our midst, but right now I have another point to make.
The story is that a renowned pediatrician, Dr. Margaret Heagarty, and a celebrated woman religious, Sister Una McCormack, O.P., a Sparkhill Dominican, saw the critical need for such a care facility back then but could not find a place. Enter one of our priests, Monsignor Thomas Leonard, then the pastor of Incarnation Parish. When these two loving women told Tom of their need, he let them know that the convent of the parish was empty, and eagerly offered it for the babies and moms. With the help of the illustrious philanthropist, Jack Rudin . . . well, the rest is history.
What Monsignor Leonard did was harness an unused building in service of the Gospel. I suppose he could have sold it, had it torn down, or rented it as a hair salon. No . . . he kept it allied to the mission of the Church. And there’s the lesson.
We in the archdiocese and in our parishes may be tight on cash — who isn’t? — but we do have buildings. What to do with them is today a burning question.
Some argue that we’re now suffering the results of “over-building” from the past. In the boom years of explosive growth after the war, and a bumper crop of vocations, our ancestors understandably built galore. Now, so goes the narrative, we’re “stuck” with huge rectories, schools, convents, and halls, many of them half-empty or closed, and costing us a bundle to heat, protect, maintain, and insure.
So, what do we do with them? I know one pastor in another diocese who rents his old school out for storage; another in a distant state who sold the convent to a veterinarian. I guess sometimes there’s such a critical need for funds that such uses are understandable.
But, isn’t it for the better when we can make the decision Tom Leonard did? The building remains part of the mission of Jesus and His Church! The people who originally donated to build that convent, and the sisters who once lived there, would be ecstatic to behold its use today.
A bishop was telling me of a pastor who asked permission to have his empty, closed school rented to a non-religious day-care center. Seems as if the good people who ran the successful nursery a few blocks away needed a much bigger facility, as the need was so great. Seemed a logical use for the old school, don’t you think?
But the bishop asked the parish priest, “Why don’t you open a day care center? If the need is there — and apparently it is — shouldn’t the Church respond? When there was a need for a Catholic school in the parish 100 years ago, your people built the school for their kids. Now the children need a day care center. Wouldn’t it be a magnificent apostolate to welcome those little ones as Jesus did?”
Not a bad question.
Actually, I wonder if this is part of the new evangelization? We are not into maintenance but mission; we are not landlords but servants of the Lord; our buildings are not investments to be rented out but means to serve, teach, and sanctify. Why not creatively use our properties to continue the mission of the Church?
That’s why, for instance, in Pathways to Excellence, our new school plan, parishes where schools have closed or merged, and where the old school structures now bring income from sale or rental, contribute half that revenue to the nearby Catholic school now serving the parish.
It’s sound stewardship, because the intent of the original donors is respected, and its evangelization, as mission goes on.
I suppose Monsignor Leonard took some flack. “We could sell or rent that old convent to a business for more money,” I can hear the critics chide.
There were sure no critics at all at the gala for Incarnation Home when he — along with Dr. Heagarty, Sister Una, and Jack Rudin — were honored the other night.