By George Capsis
On the very day I had a meeting with Roy Leavitt, the Executive Director of Greenwich House, the news broke that Our Lady of Pompeii was trying to oust their senior center in favor of a more lucrative deal with HBO to use it for location shoots. “Why not find a new location,” I asked Leavitt and he offered that the huge basement hall also served the West Village Italian community.
We learned later however, that the West Village Italian community has mostly died or moved to the suburbs. Like all Churches, our Lady of Pompeii is as rich or poor as the dues and contributions of its members.
The Italian families that built it in 1926 have nearly all moved to the suburbs (the population peak was in the 1950’s) so with less and less money it is harder and harder to keep the doors open.
(In recent months 23 New York Catholic churches have closed).
Father Walter Tonelotto is trying to save the church by cutting expenses (using volunteers instead of paid employees) and increasing the monthly costs to use the Church’s large basement space (the largest such space in the West Village).
I met with the newly appointed Father Walter Tonelotto for his response to the rumor. He said his request, a year ago, that the Greenwich House Senior Center increase their lease cost to at least cover the actual cost to heat and cool the enormous space was met by the false suggestion that Father Walter wanted to make a better deal with HBO to use the space as a base for local film shoots.
“We spend $5000 a month to heat or cool the huge basement hall that is used for the senior center; if it wasn’t for the center normally it would be closed from Monday to Friday from 9 to 5.” He said, “We called in an independent energy consulting firm to divide the energy use between the basement hall the church and the school and discovered the hall accounted for 38% of the monthly bill.” The new agreement calls on Greenwich House to pay for the heating and cooling along with maintenance and a normal additional increase for the rent.
Father Walter reached over to show me the contract signed that very morning Friday August 21. Both parties seem happy with the new agreement—Father Walter characterized it as a “win-win situation” and “that was what I was asking for in the beginning of these negotiations almost a year ago”. The signing of a mutually agreeable contract this week between Greenwich House and the Church confirms that there was no truth to the rumors.
Once we’d cleared that up, Father Walter turned to other subjects. Talking about the history of the church, Father Walter told me that the parish started in 1892, but this building was actually built in 1926. “For the Italian immigrant, to have a beautiful church was a sign to prove that the he had finally landed, that he had arrived and was accepted and integrated into the new society.”
He didn’t know exactly how many members the Church had back then, but said “the old members tell me that the 800 seats were always packed and on special occasions you had to come one hour early to get a seat.” Until the fifties this Church was heavily used—almost 99%—but then as the Italian families prospered, they wanted to move from cramped apartments to their own homes, so they moved to Long Island and Staten Island.
Now perhaps only 20 to 30% of the Church attendees are descendants of this old local immigrant community. But, he said, “We have a new phenomena among the Italian Community. We are getting young Italian professionals, who are working for Italian companies or Italian banks, who want to attend services in Italian.”
These people, however, are transient and only work in New York for three or five years and then return to their country of origin, so they do not provide the type of stable support that families once did. At the same time and although they do not live in the community, they feel that this is their church!
In discussing which Catholic Churches in the West Village will go and which might survive with George Goss, who works for a Catholic Organization, he postulated that Our Lady of Pompeii had a better chance of survival because it had a school; but WNYC reports that with fewer and fewer nuns available Catholic schools have to compete to hire teachers on the open market while as Father Walter commented, nuns are paid as little as $25,000 a year since they are housed and fed in a parish convent; without nuns the Catholic schools like that of Our Lady of Pompeii are in financial peril.
When asked about his plan to make Our Lady of Pompeii survive, Father Walter responded, “first of all in the past two years we had a 40% increase in the attendance to religious services. We added a lot of community and cultural events, so people feel that they can get more than just a Sunday service. Secondly we succeeded in reducing expenses by inviting volunteers to offer services that before were covered by salaries. Thirdly, we were able to reach out to the new language groups like the Brazilians, Filipinos, Italians, and Latino Americans. The Brazilians are very generous. The Filipinos do a lot of work for the Church and are very supportive. We also have a special interest for those who used to attend the church, but who have moved away. We, surprisingly, get many weddings because young people not living in the West Village want to be married in the church that their parents were married in.
There is no question that traditional religion is in crisis, but in today’s society, even the way we are church is going to change. People today are in Facebook, Twitter, and Web pages… and if the church wants to be visible to the people, it has to be present in these social media.”
We met in Father Walter’s office, and just down the hall sits what could be the future—a multi-screen control room for an international internet church network, conceived and designed by Father Walter himself. In six months, he told me, we have reached 21,600 with our streaming in YouTube. Our weekly visits in Facebook reaches between 2500-2700; it is another electronic parish; that is the greater parish of Our Lady of Pompeii which is reaching out to our old and new parishioners.
As Father Walter explains: “A certain type of religion is fading away, but not for everyone. For many who still have faith and cannot physically be present in the building, we should provide an electronic church where they can enter in their own time and in their own space.”