Thursday, January 31, 2019

Preserve this holy house until the end of the world.

Barring a last-minute reprieve, this weekend St. Michael's Russian Catholic Church in Manhattan will be forced to leave the historic chapel that has been home to the community since its founding in 1936. As reported recently by the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny, St. Michael's faces "eviction" at the behest of its neighbor and de facto landlord, St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, which demands that the tiny community pay a cripplingly high monthly rent in order to remain in the only home that it has ever known. The people of St. Michael's plan to stay together, likely by continuing to gather to worship in another location, but the move still represents the end of an era.

St. Michael's has a special place in my heart, having been an important part of my life when I lived in New York from 2006 to 2009. Twice every weekend (Saturday evening for vespers, Sunday morning for the Divine Liturgy), I would take a forty-five-minute ride on the D train from Fordham Road to Broadway-Lafayette to attend services at St. Michael's. It was there that I learned how to serve the Byzantine liturgy, preparing myself for later ministry at St. Elias in Brampton and elsewhere. St. Michael's also offered a precious sense of community; a friend I made there opined that New York is a city of villages, and that to be happy in the metropolis each resident needs to find the village where he feels at home. St. Michael's was my "village," a spiritual refuge and a place of fellowship. It was also a place that seemed to be sustained by the direct action of the Holy Spirit: attendance was always small, with anywhere from twenty to forty people attending the Sunday liturgy, and the survival of the community often appeared precarious, yet the people of St. Michael's faithfully gathered week after week and year after year, strong in faith despite what always seemed an uncertain future.

St. Michael's was always sui generis, a unique community made up of original characters. One longtime parishioner dubbed the people of St. Michael's "the Mulberry Street Irregulars," a moniker that referenced the Manhattan thoroughfare where the chapel is located as well as Sherlock Holmes's band of street urchins. Founded to minister to Russian émigrés, the chapel always drew a greater number of Westerners attracted to the Byzantine liturgy and to Slavic spirituality than it did ethnic Russians. Andrew Krivak, a sometime Jesuit scholastic who frequented St. Michael's a few years before I did, captured something of the spirit of the place in a passage in his memoir A Long Retreat: "Founded for the Russians who never arrived, [St. Michael's] has become a way station for searchers, a deeper window of tradition within Catholic tradition, small, on the fringe, and holy. It's a place for people who fit and don't quite fit." Reading Krivak's description, I can't help but think of the sign on the front of the chapel advertising the service times; the 't' in 'Great Vespers' had fallen off at some point, but was never replaced. A fellow parishioner once said to me, as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the chapel after the liturgy: "If they ever replace the 't,' I'll leave the parish." (He ended up leaving anyway, for different reasons.)

When I think of St. Michael's, I think of the many people I got to know there, unforgettable individuals whose faith and fidelity continues to inspire me. As noted above, few of them were actually Russian - in my time, I think there were only two 'real' Russians there - but they all had unique stories about how they ended up at St. Michael's, and about what they had done before. I think, for example, of the late Joe Roth (seen in the above photo), a longtime acolyte at St. Michael's who had spent some time as a Trappist novice at the Abbey of Gethsemani and would occasionally tell stories about his novice master, 'Father Louie,' better known to the world as Thomas Merton. (Merton, it bears mentioning, had occasionally attended St. Michael's himself during the years that he lived in New York, as did Dorothy Day and Catherine de Hueck Doherty.)

Another person I'll always associate with St. Michael's is Agustín 'Augie' Loureiro, pictured here and also deceased. Augie was often the first person that newcomers would encounter at St. Michael's, as he typically stood by the door and acted as a sort of usher. Though he liked to play the curmudgeon, Augie was a very kind and gracious man, generous and loyal to his friends and always eager to extend hospitality to first-time visitors to St. Michael's. Basque on his mother's side and Galician on his father's, Augie remained true to his roots; every Sunday after church, he would go directly from St. Michael's to Sancho's, a Spanish restaurant on Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, where he would stay until evening enjoying a leisurely multi-course meal and taking time to chat with the staff and with fellow regulars. Augie would often invite some people from St. Michael's to join him at Sancho's, and I was happy to do so on numerous occasions. (Sancho's closed late in 2018, having outlived its most loyal customer by a couple of years. Sic transit gloria mundi.)

Another St. Michael's stalwart who remains etched in my memory is Protodeacon Christoper LiGreci, seen here receiving the honorific title of protodeacon from Cardinal Edward Egan in June 2009. (Because there is no Russian Catholic hierarchy, St. Michael's has always been under the care of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York; the letter making Chris a protodeacon came from the Oriental Congregation in Rome, but Cardinal Egan came to confer the title.) Chris first visited St. Michael's as a teenager in the 1950s, brought there by one of his teachers from Brooklyn Prep, the legendary Charlie Winans. An active parishioner from that point onward, Chris was later ordained a deacon and continues to play a key role in the parish, editing the bulletin, maintaining parish records and archives, serving at the liturgy, and representing, in some sense, the institutional memory of the community. As the deacon at St. Michael's, Chris was the one who first invited me to serve as an acolyte and taught me the liturgical ropes.

This photo was taken almost seven years after the previous one, in April 2016, when I returned to St. Michael's for the first time as a priest to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Here, Protodeacon Christopher LiGreci and I offer the prayers before the royal doors that precede the celebration of the liturgy. (Thanks are due to Stuart Chessman, of the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny, for having been on hand that morning to take this photo and the one found immediately below.) That Sunday represented a kind of homecoming for me, as through my years of study for the priesthood I had often hoped that I would have the chance to return to St. Michael's to celebrate the liturgy as a priest. Ultimately, I would only do so twice - that Sunday in 2016, and once again in 2017 - but I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

Here I am on that same Sunday in April 2016, at the Great Entrance, accompanied by Economos Romanos V. Russo, who was then the rector of St. Michael's Chapel. Father Romanos was also an important part of my experience at St. Michael's, having arrived as rector just before I made my first visit to the chapel on Mulberry Street. At that point, the memory of his predecessor still loomed large: Father Joan Soles, a Catalan priest and an alumnus of the Russicum, had been the much-loved pastor of the community for nearly two decades before being called back to Spain by his bishop. Father Romanos, however, would leave his own mark on St. Michael's: like Chris LiGreci, he had known the community for decades, and his natural charisma and deep knowledge of the Byzantine and Slavic traditions made him a perfect fit for the chapel. He sometimes told me - at least half-jokingly, I think - that he would have been happy to see me succeed him someday as rector of the chapel. That was always unlikely, even though St. Michael's has had longstanding links with the Society of Jesus, but I can't deny that part of me would have appreciated such an assignment.

When I think now of St. Michael's, I think also of the 'hidden' spiritual aspects of the experience. I have long thought that the most beautiful prayers of the Byzantine liturgy are those that are meant to be prayed silently by the priest, and I accordingly reject the didacticism of some liturgists who would prefer that every prayer be pronounced aloud so as to be heard by the people. I think of St. Michael's as a place where I was initiated into a spiritual tradition that is in some ways hidden, not only on account of the relative obscurity of Eastern Christianity in the West but also because, notwithstanding the external pomp of the Byzantine liturgy, that which is most essential occurs in the intimate space of the altar and is expressed only in whispered tones. The key point here is one that I still struggle to articulate well, but I think that I at least hint at it in this post from a few years ago.

As I recall those Sunday mornings at St. Michael's, a decade and longer ago, remembering all the times that I stood by and listened as Father Romanos and Deacon Christopher recited the prayers of the proskomedia ("And the star came and stood over the place where the child was." "Let us pray to the Lord." "The Lord has reigned; he is clothed with beauty. The Lord is clothed with strength and his girded himself; for he has established the world which shall not be shaken..."), I think, too, of one of the petitions contained in the Anaphora of St. Basil the Great, in which the priest implores the Almighty to "give peace to her [i.e., the Church] whom you have obtained with the Precious Blood of your Christ, and preserve this holy house until the end of the world." I've often been struck by these final lines, Preserve this holy house until the end of the world, words that recognize the importance of place and a sense of maintaining one's physical roots. I prayed these words often at St. Elias, even after the fire and all the more so after the church was rebuilt. I make the same prayer now for St. Michael's, even though it may remain unanswered: Preserve this holy house until the end of the world.