About two weeks ago a devastating fire broke out in the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Hundreds of years of history and religious relics were lost in the blink of an eye. As Parisians begin the arduous task of rebuilding, a loss of another church comes to mind.
In 2012, another neighborhood reeled from the devastating loss of their church, my church. Mary Help of Christians parish was in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My history goes as far back as "in the womb," as I used to joke. But like many others in the community, Mary Help was the home parish for many in the neighborhood going as far back as 100 years or more. Most of my family was married there, baptized there, and had their funeral mass there. My childhood, adolescence, and some of my adulthood were spent there.
However, Mary Help was more than a church. It served the community through providing food and clothes for those who needed it, it was a place that kept kids off the streets and was a place where one could not only gather with others for mass, but also for bingo and the occasional dance. So many memories for so many people.
When the news came that Mary Help's doors were to be closed forever, the parishioners jumped into action writing letters, attempting to contact the Landmarks Conservancy to get their help in preserving the church, and reaching out to the media in whichever way they could. I wrote a letter, but in my heart, I knew that I was doing it in vain. Mary Help's fate had already been determined.
Once the church had its door permanently closed, the next step was to have it torn down. When I heard the news, my heart broke. I remember asking myself, who could destroy a church? But apparently, there are some that have no issue with it. In 2013, the church and everything in it was torn down to make room for luxury condominiums. Many watched in horror and disbelief. All that was left were bricks and rubble.
My mother was fortunate and has a brick from the building. It sits in her curio, another piece of my family history on display. Every so often I look at this piece of Mary Help and I still get sad. When I make a rare trip to the Lower East Side, I pass by the space where Mary Help once stood and it's still difficult to look at. Even after all these years, it still hurts.
As I watched the destruction of the Notre-Dame Cathedral on TV, I had an idea of how Parisians were feeling. The deep loss and the sadness over the place that once held many memories is gone. But, they have the chance to rebuild. They can take the shell that is left behind and restore it to its former glory, giving it a new life. Mary Help, on the other hand, had no such opportunity. Its misfortune was being atop "prime" real estate.