Miracle On 37th Street

David Pietrusza Author, "Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography"
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They celebrated in the Garment District the other night.

Not to launch a new fashion line or for anything quite so mundane.

They celebrated faith and survival — and a miracle.

They rejoiced not at Madison Square Garden or on rooftop or in a grand penthouse but at a humble basement on West 37th Street, below the Church of the Holy Innocents, a parish slated for extinction just a few short months ago, caught within the net of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s latest (and huge) round of parish closures.

Holy Innocents was just another victim in the process, like the Chinese parishes downtown or the Hungarian ones on the Upper East Side. Yet Holy Innocents was, and is, something very unique, not only the solitary parish in a city of eight million souls offering a traditional Latin Mass, but also a unique beehive of pious activities. Enter its doors at random and one might see any sort of pious devotion, often layperson-driven, quite often by worshippers as diverse in background (though not in faith) as the city they live in.

And yet, the powers that be had decided it would die. Moreover, when a priest who often offered the traditional Latin Mass at Holy Innocents, Fr. Justin Wylie dared to publicly speak out against the situation (“I worry about the situation of traditional Catholics in the archdiocese. No longer, I say, should you think of yourselves as squatters in the mighty edifice of the Holy Church, nor should you find yourselves turned out like squatters.”), he was precipitously exiled not just from his normal post at the Vatican mission to the United Nations but halfway around the world to the one of more inhospitable parishes in South Africa.

People took notice of Fr. Wylie and of the closure itself. Capital New York, Breitbart News, National Review Online, and the famed Catholic blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (“Holy Innocents is a place where the New Evangelization is actually succeeding, and in its unique way”) all issued accounts.

The Daily Caller published my own defense of Holy Innocents. And quite unlikely things started happening. The mainstream media, usually indifferent (at best) to such matters took notice and joined in ringing the alarm. The New York Times ran a major article detailing Fr. Wylie’s persecution and noting the vibrancy of the parish.

“At Holy Innocents,” wrote the Times’ Sharon Otterman, “the Latin Mass helped bring a renaissance, parishioners said, and transformed it into a beloved institution among a small but vocal community of traditionalist Catholics across the country. The church, which dates to 1869 and has about 300 registered parishioners, operates at a surplus, driven in part by generous collections and a thriving thrift shop in the basement, according to church documents. Attendance at Sunday Mass has nearly tripled since 2009, and the church recently paid $350,000 to restore an 1870s mural behind its high altar.”

The New York Observer, the National Catholic Register, and, quite remarkably, even the Voice of America all chimed in. “Step inside,” marveled the Observer, “and the din is somehow lost, replaced by the last quiet, peaceful haven for New York’s traditional Catholics.”

The archdiocese made its final decisions in early November. Its officials may or may not read the Daily Caller. But they certainly read the New York Times. A thousand and more rosaries were answered. Holy Innocents survived.

Parishioners celebrated that survival at West 37th Street and Broadway a couple of Friday nights later, following a traditional Mass offered by the church’s administrator, the famed EWTN personality, Fr. George W. Rutler, and graced with the church schola’s usual (but remarkably skilled) renditions of Gregorian chant. Downstairs following Mass, Fr. Rutler got things rolling by blessing the two six foot-long submarine sandwiches (meatless, of course, for Friday) that centerpieced the feast. Thus, the merriment began. But threads of bracing reality ran through it. Survival in one round of closings does not guarantee survival in another. Nor does it change the sympathy for those worshippers at the dozens of other parishes not quite so blessed.

Nor could it ignore an absent guest — Fr. Justin Wylie, still somewhere in South Africa.

Parishioners have taken up a 54-day Rosary Novena for him. “He is now a world away,” says one of his supporters, “living in a deplorable area (no plumbing, electricity, telephone or continuous email service), in an extremely high-crime-area, with no real living quarters (he must sleep in the sacristy as the rectory is uninhabitable, having no windows). His career in the Church is in shambles, and it is not known when, if ever, he will be reassigned.”

These parishioners hope — and, of course, pray — for another miracle on 37th Street.