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March 17, 2010

The Salvation of souls, not facades: The Non-Orthodox Campaign to force landmark status on the Cathedral.

by Christopher Orr from Orrologion Blogspot

There has been a great deal of well-funded, inappropriate and misleading politicking being done regarding the landmarking of the OCAs Russian Orthodox Christian Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection on East 2nd Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues) in Manhattan ("Cathedral"). As an Orthodox Christian who was received into the Church at the Cathedral and is an ongoing supporter of the parish community, I wish to offer a rebuttal, as well as a call for support against this landmarking.

Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), has been campaigning aggressively for the landmarking of the Cathedral. He has gone so far as to post notices on Orthodox Christian websites and email lists, even contacting Orthodox Christians directly (including me and others I know) that at the very least imply he may be acting either as an Orthodox Christian or on behalf of the Cathedral itself. This is not true. Mr. Berman is not an Orthodox Christian and his actions are being firmly objected to by the Cathedral clergy, its parish council and leadership due to the financial hardship such landmarking would force on the parish. His actions are, at best, dismissive of the specifically religious mission of the Cathedral, its needs and challenges and, at worst, secularizing and religiously intolerant.

Regarding the historic and/or aesthetic value of the Cathedral, Mr. Berman thinks he knows better than the religious community for which it holds the most historic value: the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). In fact, the OCA itself and its Diocese of New York and New Jersey decided long ago that the historic value of the property did not rise to such a level as to justify the massive cost of upkeep and renovation. The building was put up for sale in the 1980s, but a buyer was never found. Subsequently, thank God, the community grew enough to at least maintain the cost of the building's decaying infrastructure.

Mr. Berman and his GVSHP only became interested in the Cathedral when he became aware of a proposed redevelopment of the site, the (desperate) cause of which were major, unexpected repairs required for the continued use of the building (i.e., a new boiler and heating system, a new roof, and major repairs on the sewer connection with expected work needed on a foundation retaining wall). [My own son's baptism at the Cathedral was held without heat!] This redevelopment would have preserved the Cathedral building by constructing a condominium complex over the existing church and providing the Cathedral with millions in endowment funds guaranteeing the long-term survival of the community - as well as the facade GVSHP is so intent on preserving (it's actually pretty atrocious, aesthetically). The city has since finalized a comprehensive rezoning of the neighborhood making this redevelopment impossible - and no exemption is made for nonprofits. Since redevelopment is no longer a possibility and since the OCA itself sees no great historic or aesthetic value in its former headquarters, there is little reason for Mr. Berman and the GVSHP to pursue landmarking except to play hard ball (with a church!) in forwarding their non-religious East Village development agenda at the parish's expense and detriment, and for purposes other than the Cathedral's religious mission.

Mr. Berman makes a rather big deal about his offer for 'help' in applying for mythical grant monies covering any additional costs incurred due to landmarking. As one with experience working with nonprofit fundraisers, this offer is specious, especially for a building lacking in historic and aesthetic value, whose primary purpose is as an active, religious community of worship for retirees, new immigrants, students, artists and transient professionals. And, in point of fact, the official leadership of the Cathedral [Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) and Igumen Christopher (Calin)] have never been contacted by either Mr. Berman or the GVSHP as of this posting.

Mr. Berman and the supporters of landmarking are seeking to force a religious worship community to fund their own secular goals, goals not in keeping with the Cathedrals primary mission the salvation of souls, not facades. The financial pressures landmarking would entail are quite obviously an inappropriate infringement of the community's first amendment rights. Whether supporters of landmarking realize it or not, they are discriminating against the Cathedral utilizing financial means reminiscent of the legal mechanisms used by Soviet and Islamic governments seeking to close or restrict religious institutions. Similar legal procedures were used to dispossess the Cathedral community of its truly historic cathedral in 1926. The seizure of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral on E. 97th St. - built by New Martyrs St Tikhon [Belavin] and St Alexander Hotovitsky - was supported by the government of New York then. I pray such heavy-handed government intervention is not repeated again.

I would like to register my strong objection to any attempts to landmarking.

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