The Rev. Peter Mushi stands outside Saint Cecilia’s Catholic church in East Harlem after Sunday mass, surrounded by a diverse crowd. The priest, who seems to know each churchgoer by name, laughs with elderly women, asks children about their schoolwork and places his hands on those who ask for a special blessing. He congratulates people on birthdays and anniversaries. Although his first language is Chaga, spoken in his native Tanzania, Mushi easily switches between English and Spanish when speaking with his parishioners.
Saint Cecilia’s has more than 750 members, including Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Filipinos and African-Americans. Throughout its 138-year history, it has aided East Harlem’s immigrants. Today, it helps operate a food pantry, hosts Narcotics Anonymous meetings and supports the Momentum Project, providing meals for people with HIV/AIDS.
But the church is in desperate need of repair. Its ceiling and walls are dotted with patches and re-patches. Water has crept down into the sanctuary and damaged a mural. Outside, the gutters are rusted and leaky, and the asphalt roof, installed over the church’s original tin roof, has cracked and eroded. The church’s intricate exterior masonry, including a beautiful terra-cotta relief panel of Saint Cecilia playing an organ, has weathered and weeds have begun to grow in the crevasses.
Repairs will be complicated and expensive. “It has not been maintained for a while,” says Mushi. “It cries for help.”
Mushi has been campaigning to raise money for this project since he arrived at the parish two years ago. He points out that the two historic buildings flanking the church, the Julia del Burgos Latin Cultural Center and Cristo Rey High School, have already been restored. He’s determined to “complete” the block.
Built in 1887, the church is a New York City Landmark and is also listed on the U.S. National Historic Register of Historic Places. The building was designed by Napoleon LeBrun and Sons, which also designed the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, a midtown landmark. Built by Irish immigrants, its construction was overseen by the Rev. Michael J. Phelan, known as “the Builder of Churches.”
Mushi explains that the original roof was made of tin, which is no longer available. It will be replaced by a tinted copper material, which will cost about $1.2 million, a daunting figure for a church more focused on serving residents rather than seeking their donations.
According to the New York City Department of City Planning and the 2000 U.S. Census, 38 percent of East Harlem residents live below the poverty level. Saint Cecilia’s neighbors include several housing projects and its Sunday collection never exceeds $4,000, barely enough to cover maintenance costs, Mushi explains. In fact, Saint Cecilia’s recently reduced its food pantry program due to budget cuts by Catholic Charities.
Despite such financial challenges, Mushi and church members agree that restoration should be a priority.
“We are worried that the roof is going to fall,” says parishioner Victor Alicea. “Someday, somebody will get hurt.”
An April fundraiser raised $18,000, only enough to pay for temporary roof patches. Instead of asking parishioners for more money, Mushi has focused on getting grants.
He recruited grant writer Ann Saxon-Hersh, who was impressed by the church’s historical and cultural role and describes it as “a very important cog in the wheel” of East Harlem. Noting the local trend towards gentrification, Saxon-Hersh hopes that a restored St. Cecilia’s will become the heart of the El Barrio Historic District.
“East Harlem is going up, not down,” she says, “but will Saint Cecilia’s be a part of that?”
Last year, Saxon-Hersh and Mushi succeeded in winning three major grants. The largest, from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund, was for $200,000. Two others, totaling $80,000, came from the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
Ann Friedman, who directs the Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program, was the first to urge Mushi and the Archdiocese to replace the roof with tinted copper rather than asphalt, in order to preserve the church’s Romanesque Revival architectural style. She explained via email that the Conservancy grant aims “to provide an incentive for a high level of restoration, by funding the difference in cost between routine repair and state-of-the-art restoration.”
However, the state grant is a matching grant; to receive the $200,000, the church must first raise that amount from within its community. And to begin repairs next summer, Saint Cecilia’s must somehow come up with the money by May. “This is the biggest challenge,” says Mushi.
Trying to think creatively, Mushi plans to collect cell phones and printer cartridges to re-sell to a recycling center. If he collects 75,000 phones, he will raise $225, 000 – more than enough to secure the grant. He has mobilized young parishoners, encouraging them to use social networking to spread the word. He also sought help from other New York City churches, such as Saint Phillip and Saint James in the Bronx. Collecting that many phones and cartridges will be difficult, he admits, but he is determined to accomplish his goals.
“You know, problems make you think,” he says, smiling.
By Elizabeth Harball on Oct 11th, 2011