Sacred Heart Parish is well into the second decade of its second century, but time has run out for the old Cutchogue church that gave the parish its name.
In a letter to parishioners, the parish recently announced that the Roman Catholic church, which has held a prominent position on Main Road since the 1870s, will close at the end of the month. Parishioners were told an engineering inspection paid for by the Diocese of Rockville Center found repairs required to bring the post-and-beam structure up to current safety standards would cost $2 million.
“I write to you with sadness in my heart,” said Msgr. Joseph Staudt, Sacred Heart’s pastor, in a letter signed by him and six parishioners who have each been members for at least 50 years. He added that the decision had been made after consulting with professional engineers, an architect, other parishioners and diocesan personnel.
The news didn’t sit well with at least one parishioner, Virginia McCaffery of Cutchogue, a past president of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, whose ancestors were among those who built the church.
“For it’s 135th birthday it’s being closed,” she said. “It’s a very sad thing.”
The church is listed as a town landmark, and its historic value has been recognized by the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities and the state Department of Parks and Recreation. But that would not prevent the diocese from razing the structure.
The letter to parishioners does not address that possibility.
The parish has yet to determine the building’s future, said Deacon Jeff Sykes. “The doors are being locked and that’s it,” he said.
He described the decision to close the church as “agonizing,” but said the building’s condition leaves no other choice.
“The brick in the foundation has turned soggy and the wood that’s there has rotted,” he said. “The windows have been leaking for who knows how many years. The interior plaster is no longer anchored to the wall and we had to cordon off the eastern half of the church because the plaster was in danger of coming down.”
The deacon said St. Agnes in Greenport had similar foundation problems, which were solved by jacking up the building and putting a new foundation beneath it. That’s not possible with Sacred Heart because water leaking in through the windows has left the building’s structural integrity in doubt.
“The building has been neglected for 40 years,” the deacon said. At this point the parish is hoping to save some interior elements, such as the stained glass windows.
“We might board up the windows to prevent rain from coming it, but that’s the only thing that’s being considered right now.”
Ms. McCaffery, who teaches religion education for the parish, said if the diocese follows past practice the church will be torn down. That was the case with old buildings in Wading River, Center Moriches and Montauk, she said.
The diocese sought to close the church in 1970, she added, but eventually bowed to local pressure to keep it open. With financial considerations paramount, she sees no reason to expect a similar result this year.
“It’s very sad because it’s such a historic and beautiful building, even though it looks like it could use a little work,” she said.
In the new year, all Masses will be held in Our Lady of Good Counsel church, on Main Road in Mattituck, which was built in the mid-1960s and is part of Sacred Heart Parish. Cutchogue has another Catholic church, Our Lady of Ostrabrama on Depot Lane, which is its own parish.
At present Southold Town has five Catholic churches, the other two being St. Patrick in Southold and St. Agnes in Greenport.
Describing Sacred Heart as a “beautiful, quaint church,” Msgr. Staudt nonetheless wrote, “time and the elements have taken their toll” on the Parish’s eight buildings, particularly those dating back to the 1800s.
The parish’s holdings include Our Lady of Mercy primary school immediately to the west of Sacred Heart church, a rectory adjacent to the church to the east and both a convent and church hall on the south side of Main Road.
Maintaining two campuses and eight buildings “has become an unfair financial burden, as a weekly glance at our bulletin will confirm,” the monsignor wrote. “We simply cannot continue business as usual. The time has come to reduce our size and thereby create a more manageable future.”
The pastor added that with the architectural and engineering reports in hand, “I assure you I will not jeopardize the safety of our children and adults who have used the church for religious education and daily Mass.”
He said he cannot take advantage of parishioners’ generosity and conduct another fund-raising campaign, especially since the parish has pledged $1 million toward Our Lady of Good Counsel renovations.
There are 1,100 registered families in the parish, which celebrated its centennial in 2001. Although the church building dates back to the 1870s — a church bulletin from the centennial year said the building rose in either 1873 or 1878 — the parish started as a mission to St. Patrick in Southold. It gained parish status in 1901 under Rev. John McKenna, who oversaw the church’s construction.
Although Our Lady of Good Counsel church is twice the size of Sacred Heart, the Mattituck church is officially a mission of Sacred Heart.