Efforts to save church still alive a year later

01/31/2014 9:00 AM |

TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | Cutchogue’s Sacred Heart Parish Church, which originally served the local Irish community, held its last Mass in January 2013.

This month marks one year since the Diocese of Rockville Centre ordered Sacred Heart Parish Church in Cutchogue to close its doors. But the dilapidated historic structure is far from forgotten by some local residents.

“It is significant because everyone lives here, these are the people that drive past this church every day and have a sense of collective community,” said Zack Studenroth, a spokesman for the Committee to Save Sacred Heart Church. The group began as a subcommittee of the Cutchogue New Suffolk Historical Council, formed soon after the Diocese made its closure announcement. The seven-member group includes former parishioners, members of the historical council and the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, as well as other residents. Its goal is to preserve all the holdings of Sacred Heart Parish, including Our Lady of Mercy primary school, a rectory adjacent to the church and a convent and church hall on the south side of Main Road,

“As the local history group we felt that we should take the lead on getting [saving parish holdings] to be a point of discussion in the community,” Mr. Studenroth, said.

That effort received a boost last Sunday when Alexandra Wolfe, director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, announced that Sacred Heart had been added to the organization’s list of endangered historic places.

Last Sunday’s presentation happened just a few steps away from the church, at the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Free Library

In order to make the list, historic properties must be nominated by the community, Ms. Wolfe said during the talk. Mr. Studenroth had suggested Sacred Heart Church last fall.

“Sometimes it is more than just the building, it’s about a connection,” Ms. Wolfe said. “We hope adding this site to this list will help bring attention to and bolster local efforts. There is an active group here and [the society], having expertise on this subject matter, can come in and can serve as a supportive role.”

The church building, which dates back to the 1870s, first gained parish status in 1901 under the Rev. John McKenna. It was the only North Fork site to make the society’s endangered list this year. It’s also listed as a landmark through Southold Town and is recognized by state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for its historic value.

The church, which originally served the local Irish community, held its last Mass in January 2013.

A December 2012 building inspection found that windows had been leaking for many years and bricks in the foundation had turned soggy. After discovering that the interior plaster was no longer anchored to the wall, the diocese chose to close off the building’s eastern half, according to Suffolk Times archives. Following the inspection, the diocese received a $2 million estimate for the repairs required, which would have brought the post-and-beam structure up to current safety standards.

In July, amid rumors the diocese was considering demolishing the church, Southold Supervisor Scott Russell and members of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission wrote to the diocese requesting that they be included in any discussion regarding the property’s future.

The letter did little to open the doors of communication with the diocese, Mr. Russell said.

“The town has no formal role in the effort and, while offering assistance where we can, does not receive status reports,” he said.

Meanwhile, the rumor mill began last week when social media users speculated that the church building would be used as a drug rehab facility.

On Thursday, Sean Dolan, communications director for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said, “That is complete fiction. There are still no definitive plans for any of the buildings.”

In fact, he said, decisions on how to repurpose the various parish holdings are likely to be made at the local level.

“The parish is working with the historical society so that the buildings can remain in use,” Mr. Dolan said. “Hopefully, they can be preserved. We are still in the evaluation process.”

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