Christmas will come a few days early this year at Sacred Heart Church in Cutchogue -- a final, bittersweet parting gift from the last of generations of worshippers who started coming to that church 135 years ago.
The building is structurally unsound, is no longer used for regular prayer, and will be closed by New Year's Day.
Its members plan to gather Saturday morning in a tent in front of the church, to pray and sing and reflect on the change in their lives. They will finish by going inside the church for one final look.
Everyone in the parish knows their historic church is closing. But it is swiftly turning from an idea into a reality as Christmas gets closer.
Inside, about a third of the church has been closed off with yellow caution tape. The worshippers have been celebrating Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel, a larger, newer building in nearby Mattituck that is also part of the parish.
The bad news came around Thanksgiving in a letter sent out by Msgr. Joseph Staudt, the pastor. He told church members that an engineering inspection by the Diocese of Rockville Centre had found several problems in the post-and-beam building, including one wall was unsafe, and that it would cost about $2 million to repair.
The diocese will determine the empty building's fate.
"It's sad, but it has to be," Staudt said.
Much of the problem is economic. While the parish is the largest on the North Fork, with 1,100 congregants, it cannot afford the repairs. And, it has been hard to raise the funds to maintain two churches and six other buildings, Staudt added.
Sacred Heart holds 125 people, while Our Lady of Good Counsel holds 450.
A church committee has been working for months on a goodbye ceremony and found the job challenging.
"They said right off the bat that the church was unsafe, that we can't have a closing Mass in the church," said Marion Bopp, who heads the committee. "We rented a heated tent . . . after Mass is over, we will ask people to go reverently into the church."
They will see a Nativity scene set up in front of the church, and the building will be decorated one last time for Christmas, as in years past, with wreaths on the walls and poinsettias on the altar.
People at the 9 a.m. Mass in the tent will get a commemorative bookmark. "If anyone wants to stay and pray, they will stay on the left side of the pew. It will be open till 4 p.m., then the doors will be closed," Bopp said.
The final Latin Mass at the church Sunday will be the last public event. A new site for that weekly gathering is being sought, Staudt said.
"We'll be stronger when this is over," he said.
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