Joyce Matz is a New York City preservationist with a lifelong commitment to saving old churches and buildings from demolition.
Last week, pushing her walker over cracked sidewalks in East Harlem, Matz returned to the scene of one of those battles, one she still hopes can be won: Our Lady Queen of Angels Roman Catholic Church on East 113th Street, closed eight years ago by the Archdiocese of New York as part of parish shutterings that church officials said were caused by declining attendance.
Two leaflets were taped to the 130-year-old church's front doors with the same message in English and in Spanish: "Welcome to East Harlem, Pope Francis. The parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels continue on the sidewalk. Please open our church."See alsoComplete coverageInteractiveYour messages to the popeSee alsoPope's visit: Follow along at News 12
Matz does not know who posted the leaflets, but she agrees wholeheartedly with the message.
"I hope the pope will listen to his parishioners. This little church needs to be saved," she said, standing near the front steps covered with the windblown debris of paper cups and plastic bottles. "This whole community was built around this little church, and it is beloved."
Matz is appealing to the pope on behalf of the church's still-loyal parishioners in the largely Latino neighborhood. Francis is scheduled to visit Our Lady Queen of Angels School, nearby on East 112th Street, on Friday during his visit to Manhattan. Many parishioners are quietly praying that the pontiff will use his influence to reopen the church.
Matz, a longtime Upper East Side resident, says she is a woman of faith, though not a religious person. From past experience, she said, she knows the inner workings of disputes over church buildings.
She was among those who banded together in the 1980s and '90s when St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, on Park Avenue, wanted to redevelop its community house site and construct a high-rise office tower.
The city's Landmarks Preservation Committee -- and Matz -- opposed that. The bitter battle divided St. Bart's congregation and legal wrangling dragged on for years, reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, the church's landmark status was upheld.
The fight to reopen Our Lady Queen of Angels is far tougher, Matz said. The neighborhood is poor and, unlike the dispute over St. Bart's, no famous faces have stepped in on behalf of "the little church."
"We couldn't get anybody of power to move on this," she said. "No one famous that would make people listen."
Matz recalled her visit to the church about two years after it was closed, when she pushed her walker through several inches of snow to meet Carmen Villegas and other parishioners to map out strategies for action -- including having the church designated as a landmark.
Villegas had organized prayer vigils outside the church and a protest in which several women locked themselves inside. Villegas and Matz wrote letters lobbying city and church officials.
"But no one answered our letters or returned my calls," Matz said of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Archdiocese of New York.The effort fizzled out after Villegas, 58, died of cancer in December 2012.
"Every good fight needs a leader -- and Carmen was that woman," Matz said. "Carmen devoted her life to her church and parishioners. When she was gone, the effort really died with her. It's a shame."
Today, the darkened church is nestled between the convent of the Community of Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal and another building for four Marist brothers, who moved in three weeks ago after that structure was refurbished.
Like the sisters, the brothers moved in to help the neighborhood's residents, offering religious instruction, academic tutoring and parenting skills and nutrition sessions.
"The Catholic Church is still here," said Brother John Klein, 68, a former Massapequa resident. "We have at least a hundred people. Twenty percent are families who we are working with."
Joseph Zwilling, the archdiocese's spokesman, said there are no plans to reopen Our Lady Queen of Angels. There are no plans to demolish it, he said, and no need to designate it as a landmark. "The church remains a church without a parish," Zwilling said. "It is occasionally used by the school and by the sisters."
Matz remembered that City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes East Harlem and the South Bronx, had supported parishioners. "I had hoped Melissa would help us. . . . She has power now," Matz said. "I know she is busy, but this little church is very important to us."
Mark-Viverito was elected City Council speaker in January 2014 and is the first Puerto Rican and the first Latina to hold that position.
Eric Koch, her spokesman, said Mark-Viverito "will pass on commenting."