by Jim Mancari
When St. Peter’s Church on Congress St. in Cobble Hill closed in 1975 to merge with St. Paul’s Church on Court St., 110 ornate pews and 96 kneelers were sent to the diocesan patrimony warehouse at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Bushwick.
For years, the hand-carved pews sat collecting dust and taking up space in the warehouse. Yet, to refurbish the pews would have been an expensive cost, so no parish in the Diocese of Brooklyn wanted the task.
This past June, Msgr. John Bracken, the diocesan director of patrimony in residence at Our Lady Help of Christians, Midwood, needed space in the Bushwick warehouse to store other diocesan valuables, so it looked like the pews would be heading to the trash.
However, Ellen Rhatigan, the associate director of pastoral planning in the diocese, had a different plan. She is also the corporate secretary of From Here to Haiti (FHTH), a corporation that raises funds for use in Haiti that was formed in response to the increasing need for the repair of buildings damaged by the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.
Rhatigan told Msgr. Bracken that she could find a use for the pews by sending them to Haiti. It would not be easy, since the project involved both moving the pews out of the warehouse and somehow getting them to Haiti, but the patrimony office and FHTH volunteers were committed to making it happen.
“Because of the large amount of Catholics from Haiti living in our diocese, it’s just a connection with a diocese that our people come from,” Msgr. Bracken said.
The next step was to find a parish in Haiti that needed the pews and a method to fund the transport of the pews. Pat Brintle, the president of FHTH who was born and raised in Saint Michel de l’Attalaye, Haiti, called a few parishes in Haiti, and Father Chery Michel, pastor of St. Anne’s Church in Limonade in the Diocese of Cap-Haitien, was willing to accept the pews.
For funding, the Miami, Fla., based chapter of Food for the Poor, a worldwide nonprofit organization, provided the shipping costs from Brooklyn to Port-au-Prince in southern Haiti.
After six months of planning, Brintle and Rhatigan – parishioners at St. Luke’s parish, Whitestone – organized the pickup of the pews on Nov. 27 at the Bushwick warehouse. Even after Hurricane Sandy, a dozen volunteers from FHTH, the diocesan archives office and Rocklyn Realty – the diocesan contractors – helped with the loading effort of two tractor trailers on a rainy day.
In total, the pews and kneelers weighed nearly 14,000 pounds combined and were lifted by hand, since the trucks did not have lifts. With teamwork and determination, the daunting challenge of loading up the trucks was completed in about eight hours.
“The next day, I did not feel tired at all,” Brintle said. “I had this burst of energy, and I think everybody felt the same. I think that God worked with us, giving us the strength to do this work.”
The volunteers were joined that day by several parishioners from St. Anne’s Church in Limonade that now live in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
“The people were so happy that the pews that they were physically putting onto these trucks are going to their hometown,” Rhatigan said. “If they ever go home to visit their families, they’ll see the pews.”
The original purpose of the pews was to aid people in worship, and rather than being thrown away, former pieces of the Brooklyn Diocese will be restored to help the Diocese of Cap-Haitien. The pews are currently en route to Port-au-Prince, with an expected delivery to St. Anne’s Church in late January, 2013.
“The people in Limonade cannot wait for an inauguration Mass to happen with the pews,” Brintle said. “It’s truly amazing.”