Hours after Dyker Heights senior citizens rallied in the bitter cold with local politicians to keep their senior center open at its current site, their request was granted – Narrows Senior Center will be allowed to operate at Angel Guardian Home through early June as originally planned.
The senior center, run by Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, leases space at Angel Guardian Home, a city block-sized complex that has been owned and operated by the Sisters of Mercy for more than a century. The order decided last year to relocate its offices and sell the property.
Back in December, Catholic Charities was notified that the senior center’s lease, which was due to expire mid-year, would be terminated early with 60 days notice as per the requirement under the lease agreement. The agency has operated its senior center at the site since 2003, and currently services about 85 older adults.
Holding signs and shouting chants of “Save Our Center,” dozens of seniors demonstrated on the 60-day mark, Feb. 2, as lawyers negotiated the situation with the Sisters of Mercy, who ultimately agreed to allow the center to stay in place through June 4, the original end date of the lease.
Catholic Charities plans to then move Narrows Senior Center to its Stedman/Minkin Senior Residences on Ninth Ave. and 53rd St.
According to a spokesperson for Catholic Charities, seniors will have access to 4,000 square feet of activity space; garden, backyard and parking lot areas, and free van transportation for those who qualify. The new space is also fully wheelchair accessible from the courtyard.
Peter Mastrapasqua, 86, a Korean war veteran and a regular at the center, is saddened by the thought of switching sites and possibly losing contact with friends, but he understands that things change.
“I hate changes,” he admitted, “but we have to try and see how it works out.”
More Than a Lease
While seniors received the extension they wanted, the community’s conflict with the Mercy Sisters goes far deeper than a lease agreement.
Founded as an orphanage in 1899, Angel Guardian Home housed and found permanent homes for hundreds of children through the years until the residence closed and became offices for what is now MercyFirst’s family and children’s services. With the Sisters’ departure, local residents and elected officials are concerned about the fate of the property and want answers about who purchased it and what will be built there.
“We need to know what’s going on here,” Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, said at the rally. “We feel that the Sisters of Mercy should have sold or entered into an agreement with an organization that could make senior housing.
“They entered into a contract with somebody we don’t even know. We don’t know what the proposal is. … And that’s a big, big problem,” she said.
“Are we ready for a fight,” State Senator Marty Golden asked rallygoers. “That’s what I want to see – a good fight. And you know why? This home has been here a long time. A lot of children were adopted out of this home. They did a lot of good things, our Sisters of Mercy.”
According to the state senator, whose district includes Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, when the Sisters put out a call for bids on their property, they requested that the developer build affordable housing for aging residents in the area.
Catholic Charities would have done that, Sen. Golden told the crowd, but the agency lost the bid to an unidentified buyer whose plans for the site have not been disclosed to the public.
“So we complained to the Sisters of Mercy. We complained to the diocese. And guess what? The Bishop (Nicholas DiMarzio) of this great diocese even sent a letter to Rome,” the senator announced.
Bishop Hopes to ‘Investigate Other Options’
Bishop DiMarzio later confirmed that he has indeed contacted the Holy See regarding the property.
“We’re hoping for a review of the whole situation,” the bishop told The Tablet, adding that he’d like to work with the Sisters to “investigate other options” for the future of the site.
Guardians of the Guardian, a group of community advocates for low-income senior housing at Angel Guardian Home, have been trying for months to get answers from the Mercy Sisters about what the plans are for the property, but to no avail.
“It’s a big mystery and the whole community is upset,” said Carl Esposito, Guardians member. “First of all, we think the building should be landmarked because it’s historical to the area, and there’s green space, which is very hard to find in Brooklyn. That’s going to be gone if developers take over.”
Elected officials took turns firing up the crowd of senior protestors, with newly elected Councilman Justin Brannan claiming that the Sisters have “no mercy” for the way they’re treating senior citizens, and stating that the community will “show them what no mercy is all about.”
Assemblyman Peter Abbate called the Sisters overseeing Angel Guardian Home today “a disgrace to their order.” He went so far as to suggest that the community petition the Holy Father to “disband the order since they no longer believe in their own charter.”
Though the Sisters yielded to the community regarding the senior center’s lease, the battle is far from finished.
“This is our fight. We want this. They want to take it away from us,” said Jean DeTorre, one of the seniors at the rally. “Who do they think they are?”
“Obviously, we’d like to see a re-bid on this property” to do what was the original intent – build affordable senior housing, Sen. Golden said.
“And God willing, they’ll do the right thing because this is the right thing to do.”
The Sisters of Mercy Communications Office did not return The Tablet’s calls for comment on the situation.