Miracles do happen - particularly on Avenue B. That’s where St. Brigid’s stands, just east of Tompkins Square Park.
I have been involved in many the lost cause down the years but none, seemingly, as hopeless as the battle to restore and reopen the old “Famine church.”
Our ranks were broad - Conservative and Marxist, Jansenist and Liberationist, Puerto Rican and Irish, among many others opposed the demolition of this treasured landmark.
My own connection to St. Bridie’s was far from religious. Following nights spent carousing in The Kiwi, an after-hours establishment on 9th Street, I often watched the sun rise from a park bench in Tomkins Square.
I noticed the Irish name and took a stroll in during early mass one morning, and to my amazement learned that the church had been built by survivors of An Gorta Mór.
I did not become a parishioner but grew fond of the place and occasionally took refuge in a shady pew on blazing summer days.
When demolition seemed likely back in 2006, along with other members of the Irish American Writers & Artists I assisted in running some benefits. To be honest I felt we needed a miracle, for I come from a clerical family and know that victories are scarce when you oppose the judgment of prelates and princes.
Then lo and behold, when we activists were on our last legs in 2008, an anonymous donor gave $20 million with the express wish that St. Brigid’s be restored and returned to the community.
The church reopened on Jan. 29, 2013 and some weeks ago I found myself passing my old-after hours Tomkins Square park bench on my way to a much delayed celebration.
There was another reason I hadn’t been back in the old neighborhood for some time and it weighed on my mind as I entered the church basement. But I was soon overwhelmed by the warmth and friendship of comrades and parishioners.
Peter Quinn was there; he had been president of IAWA when we ran our benefits. Ed Torres, the dynamic leader of the parishioners, was as ever gracious and inspiring. I sat with his lovely wife, Dolly, as she showed me the pictures of her grandchildren and, not for the first time, was made to feel like a member of her extended family.
My colleague at The Echo, Peter McDermott, was in attendance, his finger as ever on the pulse of Irish New York? I sat with my old musical friends, Joe Hurley and Kirk Kelly while we demolished pulled pork, barbecued chicken, corn beef and cabbage and talked of old times playing The Pyramid, 8BC, and other iconic neighborhood clubs.
Joe was still shattered over the death of David Bowie. As we traded stories about our encounters with this mutual hero, I remembered why I’d stayed away for so long but chose not to mention it.
After all, we were at a celebration and the talk of Mr. Bowie had put us both in a melancholic mood. To add fat to the fire, Brian Monaghan’s relatives were in attendance and the talk had turned to this sorely missed entertainer.
Eventually it was time to go and I left with many a hug and fond word. I thought of cutting back across the park but instead I headed down Avenue B and around the corner to my old apartment building on 3rd Street.
Once more I stood on the pavement that had been stained with blood on that August morning 20 years ago. Black 47 had played the Dublin Ohio Irish Festival the pervious night and I’d caught the first plane back.
Johnny Byrne, soundman and recording engineer, the best friend of so many Irish musicians, had fallen off the fire escape. I gazed up at my old windows - one was shuttered, while a large air-conditioner blocked the other. The current residents would never pull a mattress onto the fire escape on a hot night.
The old sadness resurfaced but it was no match for the warmth I had felt at St. Brigid’s party. Then it struck me that it was time to let the past go – that miracles do indeed happen, especially on Avenue B.