Nation’s First Filipino Chapel Faces an Uncertain Future

Chapel

The first Filipino church in the United States, the Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz, faces an uncertain future with dwindling attendance and lack of donations.

BY CLAIR MACDOUGALL

On a quiet street in Chinatown, Manhattan, a small group of congregants sit on wooden pews in a chapel and wait for the priest to begin the evening Mass.

Volunteer Marlene Fernandez stands behind the lectern and begins singing hymns in both English and Tagalog, with a life-sized wood carving of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz and a Filipino flag standing beside her. The poorly tuned piano echoes sharply because only 12 aging voices are singing.

The Wednesday night service began half an hour earlier, but the heavy doors remain open in the hope that people will walk in and fill the empty seats.

The Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Catholic church in the United States exclusively dedicated to serving the Filipino community, is viewed by many Filipinos in the city as a source of pride. But only four years after opening the chapel is in danger of closing. It’s been hampered by some of the same issues plaguing parishes across the country – dwindling attendance and lack of donations – and one that is purely a local problem. New York has some 62,000 Filipinos, according to the 2000 Census, but only 16 percent reside in Manhattan. The majority, 54 percent, live in areas of Queens, a few trains from San Lorenzo. .

Volunteers at the chapel have planned an ambitious fundraising campaign, calling on Filipino civic and religious groups in the tri-state area to sponsor and attend their weekend masses.

A typical Sunday service attracts between 30 and 40 congregants.

“The chapel is a source of joy and peace that brings Filipinos everywhere together,” said Joy Ug, who has been travelling from Flushing, Queens each week to sing in the choir for the past two years..

Victor Deleon, of Jamaica, Queens, has been a member of the choir for the past seven months and said he joined to reconnect with his Filipino roots.

“For me it has a special meaning, because I was born in the Philippines but grew up here,” said Deleon. “Part of the singing is in Tagalog and it gives me the opportunity to get in touch with Filipino culture.”

In February of this year the Archdiocese of New York closed the parish, leaving the chapel without a full-time pastor, and put the chapel under review, citing its poor financing and attendance. The small chapel is now run by a group of 10 volunteers and five Filipino priests, and holds three services throughout the week, one of which is a Mass for Latinos.

Father Joseph Marabe, is working with volunteers to help preserve the chapel, but said he will accept the decision of the archdiocese if they decide to close it. The three-year review of the chapel will conclude in February 2012, but it could be closed earlier if it is unable to attract more congregants and funding.

Volunteers and the four Filipino priests are cautious about discussing the possibility of closure. However, the collection records on the chapel’s website suggest it has been suffering financially for at least four months and had relied on large donations from organizations and individuals prior to that.

Father Marabe said the chapel cost an average of $3,000 per month to run, but donations in the months of May, June, July and August totalled $1,115 and basic utilities remained unaccounted for. Marabe claimed the chapel raised $4,000 at the Feast of San Lorenzo Ruiz held at Saint Patrick’s on Sunday, September 20.
But the volunteer coordinator of finance, Odelon Torras from Yonkers, said the chapel was unable to pay a $7,000 insurance bill for the building, a fact Marabe later confirmed.

Despite the mounting financial strain on the chapel and lack of congregants, the Archdiocese of New York has officially pledged its support to the chapel during the review process.

Monsignor William Belford, Vicar for the Clergy at the Archdiocese of New York, has been meeting with Father Marabe on the issue. He said closure was not imminent.

“There is no urgency,” he said.

Msgr. Belford said he believed the archdiocese could afford to keep the chapel and claimed that “a lot of people” were going to the chapel. When questioned about how the archdiocese would act if the chapel did not meet the criteria of a viable parish, Msgr. Belford said he was too busy to respond.

Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan was unavailable for comment.

Father Marabe claims that lack of attendance does not point to a waning in faith amongst the Filipino community.

“The Filipino community are active in all their parishes; the faith isn’t waning because they aren’t going to the San Lorenzo Ruiz,” said Father Marabe.

Marabe agrees that the church is an important symbol, but suggested that this symbol wasn’t necessary.

“The Filipino apostolate will still go on: it’s just a chapel,” he said.

But Mosnignor Oscar Aquino, a priest at St Lucy’s chapel in Manhattan and one of the five priests who volunteer at the chapel, said it is an important symbol of recognition.

“It is inspiring and makes us one; for the Filipinos it’s like a recognition that they are important within the church in New York,” said Msgr. Aquino.

Zonny Lerum, a 68-year-old businessman from West Orange, N.J. acknowledges that time is running out, but thinks the fundraising campaign could work.

Lerum said the chapel is currently a “financial burden on the archdiocese”, but said if its supporters could prove it was viable, they could ask for it to be relocated. Lerum said the group of 10 volunteers would know whether or not they had enough sponsorship to keep the chapel open by the end of the year.

But the Filipino immigrant remains optimistic that the chapel will go on despite the balance sheets.

“If we do out best,” he said, “God will take care of the rest.”

Photo – Clair MacDougall

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