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UPDATE, July 24, 2015: The archdiocese of New York refuses to get involved in helping Church of Our Saviour, and has instructed the faithful to take it up with the pastor, Fr. Robbins (who has repeatedly ignored the faithful's request and has gone ahead with the renovations in spite of the outcry). Parishioners have started an online petition asking that Fr. Robbins reconsider.
UPDATE, July 23, 2015: Details of the rally Thursday outside the cardinal's residence have been included at the bottom of article.
NEW YORK, July 23, 2015 (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Manhattan parish is undergoing a renovation that has the faithful outraged.
Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue and 38th has been undergoing drastic renovations ever since the installment of its current pastor, Fr. Robert Robbins. Parishioners were alarmed when, on August 22, 2014 — without notice — he removed 14 icons from the two front pilasters in the sanctuary. In their place are now blank walls.
The remaining icons in the rear of the sanctuary were secretly removed Wednesday, leaving one whitewashed pillar and another exhibiting adhesive tape. The artwork has since been stored in the basement.
The icons were installed under former parish priest George Rutler, who was transferred to another parish in 2013. Artist Ken Woo, who created the artwork, won an award for Best Renovation of the Year in 2006, and created them as part of an overall Byzantine-style design in the sanctuary that many considered "gorgeous." At the time of the icons' removal in 2014, Woo responded that the plan destroyed the "sacred geometry of the whole sanctuary."
"The sanctuary was designed with all the icons in mind at the concept stage," and removing them "destroys ... the integrity of the work of art."
It's believed the large mural of Jesus — the Pantocrator — is the next piece slated for removal.
Father Robbins is employing Renovata Studios for the church "improvements." Queries on Renovata's Facebook page asking about the mural's fate have gone unanswered. According to Renovata's most recent commentary on the changes, it's most likely the case the Pantocrator will be gone, as the goal is to restore the sanctuary to the original vision sketched by an artist before the church was built. "This was the vision that the church pastor and bishop approved prior to beginning the construction of the building."
Multiple comments on Church of Our Saviour's Facebook page critical of the renovations have been deleted, replaced with the following comment: "This post is not intended to be a forum for grievances, but a statement regarding the renovations at The Church of Our Saviour. All comments posted here (good or bad) will be deleted."
Underlying the controversy are concerns from parishioners that the parish is being mismanaged by Fr. Robbins. In addition to abrupt liturgical changes — he immediately ended the Benedictine altar arrangement used by Fr. Rutler, followed a month later by sudden discontinuation of the Traditional Latin Mass (which he called "ridiculous") — he has reportedly been spending parish funds on lavish renovations for his rectory, where he lives with the parish organist. Controversially, the archdiocese also appointed a licensed massage therapist with a degree from an Episcopal seminary as pastoral associate to Fr. Robbins.
ChurchMilitant.com received an open letter Wednesday authored by someone who identifies himself as "a prominent layman and philanthropist." We post an excerpt below:
I have known Fr. Rutler for nearly two decades. When he was reassigned by Cdl. Dolan to St. Michael's Church in "Hell's Kitchen," the faithful lamented his departure after 12 years of exemplary pastoral care. That was the maximum term for pastors, although the cardinal is free to make exceptions.
Father Rutler turned a bankrupt and virtually empty church into a world-famous spiritual center, paid off the mortgage and long-standing debts, virtually rebuilt the infrastructure and exterior walls and roof, installed a magnificent new organ and many other improvements (and left well over two million dollars in the bank) and did much of the interior painting, gold leafing and decorating himself (he never takes a vacation) and produced a record number of candidates for the priesthood.
The icons were the work of Ken Jon Woo, who grew up in Communist China. Father Rutler received him into the church, and baptized and married him and his wife, who also is from Shanghai. Imagine how he must feel, having fled Communism and accepted Christ, seeing the destruction of his art by a priest. As this destruction is taking place, Father Robbins is on vacation in his villa in the opulent Hamptons. In less than two years, Rutler's successor, Fr. Robbins, has dismantled much of the interior of the church, alienated most of the parishioners, and nearly bankrupted the parish, spending vast sums on virtually reconstructing the plain but comfortable rectory (where Fr. Rutler happily hosted as guest cardinals and other prelates and distinguished laypeople) — but which Fr. Robbins told people was a "slum" — so that the rectory is now a luxurious home for Fr. Robbins and his organist, who also resides there.
Most of the loyal lay staff have been fired.
Parish financial records reveal the church has since fallen into debt under Robbins' leadership:
Sources of loss of income include the following:
ChurchMilitant.com reached out to Fr. Kevin O'Brien for commentary, Director of the Building Commission in the archdiocese of New York, but as of press time we've had no response.
Supporters can sign a petition requesting to save Church of Our Saviour here.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at (212) 371-1011 ext. 2935.
UPDATE: Ken Woo organized a rally across from Cdl. Dolan's residence today. One of those in attendance described the event:
There was a small rag-tag group of Catholics who stood in front of the residence of Cdl. Dolan. We asked to see Cdl. Dolan, but he was away. At first, we thought that we wouldn't be able to get any word in, but we were told that we'd be able to see a representative of the archdiocese.
At first, it was said that only one of us would be able to meet with the rep, but eventually Ken Woo, the artist responsible for the icons, along with two men who attended Our Saviour before and after Fr. Rutler's tenure, met with the archdiocesan rep.
Afterwards, they said that the meeting was "productive," and the archdiocese was made more than aware of what is currently happening at Our Saviour.