NY Church Wreckovation Angers the Faithful

by Christine Niles  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  July 23, 2015   

Church of Our Saviour stripped of beautiful artwork

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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.


Church of Our Saviour as it appeared in Summer 2014
Church of Our Saviour as it appeared after 14 icons were removed August 22, 2014

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."


Church of Our Saviour as it appears now,
with nearly 30 icons removed from the front pilasters and rear side panels.
The mural of Our Lord is rumored to be the next to go.

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."

Renovata reserves its lengthiest and most detailed commentary by far (here, here, here and here) to discussion of the LED lights installed throughout the church.

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:

  • Expenses for the 2012–13 fiscal year (during Fr. Rutler's tenure) totaled $685,627, and income totaled $721,331, leaving the parish in the black, with money to spare
  • Expenses for fiscal year 2013–14, under Fr. Robbins' tenure, increased to $804,091, while income decreased to $470,566. This leaves a parish debt totaling $333,525

Sources of loss of income include the following:

  • Increased spending for church and chapel expenses totaling $66,487 (which likely includes payment for the removal of icons and other renovation)
  • Funds for donations and bequests went down by $46,161, as a number of people reportedly left as soon as Fr. Robbins came on board
  • Collections decreased by $190,808
  • Income from votives and church fees went down by $17,124

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 archbishop.dolan@archny.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.


Ken Woo is near the center.

Signs read: Call the Cardinal: (212) 371-1000
STOP the destruction of the ICONS at Our Saviour
STOP Fr. Robbins from wasting great sums of money on the rectory and the removal of the ICONS.

Photo courtesy John J. O'Sullivan


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