Saturday, January 27, 2007

Cathedral Pastoral Advisory Council Letter to the Diocese of Albany

This letter was signed by the majority of the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception Pastoral Advisory Council members attending its monthly meeting on Tuesday, January 16, 2007. The letter is inserted in this week’s Cathedral bulletin.

Ms. Elizabeth Simcoe
Chancellor, Pastoral Services
Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany
40 North Main Avenue
Albany, NY 12203

January 16, 2007

Dear Ms. Simcoe,

At the November 20, 2006 meeting with the members of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Parish on the subject of the Diocese’s plan for the reconfiguration of our church, you invited the parishioners to address their concerns about the plan to you, with every assurance that you would give them careful consideration. We, the undersigned members of the Cathedral’s Pastoral Advisory Council, have decided to take you up on your offer. Needless to say, we are assuming that you were being sincere in soliciting our input and assuring us that you would give these concerns your serious consideration.

Before we outline our concerns, we would like to forestall any objection on your part that we are voicing them at too late a juncture in the planning process. The fact is, many of us were stunned, and not a little offended, when Bishop Hubbard told us at last April’s meeting that this plan had been under consideration for years, as though this should have been obvious to everyone assembled. It wasn’t. Until that moment, we had been repeatedly told that any proposal for the redesign of the church interior was in a preliminary stage, and that there was no actual plan to share with us.

Furthermore, none of us actually saw the Diocese’s plan for the interior until copies of it were circulated at the meeting you recently attended. In short, we feel the Diocese has done an extremely poor job of communicating its intentions for the Cathedral to us, its parishioners. We don’t doubt that it wasn’t the Diocese’s intention to leave us feeling utterly frustrated and demoralized but, as the saying goes, it might as well have been. We certainly couldn’t have felt more disenfranchised.

As for our specific objections to the plan the Diocese has proposed, they are as follows:

1) Seating – Although the Diocese’s plan involves moving the pews, it does not address making them more comfortable for the Cathedral’s parishioners. This, in spite of the fact that comfort has been one of the most common concerns expressed by our parishioners in surveys and in the Q&A sessions held at our public meetings. As you know, the Cathedral has a significant elderly population, for whom sitting on what amounts to a narrow bench with a 90° backrest for an hour or more is extremely uncomfortable. In redesigning the interior of the church, why couldn’t the comfort of our parishioners have been taken into account? Why wasn’t it given higher priority?

2) Capacity – As the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, we feel it is crucial that the Cathedral retain a maximum seating capacity, and in the form of traditional pews, not movable chairs. Chairs may be appropriate for a more modern interior than the Cathedral’s, but we feel strongly that the Diocese should make every effort to retain and honor the historicity of the Cathedral. It is, after all, a landmark of Albany architecture.

3) Baptismal Font – On the subject of architectural integrity, we feel that stationing the baptismal font in the center aisle is extremely ill-considered. It would impede movement up and down the center aisle for parishioners and clergy, and block the view of the altar from the rear of the church. We can think of nothing to recommend this particular aspect of the proposed plan, other than that it seems to have been necessary to fulfill the designer’s vision for moving pews to the side of the church where the font is currently located.

4) Floor plan – Again, in the interest of retaining the historical integrity of the Cathedral, we think any proposal for reconfiguring the interior should seek, as much as possible, to maintain its current seating “footprint,” that is, a traditional long aisle with pews (not chairs) on either side. On this note, we find it especially distressing that the Diocese’s plan call for the effective removal of some 60 pews from the church’s interior. As we have stated, we wholly support renovating the pews to make them more comfortable for our parishioners, but we would like to see the current layout of the church preserved.

5) Closing the Cathedral – Finally, we are deeply concerned that closing the Cathedral for the duration of the construction – which is optimistically estimated at two years (and anyone who has hired a contractor knows that construction projects are typically fraught with unexpected delays) – will have a lasting injurious impact on the Cathedral parish, both financial and communal. Our concern is that faced with the choice of worshipping in a nearby school gym or auditorium for 2+ years or simply joining another parish, many of our parishioners will opt for the latter.

This is not to impugn the loyalty of our parishioners. They reside in 54 different zip codes. Some of them travel long distances, bypassing their own neighborhood churches, to worship at the Cathedral. They are drawn to the grandeur, the beauty and, most important, to the unique charism of the Cathedral. However, if it is necessary to close the building for the duration of the construction, we fear that we would lose a good many of them. Some have already said as much, in plain language.

We would like to see the Diocese take whatever steps are necessary to keep the Cathedral open while the restoration of the Church interior is carried out. Our survival as a parish may well depend upon it. If temporarily relocating the Parish is unavoidable, we feel that there should be specific mechanisms in place to maintain the viability of the parish.

The above list comprises our chief concerns at this juncture. We hope you will weigh them carefully and respond to each of them.

At your last meeting with us on this subject, you pointed out that the Diocese, not the members of this parish, are in charge of this project, that you are “the client.” This, of course, is true. At the same time, we are the ones who donate time, effort, prayers, and, yes, money for the maintenance of the parish. It will be ours to maintain and support long after this construction project has been completed. We are the ones who will be most directly impacted by the plan the Diocese has proposed. Given that fact, we strongly feel that the Diocese should have taken a more collaborative approach in planning the redesign of the interior. This would have meant showing the parishioners a plan for the new interior at least two years before construction was scheduled to begin, rather than several months. As you can see, if you had done so, we would have expressed serious reservations. And you would have been in better position to incorporate them into your final plan.

This is not to say we have resigned ourselves to the plan you have shown us. On the contrary, we believe that if the Diocese would simply take a moment and hear the concerns of those who have most at stake in this matter, it can devise a solution that will be in everyone’s best interest.

Thank you for your time. We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours in Christ,

[signed: 14 members of the council]

[two members present at the meeting abstained]

Cc: Bishop Howard Hubbard

See also A Letter to Bishop Howard J. Hubbard.


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