In Long Island City, a Church Grapples with a Gentrifying Neighborhood

Young people are coming into the neighborhood but not to St. Patrick's

Gloria Navarro, 74, was sitting in the chapel of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church after a weekday Mass, talking about the changes she had seen at the church over the decades. “Fifty years ago, 30 years ago, the church used to be packed,” she said, her voice trembling, “but in the last 30 years, 25 years, less people were coming. Why? Maybe people don’t believe in God, or they don’t care anymore.”

At Dutch Kills in Long Island City, the neighborhood around St. Patrick’s, gentrification is well underway. The neighborhood’s relatively cheap housing and proximity to the Queensboro Bridge and six subway lines have made it an ideal residential area for New Yorkers who work elsewhere in the city. Old buildings are being replaced by high-rise apartment buildings and the rent is rising. But gentrification is posing a challenge to St. Patrick’s as membership declines to around 70 to 75 percent of what it used to be 30 years ago, according to Sister Flora Marinelli, who has been at the church for 33 years.

St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, located in Dutch Kills, Long Island City, has been around since 1868, but is now seeing a decline amid the neighborhood's recent and rapid growth. (Harry Chang/The Ink)
St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, located in Dutch Kills, Long Island City, has been around since 1868 but is now seeing a decline amid the neighborhood’s recent and rapid growth. (Tiancheng Zhang/The Ink)

Many older members have moved to places such as Jackson Heights, Long Island and the Bronx, church members said. “People died, moved, or went to nursing homes,” said Navarro. “One by one they left. One of the old parishioners died last week.”

Rising rents pushed many of them out. Ivanka Paez, the church receptionist who has lived in the area for 25 years, said that a decade ago, the normal price for a one-bedroom apartment was around $800, but now it has risen to a whopping $1,800. “That is the downside of gentrification,” said the Rev. Robert M. Powers, who is the priest at the church. “You squeeze out lower-income people.”

New developments in the neighborhood, however, did not bring in many new members. “We are overwhelmed with hotels and condos,” said Marinelli. In 25 years, the neighborhood has changed from having no hotels to “Name any hotel chain and we have one,” said Sister Mary Owen, 83. However, Powers said the hotels did not help the church or the community. “Hotels don’t always develop the community around you,” he said. “Tourists just come sleep at night and go to see the scenery in Manhattan in the morning. They don’t really care what’s going on in the community.” Hotel visitors do attend Masses at the church but they do not stay, church members said.

The new condos and high-rise apartment buildings, often inhabited by young professionals who work in Manhattan, do not bring in many church-goers, either, which points to a broader problem churches are facing: young people. “Statistically they don’t come to the church as often,” said Powers. “More and more they identify themselves as no religion, and define their religious affiliation purely in the past tense.” Powers believes that the influx of young professionals contributed to the decline at his church. “A smaller number of young people are church-goers, so as the neighborhood becomes younger, the number of church-goers definitely goes down.”

It is a problem that churches elsewhere are also facing. The Rev. Joseph C. Mulqueen of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, which is located near the East River in Long Island City, took several deep breathes before explaining the issue. “There is a gap in religious thinking,” he said. “Many things like Bible accounts, religious ceremonies, and doctrinal teachings are a foreign experience because there has been a generation gap, sometimes two generations, of non-practice. I find that when I deal with adult religious education, all those experiences are completely foreign, and we have to start from the beginning.”

"Children used to be more obedient, or reverent, but now sometimes we have difficulties with bullying." Sister Flora Marinelli, who worked as the Director of Religious Education for 30 years, noted of changes in children's attitude in religious education. (Harry Chang/The Ink)
“Children used to be more obedient, or reverent, but now sometimes we have difficulties with bullying,” said Sister Flora Marinelli, who worked as the director of religious education for 30 years. (Tiancheng Zhang/The Ink)

Marinelli has worked at St. Patrick’s as the director of religious education for 30  years and she has noticed a change in her students. “Children used to be more obedient, or reverent, but now sometimes we have difficulties with bullying,” she said. Mulqueen, meanwhile, speculated that there are too many distractions for young families. “We have young people who come to religious instructions but they will not attend Mass, because they have to go to dancing classes,” he said. Marinelli, meanwhile, put it more bluntly: “Some parents are too materialistic.”

Churches are still exploring solutions to the problem. “It is a concern to me personally, but I don’t quite know what to do about that,” said Powers. Both St. Patrick’s and St. Mary’s try to be welcoming to new members of the community, asking during Masses if there are any newcomers or visitors and giving them a special welcome. Powers also tries to reach out to young people who happen to come to the church. “If someone comes in, I’ve got to take the advantage and try to encourage them to reconnect with the church, if they are getting married, if they are baptizing a baby, or if they are trying to get permission from me to be a godparent,” he said.

For now, these efforts have not yet been able to restore St. Patrick’s to its former glory. “There aren’t many that are influenced,” said Sister Lee Coughlin, who has been at the church for 36 years, of young people in the area. But maybe it is okay. “We just pray for the best for them,” she said, “that they will find a welcoming home here.”