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Naked in New York: The Unceremonious Stripping of Our Saviour

Photo by David Galalis
Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in The Church of Our Saviour, 2011. Photo by David Galalis

There’s a very peculiar thing happening at The Church of Our Savior in Midtown Manhattan. Beautiful sacred art — icons commissioned in 2004 by Fr. George Rutler, the parish’s erudite and well-loved former pastor — have been disappearing from the columns surrounding the sanctuary – quite literally under the cover of night.

This clandestine desecration of the holy of holies — for surely, to denude the altar of God of such fitting accouterments is to divest it of no small portion of its sacred character — began last August, under the direction of the new pastor, Fr. Robert Robbins. At the time, the story failed to make much impact, lost as it was in the larger clamor over the impending closure of Holy Innocents, another Manhattan parish also connected to Fr. Rutler, who served as its administrator until the end of last year. Holy Innocents, nestled in New York’s garment district, is, like Our Saviour, a haven for working New Yorkers – a momentary retreat from one of the busiest metropolises on the planet into the numinous tranquility of the sacred.

Hi rez Our Saviour Sanctuary
Sanctuary of Our Saviour with all 31 icons. Photo by David Galalis

Holy Innocents was touch and go for months, but it was ultimately spared, and well it should have been. Under Fr. Rutler’s careful watch, both parishes performed well financially. Holy Innocents was already in good shape before his arrival, and this trend continued; Our Saviour, through his stewardship, climbed out of the morass of red ink that has plagued so many other Catholic churches in New York. In November of 2014, Holy Innocents was removed from the Archdiocesan list of pending parish closures with as little explanation as when it had been placed there. And if the stay of execution (along with the original sentence) was officially inexplicable, one can hardly discount in its survival the impact of a successful social media campaign, writeups in both the religious and secular media, and a petition that neared 6,000 signatures at its completion. Some sad stories do have a happy ending, and this one was particularly fairy tale-esque: after all, it’s the only parish in the entire New York Archdiocese to offer a daily Traditional Latin Mass.

But if the fight for Holy Innocents managed to restrain Damocles’ proverbial sword, Our Saviour has been quietly suffering death by a thousand cuts. The icons that began disappearing last summer without comment or response from the pastor began vanishing anew earlier this week. Once again, the power of social media is being brought to bear, and without the deafening roar of outcry over the potential closure of a beloved parish, awareness of this unfortunate occurence is building. The most recent incidence of disappearing icons has already garnered the attention of bloggers like Katrina Fernandez and Deacon Greg Kandra, various Facebook groups, and The Society of St. Hugh of ClunyMaureen Mullarkey, a New York arts scene insider and contributor to First Things (as well as this website), published her own take early this morning. This afternoon, Ben Yanke at New Liturgical Movement weighed in with enhanced photos that help illustrate the chronology of the icons’ removal.

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Interior of Our Saviour with icons removed, July 22, 2015

Before going further into the issue at hand, perhaps it would be helpful to take a moment to step back and offer some historical context.

When Fr. Rutler took over Our Saviour, it was almost literally, as he described it, a “baptism by fire.” His official date of installation was to be September 17, 2001, but he was in the process of moving in when the tragic attacks of September 11th began, occuring just a few miles further downtown. As if the crisis those dark days plunged the country (and New York in particular) into weren’t enough, the parish was in terrible financial shape. Its prospects were so dire, in fact, that some have speculated it might soon have been closed down and put up for sale, where its Park Avenue address could easily fetch a multi-million-dollar price to pad the waning coffers of the Archdiocese. But Fr. Rutler, concerned only with the task entrusted by Our Lord to his care, put his shoulder to the wheel and got down to the work of being a pastor. And a good pastor who cares for the needs of his flock can expect God to bless his endeavors. In his final homily at Our Saviour, he recounted the fiscal obstacles that the parishioners had managed to overcome:

The good people of our parish, along with our extended family far and wide, have sacrificed to change the financial situation of this parish. Twelve years ago we were burdened under millions of dollars of mortgage and other debts and costs for the repair of a building in which everything seemed to be collapsing at the same time. All that has been reversed, every penny of debt is paid, and the church has virtually been reconstructed, along with the installation of a new organ and many other improvements, renovations and fine art. Our Lord was not fortunate in the one he chose to hold the moneybag, but the same Lord mercifully sent me trustees whose selfless devotion in these challenging years will bring them a reward more than I can give. There may have been times when my concern about the dire financial situation of our church made me seem, in the vernacular expression, cheap. Part of me is Scottish, a people known to practice thrift to an heroic degree, and in recent years I have even been made chaplain to our city’s two leading Scottish societies. What once was owed is now matched by what is held in fixed funds for the maintenance of the church. The daily costs remain the responsibility of the people, in addition to our charitable and evangelical obligations, and I leave in the good hope that the results of the hard work of many will be preserved and stewardship will increase.
A stewardship program detailing existing expenses and budget cutbacks during Fr. Rutler’s pastorship still exists on the parish website, along with public financial data for 2005, 2006, and 2007, though these links appear to have been removed from the site’s homepage. There is no subsequently published financial data on the website (a link to a 2012 Financial Summary goes to a login prompt) but the final public report, dated in 2007, shows a deficit in 2001 that turns into a surplus in 2002, which grows steadily each year thereafter. Despite commissioning the gorgeous art that graced the sanctuary and effecting a “virtual reconstruction” of the church, Our Saviour was on a consistent uptick into the black.
Fr. Rutler’s successes were far more than financial, however. During his time there, the CCD and pre-cana programs grew, liturgical reverence was increased while abuses were pared away, and sacred music was a feature, not an anomaly. The aesthetic improvements to the parish made it a favored place of refuge and prayer, lifting minds and hearts to God and drawing visitors who might never have otherwise known the church from hundreds of others throughout the city. Under Fr. Rutler, Our Saviour also offered the vetus ordo, that ancient liturgy of the Church which has been a blessing to so many parishes that have welcomed it. In other words, the efforts of the pastor and the parishioners who worked with him to accomplish his goals created a parish that became identifiably Catholic, with tangible results that stood out in a struggling diocese. Fr. Rutler recounted that during his twelve years as pastor, “623 have been baptized into Christ” and “433 have been united in Holy Matrimony” while “Since 2001 our flock has doubled, and there have been among them nearly a dozen who have been called to the priesthood.”
Nearly a dozen called to the priesthood. Do you know how many men were ordained in the New York Archdiocese in 2015?
In all of New York. With 296 parishes and 2.8 million Catholics. And twelve is a high number for an archdiocese that hasn’t exactly experienced a vocations boom in the 21st century. (In 2011 there were four. In 2012 there was only one.)

But despite his track record at Our Saviour, in 2013, Fr. Rutler was reassigned — not without protest from his congregants — and the parish he built began, despite his fervently-stated hopes, to falter.

Not long after the arrival of its current pastor, the Traditional Mass at Our Saviour was done away with, and not gently. In a story published last December at First Things, Nicholas Frankovich recounted:

In August 2013, only a few weeks into his new assignment, the new pastor wrote to an altar server to rebuke him about some Mass cards, a standard accessory of the traditional Latin Mass. They display the text of the ordinary of the Mass; the priest at the altar prays from them. “If I choose to clean the sacristy of paraphernalia and place it in a closet, that is my prerogative,” the pastor wrote. “Placing laminated cards which were superseded more than 45 years ago all over the sacristy is part of the schizophrenia under which OS has been allowed to operate. That is no longer the case.”

The key word here is “superseded.” That is what the 1962 missal was once thought to be. What has been superseded in fact is the pastor’s misrepresentation of the Church’s teaching on this point. Contrary to an earlier misunderstanding common even at the highest reaches of the prelacy, the traditional Latin Mass was never abrogated, as Pope Benedict XVI noted by way of explaining his decision to liberalize its use. “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows,” he urged. He was concerned to correct those who regarded the older, extraordinary form of the Roman rite as harmful. The old misunderstanding about its status persists in some quarters. Younger priests are less prone to insist on the error.

month after the “supersession” email, the new pastor discontinued the extraordinary form at Our Saviour, without notice, making it difficult for congregants to collect one another’s contact information and organize themselves as a “stable group” who, per the apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, could approach him to request Mass in the extraordinary form. In a comment on Facebook on July 24 of this year, he referred to the extraordinary form as “ridiculous.”

The bias of Fr. Robbins came quickly into focus.

It was also in August of last year that the icons began disappearing. Fr. Zuhlsdorf covered the “demolition”:

I suspect this is ideological, and not restoration at all.

It looks like a modern example of iconoclasm.

If the iconic work that frames the sanctuary has been effaced, how long can the work around the triumphal arch and in the tympanum of the apse survive?

What’s going on there?  Is this “Get Rutler!” time in NYC?  Deface Rutler’s work at Our Saviour? Slate St. Michael’s and Holy Innocents for closure a year after he arrives?  By next year he’ll be pastor of a cardboard box over a grate near the Hudson.

Others chimed in as well. As blog posts questioning what was happening accumulated, an email exchange between a friend of the iconographer and Fr. Robbins over what was transpiring earned a curt response from the pastor:

In this world of “lynching by blogs” and since I don’t know you, I will simply state that the icons removed will be displayed in the Undercroft. Those that remain are planned to remain.

And so they did, until this week. And once again, it’s challenging trying to piece together a coherent picture of just what, exactly, is transpiring at Our Savior. As I reached out to my network of contacts, information filtered back in. Lots of off-the-record anecdotes, an allegation about motive here, one about untoward behavior there, all plausible, all in line with the larger story, and little of it verifiable enough to put before the public.

Some view what is happening as an attack on Fr. Rutler, who is well-known and well-liked, and unusually successful. Some view it as an attack on the artist, or his art. And it might be either or both of those things. But from where I sit, it appears appears to be an attack on the sacred. Such attacks, by nature, are only too happy to inflict collateral damage on those who promote the sacred. So in that sense, it’s probably all of the above. We’ve seen it before.

The Case of the Vanishing Sense of the Sacred, you see, is a murder mystery with a tried-and-true formula. It has been field-tested in parishes across the world for over half a century, and found more or less foolproof if the steps are followed. The diminution of Catholicism has been imposed by parochial fiat from thousands upon thousands of pulpits, and has been enforced in the breaking of as many altar rails, the shoving off of as many tabernacles, and the stripping of as many altars and sanctuaries. It all plays out behind a thick, velvety curtain of plausible deniability, or of pastoralism, or both, and complaints must be submitted in writing to the amicable but noncommittal bishop, who is inevitably shielded from such inconveniences by a small army of bureaucratic chancery staff, spinning red tape like diocesan spiders, ready to catch any grievance in their web.

This leaves critics of things like what is right now, at this very moment, transpiring at Our Saviour…out in the cold. If it only played out like in the cartoons, we’d all of us be able to stand around at the inevitable denouement, one of us reaching giddily to remove the rubber mask from the defeated culprit while he growled about how he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for us meddling kids.

But this isn’t the cartoons. Things aren’t that simple.

That said, the message is no longer as easy to control as it once was, either. It’s the age of the laity, after all, and the laity are empowered, and the laity are more than a little tired of this game.

Foremost among those who are upset is Ken Woo, the artist who spent six years creating the thirty-one icons — including a 28-foot-high image of Christ Pantocrator — for The Church of Our Saviour. He began the massive undertaking when he was commissioned to do the work in 2004, and finished in 2010. What is happening now isn’t just the wreckovation of an old, out-of-date church, the artisans and craftsmen who made it a reality lost to history. This aesthetic assault deeply affects the man who created the transcendent artistry that graced Our Savior just five years ago.

I spoke with him to get a sense of his thoughts.

Woo was born in Communist China, but moved to the United States when he was four years old. Artistic talent, he told me, runs in his family, his mother and grandmother having both been avid painters. Raised in California as a Methodist, he later came to New York, and, having become interested in the Catholic Faith, enrolled in the RCIA program at The Church of Our Saviour, while Father Rutler was still the pastor. Father indicated that he was looking for an artist to paint a mural behind the altar, and Woo was one of seven artists to submit a design. Ultimately, his work was chosen, and the resulting iconography earned him critical and international acclaim, as seen in this writeup in China Daily:

Woo also gained a reputation through his project at Our Savior Church at Park Avenue and 38th in New York, which won him Best Renovation of the Year and a 2006 Gold Leaf Award. He was the winning bidder of an international competition of seven artists from all around the world.

The 24-foot-high icon recalling the great age of Cathedral painting took three phrases, six years, and funding from the Vatican, the church itself and private donations.

Woo created a series of 27 paintings so large and broad that they had to use scaffolding, electric lifts and other high-tech equipment to install. The centerpiece of the work is 10 feet above the ground. It’s made up of 15 separate panels of treated wood with paint and gold lead. Thirty icons representing various saints are also included. The concept took six months just to be developed.

With the amount of talent, care, effort, and passion that went into the paintings, it’s no surprise that Woo feels very strongly about the inexplicable removal of his work.

“[Fr.] Robbins has been taking them down without any notice to the parish in the cover of night,” Woo said.

When asked what had become of his artwork since its removal, Woo didn’t know the answer. “No one has seen the state of the icons.” he said.

On the parish’s official Facebook page, a somewhat lengthy explanation was posted yesterday evening and signed by Fr. Robbins and Lawrence Hoy of Renovata Studios – the company tasked with the latest “restoration” of the parish, so soon after the last one was completed. The post — conveniently timed with the renewed online interest in the removal of the icons — is accompanied by an old mock-up of the church interior, and explains:

This original watercolor/gouache interior sketch of the proposed interior of the Church of Our Saviour was created by Mr. Richard Zimmerman of the Rambusch company under the artistic direction of Harold Rambusch and architect Paul C. Reilly before the church was built. This was the vision that the pastor and archbishop approved prior to beginning the construction of the building. Note that most of the colors in the sketch, such as the walls, ceiling and side altars are as the church appears today. It is also evident from this sketch that the baldacchino and sanctuary screen were always intended to be part of the sanctuary design even though early 1960’s photos show the sanctuary without them.


To date, twelve large and twelve smaller icons have been removed from the four columns that flank the altar. According to archival photos, these columns did not originally have decoration of any kind. All icons were carefully and sensitively removed by the same restoration craftsmen that restored the beautiful decorative ceiling of the church. The icon panels have all been wrapped individually in plastic and carefully stored in the undercroft of the church to await re-installation in other parish buildings or perhaps another church. The painted panels were installed on the two columns of the proscenium arch between the main altar and the two side altars.

Woo indicated that yesterday was the first time an explanation has been given for the removals since they began last summer. “I don’t buy it,” he told me. “It’s just an excuse.”

And indeed, as comments critical of the explanation began piling up on the Facebook post — the majority of them respectfully stated — they were removed with the same swiftness as the icons and the parish’s Latin Mass. The narrative, it appeared, was not to be challenged. Whoever is responsible for the page then posted 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. Thank you.

In point of fact, it appears that grievances on this issue have no forum at all – at least not within the New York Archdiocese. My emails to Cardinal Dolan and Father Robbins have gone unanswered, and not unexpectedly. Reaching the prelate of the second-largest diocese in the country on short notice is a bit of a stretch on a good day. Reaching a priest who is under fire for his assault on sacred art in a parish of that diocese while he is on vacation — I’m told that he is enjoying a trip to the pricey and exclusive Hamptons — is only slightly less unlikely. But despite the unavailability of those who can do something about it, the icons have been disappearing this week right on schedule. The parishioners of Our Saviour weren’t given any notice at all. They just show up for morning Mass, and more are gone.

There are real questions here that demand to be answered. This isn’t just a matter of taste. While the pastor of a parish has a certain degree of latitude to make changes in his own parish, unilateral changes of a substantive nature require diocesan authorization. According to the policy manual of the New York Archdiocese, “At the inception of a project” in which a church or “worship space” is to be renovated, the pastor is required to send a letter to the Archdiocesan Liturgy Commission “describing the proposed change(s) and the purpose for the change(s).” (Section 308.7) This is to happen for “all renovation and restoration projects that involve any change, modification, or addition to the church or chapel, regardless of the cost involved.” (Section 308.6) And further, “A schematic design, along with a recommendation from the ALC, is submitted to the Archbishop for further approval. No further design work may take place until explicit approval has been received from the Archbishop’s office for the schematic design.” (Section 308.7)

Was this done?

And what of Section 308.6, which states, “Accordingly, every building or renovation project must include a component of education and formation for parishioners on the church’s liturgical tradition and the spatial requirements of the reformed liturgy.” Were the parishioners going to receive a “component of education and formation” about why their sanctuary was being stripped of its beauty?

And what about the financial implications of this second “restoration”?

Among the many emails I received while researching this story was one that included a scanned copy of a draft financial report for The Church of Our Saviour for Fiscal Years 2012-13 and 2013-14. The 2012-13 year was Fr. Rutler’s last, whereas the 2013-14 year was Fr. Robbins’ first. This report, which I was told was distributed to parishioners in their bulletins last fall, depicts a serious change in the financial health of the parish in a very short time. For FY 2013-14, expenses were over $100,000 higher than in FY 2012-13. At the same time, income dropped more than $250,000.

In other words, while Fr. Rutler finished his tenure at Our Savior with a $35,000 budget surplus for the year and money in the bank, Fr. Robbins finished his first year with a more than $300,000 budget deficit. The largest portion of the loss in income came from a nearly $200,000 decline in weekly collections – a potentially significant indicator that parishioners have not been happy with changes made to the parish under new leadership. Meanwhile, permits were filed last summer with the city for a renovation to the rectory with a cost estimate of nearly a million dollars – work that was reported to have been completed this past April.

For a parish that worked so hard to get out of debt, where is the stewardship in spending even more money on a new renovation project that is clearly a matter of choice, and not of necessity?
We are, lacking comment from him, left with no clear picture of Fr. Robbins’ thinking. But based on the facts available, one is hard-pressed to see an example of responsible stewardship or financial transparency taking place at The Church of Our Saviour. And as we scratch our heads trying to piece this together, most of the icons have been taken down – 24 of the 31 originally created.

To that end, Ken Woo has organized a rally to save the icons this evening. On Facebook, he notified friends and fans of the last-ditch gathering:

Across from the cardinal’s residence which is: at Madison Avenue & 50th Street at 5:30 to 6:PM – Thursday, July 23rd. One poster will be used to indicate who we are and that we are demonstrating against the destruction of the magnificent interior artwork/icons a Our Saviours.

Hope you can make it, I’ll be there!!!

It is likely the last of the icons will be taken down including the Pantocrator in the next day or two so time is of the essence! Please spread the word

If you’re local, and can make it to the rally, please consider doing so. Whether you’re local or not, please contact Cardinal Dolan, and ask him to not only put a stop to any further destruction, but to see to it that the icons in The Church of Our Savior are restored. And wherever you are, please sign this petition, which will be sent to the archdiocese – and then share it with your friends. When it comes to situations like this, numbers matter. The more signatories, the better.

If you want to contact Cardinal Dolan, the quickest way to reach the chancery is: [email protected]

Letters, marked “Personal and Confidential”, can be sent to His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 1011 First Avenue New York, NY 10022.

If you would prefer to call, leaving a message stating your concern, the number of the chancery is: 212-371-1011 ext 2935.

This is a tragedy unfolding in slow motion. Let’s do all we can to make it right.


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