The End of an Era at Bellevue and a Nearby Church
For 17 years, his feet have hit the sidewalk at 5 a.m., always ahead of the first dash of daylight. Then Philip Marani walks the few blocks from his home on East 28th Street to First Avenue, into Bellevue Hospital Center.
The city is filled with invisible tribes that control hidden, vital trades, and Philip Marani belongs to one of them: an order of Catholic priests known as the Carmelites, who have been chaplains at Bellevue in an unbroken chain since 1889.
Like the Mohawk Indian ironworkers who, far from public view, swung high steel to build skyscrapers, the Carmelites at Bellevue have walked jagged peaks of mortality.
That line slams to a stop this week. The Carmelites have, politely but firmly, been kicked out of their home in the rectory of Our Lady of the Scapular and St. Stephen’s on 28th Street as of the end of June.
Their eviction is the result of shifting economics in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York that will actually make their old parish quite wealthy. Cardinal Edward Egan has installed a new pastor at Our Lady of the Scapular who is unaffiliated with a religious order and will be directly answerable to the archdiocese, unlike the Carmelites.
Besides the end of their work at Bellevue, their departure brings to a close a rich and rarely told chapter of the city’s history. In the early 20th century, the Carmelite friars in Manhattan sheltered Irish revolutionaries on the run from British authorities, including Eamon de Valera, who became the first prime minister of the Irish republic. In the basement of the priory — then at 338 East 29th Street — the Carmelites stashed part of a cache of 600 Thompson submachine guns, wrapped in burlap sacks and bound for Ireland during the war for independence, according to Alfred Isacsson, a Carmelite priest and historian. In June 1921, the guns were brought by launch to a steamship, the East Side, that was docked in Hoboken, N.J., but were seized by federal authorities.
For Father Marani, 68, the escapades of Irish partisans held only passing interest. An Italian-American who was born and raised on 28th Street, he attended the parish school run by the Carmelites, found his religious calling on that street, and fully expected to live out his years there. “I thought I would retire here in four years,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about a car, you just get on a subway, go where you want.”
All this week, he has been traipsing across 28th Street for the last few times, unsure who will take up the work at Bellevue that he and other Carmelites have done for 118 years.
“One of my big fears is that whoever comes in after me will eliminate the Sunday Mass in Psychiatry,” he said. “Lots of guys are afraid to go up there. One thing, you can’t ask rhetorical questions in your homily — they’re going to give you an answer.”
The news of his departure raced across the hospital grapevine. As the sole Catholic chaplain, he has worked 13-hour days since another Carmelite priest retired, and so is known in every corner. In the intensive-care unit, a nurse approached him earlier this week, eyes brimming.
“I don’t know who I’ll turn to now,” she said. “I’ll never forget how you helped.”
Father Marani tried to soothe her.
Later, he noted: “I’m thinking to myself, ‘What did I do for her?’ Statistics, on the books, show there’s a lot of stress on hospital workers. Whatever that means. Many of them are certainly stressed out.”
He says daily Mass at 6:30 and at noon. Time is at a premium for hospital workers. “I try to bring it in at 22 minutes,” he said.
Father Marani visits the intensive-care floor, the neonatal unit, the surgical ward. “Some people say, ‘Get the hell out,’ but that’s life,” he said. Many others want to talk or pray or be anointed. The Bellevue emergency room sees 100,000 patients a year; 26,000 people are admitted to beds. It is the oldest public hospital in the country, a cornerstone of New York life, a teeming empire all its own.
The chaplain who broke in Father Marani in 1990 had already been at Bellevue for 12 years. His predecessor had been there for 30 years, and it is only a few more Carmelite chaplains back to the 19th century.
Father Marani visits with families struggling to decide about continuing life support for gravely ill relatives who have no hope of recovery and no ability to survive without mechanical aid like ventilators. “Vents are a very big issue,” he said.
After a patient has died, he will sit with relatives, say a prayer, then suggest that they make their goodbyes.
“I’d see some people throw themselves screaming on the floor, or on top of the body,” he said. “I thought I had to save everybody from that. Now I let them grieve whatever way they want.”
In the emergency room, another nurse spots him.
“I have that for you,” she said.
“You really don’t need to,” Father Marani said.
The nurse made a face, dashed into another room and handed him a bottle wrapped up in a bag.
He shook his head, gave his thanks. The nurse scooted back into the emergency room.
“Sangria,” he explained. “From Spain.”
The end of the Carmelites at Bellevue has a few parallels to the beginning. The order was brought to New York from Ireland in 1889 after a brutal public schism in which one of the city’s most popular priests, the Rev. Dr. Edward McGlynn, rector of St. Stephen’s Church, was excommunicated. He had supported Henry George, a Socialist candidate for mayor. The archbishop sent for the Carmelites, in large measure to calm the Irish immigrants who were devoted to McGlynn. His old parish, St. Stephen’s, was eventually incorporated into Our Lady of the Scapular, run by the Carmelites.
During the last two years, the archdiocese has shut churches where attendance has dwindled. By canon law, when those properties are sold, the proceeds follow the parishioners to their new home. With other nearby churches being closed, “there is no question that the archdiocese will be putting a good deal of money into St. Stephen’s,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “We would also like to have one of our priests, one of our most respected pastors, oversee that. I believe this was an amicable change.”
The Carmelites do not seem to agree. The five who live on 28th Street will be dispersed to other parishes in the region, with two being assigned to a church on the Upper East Side. At a recent Mass to mark the departure of the Carmelites, the Rev. Michael Kissane, the provincial general of the Carmelites in the New York area, gave no sign that it had been a friendly decision.
“What can I tell you when our anger shakes us to the core and tempts us to despise some of our brothers in Christ?” he asked, going on to urge the parishioners to support the new pastor.
The archdiocese will assign another priest to serve as Bellevue’s chaplain, Mr. Zwilling said. As for Father Marani, he will be moving to a Carmelite parish in Tarrytown, N.Y. He already knows that an express train will get him into Midtown in less than 40 minutes. He still has Bellevue on the brain and frets over the success of any priest who will follow him and a century-long line of Carmelites along life’s jagged peaks at the hospital.
“This can’t be seen as a job,” he said.