New York's Landmark Churches Proud of 'Bathroom Ministry'

Sunday, 17 Aug 2014 10:40 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Two of Manhattan's landmark churches have a new ministry these days: Tourists are lining up to use their ornate, clean bathrooms.

The number of tourists visiting downtown Manhattan has exploded in recent years, with an estimated 11.5 million people visiting spots in 2012 alone, reports The New York Times.

However, enough public restrooms have not opened to accommodate those visitors' needs, so they're turning to other options. As a result, Trinity Episcopal Church, located near Wall Street, and its satellite chapel, St. Paul's, have become rest stops as well as spiritual havens.

St. Paul's Chapel has stood in Manhattan since 1776, and even withstood the collapse of the World Trade Center across the street in 2001 without suffering as much as a broken window. Trinity, likewise, is a Manhattan landmark, as the body of Alexander Hamilton is buried in its churchyard.

Many of the early visitors at Trinity aren't there to tour the church, and include homeless people. But tourist traffic starts climbing at around 11 a.m., and many of them end up standing in long line to use the restroom.

But the visitors are costing the churches big bucks. Trinity officials estimate it's costing about $92,000 for maintenance and supplies. At St. Paul's, supplies and maintenance cost the church around $77,000 a year.

However, Trinity Wall Street, the Episcopalian parish over Trinity Church and St. Paul's, is among the wealthiest parishes in the Christian religion. Its real estate holdings are estimated at about $3 billion and include a 215-acre land grant from England's Queen Anne in 1705. The holdings and other investments netted the parish some $193 million last year.

And while the churches say their "bathroom ministry" is a vital service for the poor, others criticize the New York icons of not doing enough to serve the poor.

Trinity last year closed a drop-in center for the homeless, and will close its Charlotte's Place community center when it replaces its old office complex buildings with a new 30-story office and condo tower.

"The little blessings they scatter are meager," said the Rev. Michael Sniffen, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn. "If they really wanted to have a bathroom ministry,” he said, “they would build some sort of bathroom and shower facility for the enormous number of homeless people in New York City.”

Some of New York's other churches offer public restrooms, while others, like St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, does not plan to add public facilities as part of its $170 million renovation project.

There have been times Trinity has closed its restrooms. In 2012, the church closed the restrooms because of vandalism it blamed on an Occupy Wall Street contingent located near there that was protesting the church's role in helping the poor. Sniffen was one of those arrested in the church's parking lot, The Times reports.

Church members are also becoming annoyed when tour guides bring groups in as a rest stop, especially when it happens while congregants are celebrating Mass.

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