STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- The impending sale of an empty, 2 ½ -story convent in Midland Beach owned by St. Margaret Mary’s R.C. Church has neighbors angry and afraid because the purchaser is an Islamic organization they know little about.
Several hundred concerned residents turned out last night for an emergency meeting called by the Midland Beach Civic Association at the Olympia Activity Center, two blocks from the convent site at 555 Greeley Ave
The association’s president, Yasmin Ammirato, told the gathering that she first learned about the convent sale on May 12. She added that the Rev. Keith Fennessy
, pastor, told her at a meeting on May 15 with four representatives of the nonprofit Muslim American Society (MAS), the group set to buy the property, that he had "signed off, and money has been exchanged."
She said that MAS agreed to pay $750,000 for the property, and its plan for the convent’s re-use includes a mosque and community center with after-school programs for children. "There’s a need for a mosque on the East Shore" from South Beach to Midland Beach, she said the representatives told her, citing Muslim Albanian and Turkish residents.
The convent occupies a 100-by-90-foot corner lot, with a current market value of $915,000, according to the city Department of Finance.
Residents in attendance last night were not happy about what they heard. One proposed a petition drive to remove Father Fennessy from his post, and the idea received sustained applause. Another suggested that the civic association consult with an attorney to explore legal options to fight the project. One woman raised a practical concern: "Parking here is already horrendous. How will another community center affect the neighborhood, whether it’s run by an Islamic group or not?"
"This hurts — it was done without even consulting us, on the sneak," said Eugene Reems, 42, a life-long resident whose three children attend the parish elementary school, where his wife, Erin, teaches third grade.
"September 11 left scars on this neighborhood that will last for the rest of our lives," he added, noting that part of the convent fronts Freeborn Street, which was renamed for FDNY Capt. Martin Egan, 36, who was killed in the terrorist attacks.
"We grew up together, and he was a very good friend. Marty was a hero in everyone’s eyes, and this a real slap in the face to his family and everyone who knew him."
"There's very little information, and I have more questions than answers," Councilman James Oddo told the Advance yesterday. "No one associated with the group reached out to me as a public official representing the area. The only way I know about this is from phone calls and e-mails from people in the community."
Midland Beach homeowners echoed those concerns.
"What kind of Islamic organization is this? What’s the purpose and history of this group?" asked Gerri Owens, the mother of four children who graduated from St. Margaret Mary’s School, as did she and many members of her family.
The answer to her question is as elusive as the people seeking to buy the property. Representatives of the group did not return repeated phone messages left yesterday by the Advance. The Muslim American Society’s Web site, www.masnet.org, includes no information about its board of directors, or the names, titles and contact information for staff members.
"This is our home — my husband’s family has lived here for 80 years. We need to feel safe in our neighborhood. You hate to paint everyone with the same brush, but it’s the unknown that we’re scared about," Mrs. Owens said.
Her husband, Bill, added that Father Fennessy "went about this the wrong way. It was all done in the dark. He only recently told us that the convent was being sold to an Islamic group, and gave us no other information. You should not have to fight your church."
"It’s a shame," said Deborah O’Keefe, a resident since 1964, who graduated from the parish school. "Every time someone speaks to Father Fennessy about this, he accuses them of being bigots or racists. The only intolerance being shown here is his intolerance to the sensitivities of the community. There are people here who pledged and gave money to build this convent 60 years ago."
"My parents made monthly pledges for the convent," said Doris Reddy, a resident for 50 years whose eight children are graduates of the school. "We’re not biased or prejudiced, but we were blindsided. This came out of the blue."
Residents believed until recently that the property was being sold to local builders Robert Buccellato and Robert Cucuzza, partners in the Olympia Development Corp. that has constructed more than a dozen homes in Midland Beach in the last two years.
"We were proceeding forward with the church to purchase the convent and build four homes on the site," Buccellato told the Advance yesterday. "There were also some negotiations between us and the Archdiocese, but only after six months because the Archdiocese did not return our calls until then. Then they kept notifying us that they had buyers willing to pay more money."
"Finally they stopped the negotiations, and told us that they had deals with various religious organizations," he said.
Two days ago, Buccellato came up with an alternative plan that he believes will satisfy the community and help the financially struggling church.
"I live in Midland Beach, and my partner was born and raised here. I love this community and am looking to help it. So I thought of an alternative scenario that will benefit everyone, especially the parish. Rather than us buying the land and building the homes, we will build for the church. That way, St. Margaret Mary’s will make money from the sale of the homes. It’s a win-win for everybody," he said.
Buccellato attempted to discuss the plan with Father Fennessy yesterday but did not receive a return call, he said. He told the Advance that he also separately described the new idea yesterday to civic association president Ms. Ammirato.