By Francesca Norsen Tate, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The historic Church of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity, with its open garden on Clinton Street, is one of Brooklyn’s landmark jewels. Indeed, celebrities, including the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Brooke Astor, joined the effort to save and restore the original William Jay Bolton stained-glass windows during the late 1970s and early ’80s. The now famous St. Ann’s Warehouse was founded during that period as St. Ann’s Church Restoration and Arts (SACRA), with a goal of performing in the church to bring attention and financial support to restoration.
But, sadly, the upkeep of the building’s physical plant remains difficult.
“Ever since the BMT line was constructed under Montague Street in the early part of the 1900s,” said one longtime fan of St. Ann’s, “the very foundations of that church have suffered.”
During construction of the subway, the church’s steeple structure was removed, as it threatened to topple.
This week, the layoffs and pending departures of two key staff members have shocked the Brooklyn Heights community and again have raised the issues of how costly the maintenance of that building envelope remains.
The Rev. John E. Denaro, rector of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church, announced the layoffs of longtime organist and music director Gregory Eaton, and of one of the church’s two sextons (church building custodians). The Rev. Sarah Kooperkamp, who serves as associate rector, is leaving for different reasons, including the birth of her first child.
The Brooklyn Heights Press obtained a copy of the announcement letter, dated April 2, 2014, which explained in detail the reasons for these layoffs.
The landmark Episcopal church at the corner of Clinton and Montague streets, known familiarly as “St. Ann’s,” has had a vibrant and sometimes turbulent history. The church persevered through a very tumultuous period during the 1990s and the church building was actually closed in December 2000.
On 9/11, a church warden made the decision to reopen the church as the events of the tragedy unfolded and people throughout the neighborhood were seeking out houses of worship. More recently, the parish has experienced stability and growth, thanks to the leadership of Fr. Denaro and his predecessor, the Rev. Angela Askew, who served as priest in charge, as well as to a number of assisting clergy.
Gregory Eaton has served as director of music and organist of St. Ann’s for nearly 21 years and also as part-time parish administrator for 15 years. Last November, as part of his 20th anniversary concert, the parish honored Eaton for his work in restoring the landmark E. M. Skinner organ.
As part of his tribute to Eaton, Fr. Denaro wrote, “It is an understatement to say that Gregory has made a tremendous impact on the life of this place. Gregory is an artist whose reputation as an accomplished organist and musician is widely recognized, as is his extensive, diverse repertoire of traditional and modern music. His thoughtful musical choices, including his original compositions, have helped shape our liturgies and enhanced and deepened our worship. He has led a marvelous choir.”
Fr. Denaro continued, “Gregory’s numerous special concerts have helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for restoration of the building and organ. His program of free weekly Wednesday organ recitals, which he established 15 years ago, has brought fans and many new people to our church, as well as substantial additional funds for organ maintenance. Gregory is also one of the most knowledgeable historians of our landmark church and E. M. Skinner organ. When he moves on from St. Ann’s, Gregory will leave a lasting legacy of his devoted and productive service to the parish.”
Responding to a rumor circulating the neighborhood, church warden Claudia Barber emphatically told the Brooklyn Heights Press that the three affected employees are not being “fired,” as they are beloved and their work has been exemplary.
“It was a very hard decision to lay people off. It was not our first choice,” Barber said. “We had to look at the budget very seriously, and the reality of the budget situation. We had to make the decision to lay off Gregory and another person on the staff, a sexton.”
She clarified that the parish does employ a second full-time sexton.
Rev. Kooperkamp’s situation is different: she is about to go on maternity leave and will leave her post effective June 30. The Diocese of Long Island also has another position in mind for her.
Factors Leading to Strained Finances
Fr. Denaro said in his letter that “the painful decision to lay off Gregory was made in consultation with the parish leadership, as the church faces a great challenge of sustaining our ministries and programs with deeply strained finances.
“The source of our current difficulties has arisen from a long delay in executing a project to renovate the church’s Parish House, at 157-159 Montague St., intended to help generate income through shared space use. Early in 2013, our long-term tenants began to vacate the premises in anticipation of the work. Then construction estimates for the project came in at more than twice the amount the church had budgeted, forcing us to limit the scope of work to a restoration of the landmarked brownstone façade and the sealing of the building’s deteriorated exterior.” (See sidebar, below.
Eaton has a reputation as a successful, effective fund-raiser. Therefore, the question arises as to the logic of laying him off.
“That’s where it needs to be clear — the difference between the capital budget and the operating budget,” Barber told the Eagle. “What Gregory’s concerts have raised money for has always been for the capital items, like the organ, or the [stained glass] windows. Gregory also helped raise a significant sum in our more recent campaign, the roof project that was completed in 2011 with ‘roof-raising’ concerts.”
However, she pointed out that the funds raised for the capital project could not help the shortfall in the operating budget, which covers “chunky” expenses like insurance, payroll and utilities.
Both Barber and Fr. Denaro affirmed that the parish is growing, and they share a positive outlook.
“I do want to emphasize that we are very optimistic — the numbers of people are up dramatically, with active membership having more than doubled, from nearly 50 to well over 100, and a new child-friendly service that is attracting many families,” Barber said.
She added, “There is a lot of optimism about the growth, the energy and new ideas coming from these bright new people who are coming in. The Diocese [of Long Island] is very supportive of us, generally, and understands what’s going on as far as the operating budget. They do see that we have to take some significant actions to address the challenges.”
However, Fr. Denaro pointed out to the Heights Press what he had written: “The church has been blessed with an increase in attendance and pledges in the last several years, but the added resources this upsurge provides are not sufficient to cover a sizeable budget shortfall.”
Eaton told the Eagle on Monday that “last fall they told me there were financial issues brewing. They were going to have to reduce my job and my income 25 percent. That would be effective March 31. Then, the day after Ash Wednesday [which was on March 5], they told me that the financial crisis was worse than they had thought, and they were letting me go as of June 30.”
Although Eaton was given almost four months’ notice, he said, “The job reduction was one thing; and even that was a bit of a shock. But this really caught me off guard. There’s been no negative cause in my work indicated. They’ve done nothing but indicate how wonderful they think my work is. The cause of the layoff, of course, was quite clearly financial. One reason I didn’t say anything at all is that I knew this is the kind of news that could easily get out of hand, and I wanted to give the parish the opportunity to handle the news as they saw fit.”
Eaton’s popular Wednesday 1:10 p.m. recitals will continue until late May, with the last one to be held on May 28. He will then give a farewell “thank you” concert on Sunday, June 15, at 7 p.m., which will be free and open to the public.
“This will be my way of saying thank you to all the people who supported my work for 21 years. That’s the reason I’m doing it,” Eaton said.