Newark church cuts down donated trees for parking lot and angers former parishioners

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on August 12, 2016

Former parishioners at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark are upset that the church has cut down six trees that they donated in memory of their loved ones. The trees were cut down in an area known as the meditation garden to make room for a parking lot.


The trees were planted as part of the meditation garden, a sanctuary of serenity for parishioners of St. Lucy's Church in Newark to gather.

Dedication plaques, in memory of family members, were placed in front of the oaks, cherry blossoms and a huge Norway spruce.

Over time, the trees provided shade and offered an opportunity for reflection, serving as a permanent living remembrance of longtime parishioners.

At least that's what Gregory Palma of Nutley thought, even though he left St. Lucy's years ago.  Some of the trees – about six of them – are gone, including the one he purchased 16 years ago to honor his grandmother.

"I went by there last week and saw the trees cut down and the stakes put there,'' Palma said. "Everybody is ticked off about this.''

Ticked, because he wasn't notified.

In that space, the church has construction machinery clearing out a section of land for a parking lot that former parishioners like Palma don't believe is needed since there already are two parking lots.

The garden, they say, was part of an ornate project the church completed years ago when it installed a massive memorial plaza decorated with stone pavers.

The plaza remains intact, with the names of loved ones inscribed on its pavers. Large sections lead to smaller walking paths lined with statues, shrubbery and trees.

Parishioners paid for this church legacy, digging deep to come up with $2 million. To their loved ones, the garden and the plaza go hand in hand with the National Shrine of St. Gerard at the center, casting a spiritual calm over the grounds.

"This (a parking lot) is not what everybody paid for,'' Palma said.

The Rev. Luigi Zanotto said he didn't come to St. Lucy's seven years ago to destroy a proud parish, with deep ties to the community.

The parking lot, he said, is needed for the church's growing membership and the decision to build the lot wasn't his alone. He moved forward with project after consulting with the Parish Council and the congregation, which Zanotto said had been requesting more room to accommodate cars of churchgoers attending Mass.

Oftentimes, he said, congregants from the early  Mass on Sunday do not leave the church grounds right away and that takes up parking space.

Zanotto said he understands the loyalty that former parishioners have to St. Lucy's. Families received sacraments there, their children went to the the school and some were married there.  At one point, many families lived in the neighborhood and could walk to church.

Today, parishioners, who are mostly Latino and Africans, drive to the church to attend Mass.

Still, the move does not sit well with those who are nostalgic about St. Lucy's and it may not ever.

Lisa Manderichio, of Nutley, doesn't have any nice adjectives for what has happened.

"It's sad. It's pathetic. It's embarrassing on their part,'' Manderichio said. "It's very disrespectful toward the people and generation of families that have built that church.''

Manderichio, a former parishioner who bought a paver on the plaza, rarely comes back. She said she's only there for special occasions, such as the feast of St. Gerard, a huge celebration that brings back memories of her family's connection to the church. Her parents were baptized at St. Lucy's. She joined in 1989.

"If they (trees) weren't donated by families and they weren't paid for, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.''

The most memorable of the lot was that Norway spruce. For Christmas, the church decorated it with lights to celebrate the holiday. Not only was it big – a mature one can be 40 to 60 feet tall – parishioners remember the tree coming from the home of a West Orange family, who wanted it to be placed in the meditation garden.

If there's any consolation, Zanotto said the trees  will be replaced with the exact same species. That should happen in the fall, when the weather is cooler to do this kind of work.

The dedication plaques, he said, are being saved and only a portion of the garden that once held the trees is going to be used for the parking lot.

Zanotta said the green space that is left around the  lot is where the new trees will be planted and the plaques will be placed.

"It's (plaza) is supposed to be a lasting testament to our parents and our grandparents,'' said Maria DeLuisi of Belleville, a former parishioner who visits when she can. "I'm upset that the plaza would be altered in any way, because that wasn't their (people) intent.'' 

Given the tension that has surfaced, replacing the trees is not going to the heal the hurt, but it may take a little of the sting out of their anger.

But there's no guarantees on that, either.

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