Church Shuts Door on Senior Center

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The center was created to provide meals to seniors who were discharged from nearby St. Vincent's Hospital and had no one to cook for them and those brought to the hospital's emergency room with malnutrition.

Isabel Riofrio

The center was created to provide meals to seniors who were discharged from nearby St. Vincent's Hospital and had no one to cook for them and those brought to the hospital's emergency room with malnutrition.

As soon as Rose Abbruzzi turned 60, she signed up to be a member of Caring Community Senior Center in Greenwich Village. She remembers Lucy Cecere, the center’s founder, walking her around and showing her all the activities. Now 86, Abbruzzi still visits the center five days a week. There she meets with her closest friends, Evelyn Gardela and Florence Amarosa. “We come early in the morning, we drink our tea and then we read our paper,” Abbruzzi says.

Although her daughter, Mary Rose, has tried to persuade her to move to an apartment near her home in Albany, Abruzzi doesn’t want to leave the Village and become a burden to her family. Caring Community Senior Center has allowed her to remain independent. “This is a house, a second home,” she says. “This is where we relax.”

But the center at Our Lady of Pompeii Church at 25 Carmine St. is threatened with closing. On Sept. 23, Greenwich House, the nonprofit organization that runs the center, received a letter from the church’s pastor, Father Walter Tonelotto, saying he wouldn’t renew its lease.

Sandy Gavin, the center’s director, says Tonelotto had been renting the space in the church basement to film production crews while the seniors were there and now wants to rent only to the movie industry. On Dec. 2, a German film crew was there. The center pays $2, 000 for rent, but Gavin says the film industry pays much more than that to use the space.

The church has been home to Caring Community Senior Center since 1973. The center was created to provide meals to seniors who were discharged from nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital and had no one to cook for them and those brought to the hospital’s emergency room with malnutrition. Today, the center cooks 1,400 to 2,000 lunches a day for seniors 60 to 98.

Members also participate in activities including chair yoga, crafts, bingo, Tai chi and guitar classes, and they receive medical and mental health care, nutritional counseling and legal help. “This is a positive place for seniors to come,” Gavin says. “It’s a different kind of back-up, a different sense of security.”

Although Tonelotto and his superior, Father Moacior Balen, declined to comment on the possible closing, Andrea Newman, director of development at Greenwich House, says Tonelotto had expressed concern about the cost of heating and air-conditioning the space. “We have yet to receive an electric bill, an energy bill or anything like that, and we are willing to pay our fair share,” Newman says. The nonprofit also suggested sharing the space with the film crews to cover these bills.

In the meantime, Gavin still worries about the seniors’ losing this place. “It’s a life for them,” she says. “They are very upset; this is their home. This is part of their world…however strange it seems, it completes it.” She has looked into possible places to move if the lease expires in June. The center is just five or six blocks from most members’ homes, she says, and having to travel farther might stop them from going.

Like most of the seniors at the center, Abbruzzi and Gardela, 86, come from families who have lived in the Village for generations and been parishioners at Our Lady of Pompeii. They became friends 60 years ago when Gardela married Abbruzzi’s neighbor and moved next door to her. It was Abbruzzi who took her to the senior center when she was 70. “She takes care of me, and I take care of her,” Abbruzzi says.

Every day, they sit with Amarosa, 95, for a couple of hours before lunch to talk about books, their families or the price of medicines at the pharmacy. When they are not pleased with the center’s lunch menu, they bring food, but they never miss a lunch together. “What are we going to do at home by ourselves?” Gardela says. Going to the senior center has become part of their routine, she says.

If the center closes, Abbruzzi and her friends have made up their minds to go to another Greenwich House center at 27 Barrow St. The most important thing, they say, is to remain together. Referring to Tonelotto, Abbruzzi says, “This is not his for him to destroy.”