By Peter McDermott

The pastor of New York’s oldest Catholic parish has given his backing to the controversial Islamic center at Park Place, citing the “inalienable right” to build.

The Rev. Kevin Madigan, of St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street at the edge of Ground Zero, said that people in the community were happy with the plans for Park51, the proposed 13-story complex that has become a national issue this month.

“I have a problem with the view that says: ‘Why can’t they compromise and go some place else.’ Well, that means they have to give up their rights; they’re relinquishing their rights. So that’s not compromise. That’s asking them to cave in,” he said.

“There are certain things we don’t vote on – the right to speak your mind, the right to worship as you please and the right to assemble. They’re called ‘inalienable’ because they cannot be taken away,” the priest added.

For Madigan, dialogue between the various parties is the proper compromise, not the forcing of the Muslims out of the neighborhood.

He believes there are precedents for that in American history – for instance, when Catholics first came here in significant numbers. While there were ethnic antagonisms between the established group and the newcomers, he said, the philosophical differences were more important.

“There was somewhat of a legitimate fear about the Catholics because it was after the French Revolution and the beginning of democracy in Europe. The papacy was very much afraid of that because they represented the old order,” Madigan said, adding that this was a time when there were still papal states.

“All the papal documents at the time were against democracy. The people of this country, the first democracy, were afraid these immigrants were going to come in and restore a king and stuff like that. So therefore the Catholics had to show they were able to be as good Americans as anyone else,” he said.

Madigan said that representatives of the cultural center should have an opportunity to explain their plans and to prove that they’re not associated with terrorism.

“That will address the legitimate concerns of the families. So there’s a meeting of the minds there – each side can give a fair hearing to each other,” Fr. Madigan said. “The Muslims should have the center where they want to have it with the clear understanding that they’re not going to be doing anything that’s going to be offensive.”

The FBI had checked out Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the founder of Park51, and the community had discussed the center and approved it.

The New York Post quoted one line from his speech at the community board at the time. “That was the beginning of my downfall,” he said, laughing. “I got four negative phone calls and one positive.”

He said of some of those who object to the center: “They see the same picture a 1,000 times and they think they understand all about 9/11,” he said. “They think they can speak about the whole situation here and really they’re very much misinformed about the whole endeavor.”

As for the 9/11 families, he added: “Only one organization has spoken out one way or another – that’s a group called Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.” The group has no objections to the center.

“There are other self-appointed spokespeople and they’re the ones who are saying this is offensive,”

he said. “But nobody knows how many families are for or against it.”

Madigan had just finished Mass when the attack began on Sept. 11, 2001. Part of the landing gear hit the church; another part of it hit the Burlington Coat Factory, the site of the new Islamic cultural center two blocks north.

The priest looked for a triage center so he could help the wounded. “But as we found out, you either walked away from it or you were killed,” he said.

He was inside the Church Street exit of the World Trade Center (E train) subway station with some police officers and civilians when the first tower fell. After the dust had settled somewhat, they linked arms and made their way along the platform. They found another exit further north.

“We were told to go up to St. Vincent’s Hospital to have our lungs checked,” he recalled.

Meanwhile, more than 30 bodies were laid out in St. Peter’s sanctuary. Fr. Fussner, his now retired colleague, said a prayer for the dead.

In the weeks and months that followed, the church was open 24 hours a day. “Nobody would steal anything because there were soldiers here,” he said.

The pastor said he’s very happy that Archbishop Dolan has spoken out in the recent controversy, citing the previous historical discrimination against Catholics.

Madigan, who was ordained a priest in 1970, grew up in the Bronx. His late parents were from Kerry and Kilkenny, counties that are each famous for their specialization in one of the two main Gaelic sports. “The football on my mother’s side, the hurling on my father’s,” Madigan said, laughing. “We were less dysfunctional because there was never any argument over games.”

Historical footnote: St. Peter’s and the battle for liberty

St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, New York’s oldest Catholic parish, has been at the center for battles for religious liberty for more than 200 years. In January 1806, parishioners organized a petition of the State Assembly on behalf of Francis Cooper, the first person of their faith to be elected to that body. The assemblyman was required to renounce all foreign authority “in all matters ecclesiastical.” The petition was successful, despite some strong opposition to it.

On Christmas Eve of the same year, a group of about 50 men associated with a group known as Highbinders surrounded the church during services. The poorer Irish members fought back against the Highbinders over the next two days. A constable was killed in the rioting.

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  • Gary Delaney

    Putting an Islamic Cultural center that close to Ground Zero is like building a Japanese Cultural Center on Oahu. They have a right to build, but that’s a little too close for many who lost loved ones on 9/11.

  • john mcmanus

    Another liberal. Ask him if it would be okay to build a mosque next to his church or the vatican.
    Does anyone remember the nuns who wanted a catholic rectory of some sort to be built next to a concentration camp. Wow that was different. How about a Japanese shrin in Pearl Harbor. Maybe a shrine to Adolph Hitler in Poland. Can not this man see that they, the muslims will declare victory and move on to make the law of the land Saharia. Oh well Let them have it all.

  • I think the Muslim community should be allowed to build there centre at the wtc site or anywhere ,when the IRA were bombing and killing in the name of the Irish people,the vast majority of the Irish people wanted nothing to do with it,the same for most of the muslims across the world they do not want acts of Terrorism carried out in there name.

  • michael keating

    Most of the people in Dublin wanted nothing to do with the Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion either and from their executions the beginings of a nation was ignited.

  • Bridget McGuire

    @Ray, If thee people that want to build a mosque are “peaceful” and understanding groups, then why do they not understand that we NYers that lost loved ones just want them to build elsewhere. Why are they set on building THERE? Why not move to another place? It s different then the IRA, way different.

  • jason irwin

    weren’t there already many japanese americans in hawaii?

  • Chris

    Wow, lot of stereotypers and bigots here, no?

    We put the Japanese-Americans in Concentration Camps. For Bridget: Who are the ‘them’ they are not putting up a building named after Bin Ladin.

    They are Muslim Americans who should resist the calls of the Bigots who will not differentiate between the terrorists and all other Muslims. It is insulting for us to ask them to ‘reconsider’, be ‘sensitive’, ‘build elsewhere’, etc. Perhaps they want to honor all the Muslims lost in 911.

    Oh, and I did lose someone in the towers.

  • Bob Kane

    As an Irish Catholic New Yorker the area around the Twin Towers is hallowed ground and should not be treated as a political football. Its unfortunate a member of my religious community is unable to see the emotion, pain and sorrow surrounding the decision to locate an Islamic center on this site. It is offensive to every innocent person who lost their life in this historic tragic incident. Fr. your political slant is apparent, open your heart to those who lost loved ones, feel their pain, and anguish that this center brings. This is a slap in the face to their memories.

  • bob smith

    WAKE UP!!! They are ALL wolfs in sheeps clothing, will stop at NOTHING to take over, and have NO true desire for PEACE. If they did, they wouldn’t all be trying to shove their antiquated and barbaric ways down our gullets!!! This Priest must be a real door mat & too senile to make sound decisions. This is not the same time as when the Irish first came to America.

    Who cares if we ‘offend’ the effing muslims???!!! The shoe is on the OTHER foot.

  • mark david

    There are 9 mosques in Manhatten, 1 four blocks from ground zero, which is over crowded. Mosques are nothing new in NYC. The root of this argument is based in hate. Period. This is simply Chrisians extremists (American Taliban) trying to create a Christian nation, by forcing their “beliefs” on the people of the U.S., instead of actually following rule of law of seperation of church and state. There is no difference in the beliefs of Christian extremists and Islamic extremists, side by side they have the exact beliefs. From homosexuality, to womens rights, to creating a religious “state”. And it all goes against the principals that this nation was built on.

  • jason irwin

    Dear Gary Delaney,

    you wrote: Putting an Islamic Cultural center that close to Ground Zero is like building a Japanese Cultural Center on Oahu. They have a right to build, but that’s a little too close for many who lost loved ones on 9/11.

    I guess you don’t realize that Hawaii has a very large population of Japanese Americans, so a Japanese Cultural Center in Oahu would not be a suprize. Maybe you should have said putting a Catholic Center at Wounded Knee. Either way your argument is dumb.