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Hindu temple in closed N.Y. church raises questions

Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Elmira, New York. Credit: Bhakti Marga/youtube.

A parish in the Diocese of Rochester sold a closed Catholic church this January to the Bhakti Marga Hindu movement, to be renovated into the first U.S. temple of the Hindu group.

After renovation, the church will be used for Hindu worship, and will include iconography of Hindu deities and other Hindu religious symbols alongside the Catholic religious symbols already in the building. The group will also display a parish statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary alongside a Hindu goddess on the property.

The conversion of a Catholic church into a space for Hindu worship raises questions about the canonical relegation of the church to “profane,” or non-Catholic, use, and about its sale to a non-Catholic religious organization.

The Diocese of Rochester, New York, announced Nov. 6, 2021, that Our Lady of Lourdes Church in nearby Elmira would be relegated to profane use, a technical term in canon law, effective Nov. 15.

“Once a church is relegated it is no longer used for Catholic liturgies and can be put up for sale.  We will remove all sacred objects as well as other items that may be useful in carrying out the mission of the parish,” the diocese said in its announcement.

Bhakti Marga purchased Our Lady of Lourdes in January. Days after the purchase, the group announced plans to turn the property, which includes the church building and a convent, into an ashram, or spiritual hermitage.

Credit: Elmira Star-Gazette real estate transaction database.

The church itself will become a Hindu temple, Bhakti Marga explained.

“This ashram is, or was, a church dedicated to Mother Mary of Lourdes, and it was a convent for some nuns. So it’s beautiful that we will be able to build on the spirituality, and the love, and the grace that was already there,” Bhakti Marga’s Swami Tulsidas announced in a January YouTube video.

Tulsidas explained that the space will feature a tall icon of Narasimha, a man-lion avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, in what was once the church’s sanctuary, along with icons of other Hindu religious figures.

NarayanaTirumala15.JPG
An image of Narasimha destroying a demon, at the Narayana Tirumala temple in Tirumala, India. Credit: Rajasekhar1961/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

“We’re going to honor the past by keeping the stained glass windows, and I am so happy to say that the Catholic Church has let us keep the main Mother Mary,” Tulsidas added.

A large statue of Our Lady of Lourdes will be “placed with Kali in the residence way,” the former convent for religious sisters on the property, the swami said.

Kali is the Hindu goddess of death.

An image of Kali trampling Hindu god Shiva. Credit: public domain.

The worship space will also hold more than 1,000 saligrams, which in are stones worshiped in Hinduism because they are believed to contain a manifestation of the god Vishnu.

Our Lady of Lourdes was a parish church until 2018, when three parishes in Elmira were merged into one, amid declining Mass attendance and revenues. But while the parishes were merged operationally into Holy Name of Jesus Parish, both the Our Lady of Lourdes and nearby Sts. Peter and Paul churches remained open as parish worship sites until their relegation to secular use in November 2021.

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The renovation raises questions about the diocesan decision to sell the church to a non-Catholic religious group, and about the canonical process observed during its closure.

Canon law permits a diocesan bishop to relegate a church to “profane, but not sordid use” if it can no longer be used for sacred worship, is regarded as beyond repair, or if “other grave causes suggest [it] can no longer be used for divine worship.”

In order to close a parish church, the bishop must consult with his diocesan presbyteral council, and obtain the consent of the parish pastor.

Rochester Bishop Salvatore Matano said in his November announcement that he consulted Rochester’s presbyteral council Nov. 3, 2021, about the church closure.

But it is not clear whether Matano indicated to the presbyteral council that the building could be converted into a space for non-Christian worship which could be regarded as “sordid use” in canon law.

Profane use of a church building generally means it can be sold for a secular purpose: renovation into apartments, a restaurant, or retail space. But canon law prohibits a  church to be sold or leased for “sordid” use, which is understood to mean sacrilegious, immoral, or scandalous purpose.

Canon law requires that the potential future use of a church building be considered when it is sold. Dioceses which closed a significant number of churches in recent years have developed vetting processes to ensure that a church building won’t be repurposed for offensive use after it is sold.

It is also not clear why the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be displayed alongside the goddess Kali was not removed from the church at the time other blessed and sacred objects were.

According to Tulsidas, the temple will be inaugurated when completed by guru Swami Vishwananda, Bhakti Marga’s leader.

Vishwananda, founder of Bhakti Marga movement, has faced allegations of sexual misconduct in Germany, and is a controversial figure in some Hindu traditions.

The Bhakti Marga movement, which claims to have 30 temples worldwide, regards Vishwananda as “the source of infinite grace.”

“He answers prayers and removes internal obstacles to a person’s spiritual progress,” according to the movement.

The Rochester diocese has not yet responded to The Pillar’s request for comment.

This story is developing and has been updated.

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