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Mary statue to return from Hindu group to NY parish

After a former parish church was sold to be renovated into a Hindu temple, the Diocese of Rochester says a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary given to the buyers will be returned.

The Hindu group which bought the property in January had planned to display the statue of Mary, which it said was a gift from the Catholic Church, next to an icon of the Hindu goddess of death..

But the diocese said Thursday the gift will now be returned.

“The Bhakti Marga Hindu movement, new owners of the former Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Elmira, NY, are returning the statues previously on display in Our Lady of Lourdes Church to the Parish of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in gratitude for the good relationship between the two faiths,” Katey Bourne of the Rochester diocese told The Pillar March 24.

The announcement came after The Pillar reported Wednesday that a former parish church, Our Lady of Lourdes, was sold to a Hindu group intending to convert it into a Hindu temple. The former church, closed for worship in November 2021, was sold in January to the Bhakti Marga Hindu movement by Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Elmira — the parish into which Our Lady of Lourdes was merged in 2017.

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Days after its January purchase of the former church building, Bhakti Marga announced plans to turn the property into an ashram, or spiritual hermitage, and to turn the former church itself into a Hindu temple.

“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,” Bhakti Marga’s Swami Tulsidas announced in a January YouTube video.

Swami Tulsidas, North American leader of the Bhakti Marga, announces the construction of a Bhakti Marga Hindu temple in Elmira, New York. Credit: Bhakti Marga/youtube.

The swami said that a large parish statue of Our Lady of Lourdes would be removed from the former church sanctuary, where it had stood above the altar, and “placed with Kali in the residence way,” the former convent for religious sisters on the property. Kali is the Hindu goddess of death.

According to Tulsidas, the Hindu 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.

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That statute will now be returned to Holy Name of Jesus Parish. And the diocese emphasized Thursday that the parish did not have diocesan approval to give away the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

“No consultation was made with the diocese to leave the statue of Mary in the church; this decision was made by the parish. The concern this raises is understandable, as well as the upset and confusion it may cause former parishioners,” Bourne said.

But while the statue has been returned, Bourne said she is looking into questions from The Pillar about the process through which the church was sold to a group intending to convert it to a Hindu temple. 

When a church building can no longer be used, canon law permits it to be relegated to “profane” - secular - “but not sordid use.”

Diocesan bishops are charged with reviewing how a former church building will be used by its new owners before it is sold. So are two groups which must consent to the sale — the diocesan finance council, and a group of senior priests called the diocesan college of consultors. 

Profane use of a former church building might include renovating it into a museum, restaurant, or residences. Sordid use is generally understood to mean sacrilegious, immoral, or scandalous purpose. 

In discussing that notion, the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2018 emphasized “the need to avoid situations that can give offence to the religious sentiment of a Christian people.”

In 2013, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy emphasized that “under no circumstances can [a closed church] be alienated for use inconsistent with its dignity as a former church.” 

Preferable to “sordid use,” the congregation emphasized, would be “demolition of the edifice.”

The Rochester diocese has not yet indicated whether Bishop Salvatore Matano, the diocesan finance council, or the diocesan college of consultors considered whether renovation into a Hindu temple might be an “inconsistent” use of the former church building.

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