The joy parishioners feel this week that the Church of the Holy Innocents was saved from the chopping block is tempered by the fact that the priest who had a hand in saving it was transferred last spring by New York’s Archbishop and sent to a run-down and dangerous church outside of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Father Justin Wylie of South Africa was a well-respected and longtime Attaché for the Vatican at the United Nations. In that diplomatic role, Wylie was the lead negotiator in a number of vitally important UN debates related to hot-button issues like abortion and the family.
At the same time, Father Wylie was a devotee of what’s called the Traditional Latin Mass, the Mass all Catholics heard prior to changes brought by the Second Vatican Council that ushered in the new Mass said in colloquial languages.
Father Wylie frequently said the Traditional Latin Mass at a church on Manhattan’s Garment District called Holy Innocents, which has been the only Catholic Church in the Five Boroughs that allows the daily Latin Mass. However, the Church of the Holy Innocents was on the chopping block with up to 60 churches scheduled for closing by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Tradition-minded Catholics were up in arms that their church might be closed, particularly since so many of them attended it every day, and because its closing would have left them no place to attend daily Mass in the Old Rite.
Last May 18th, Father Wylie delivered a sermon to the Holy Innocents’ parishioners urging them to work to keep the church open and at the same time criticizing the Archdiocese for considering closing the church. He said the suggested closing of Holy Innocents was “an injustice which you should bring to the attention of your shepherd,” and “no good shepherd could dispossess you of your home without providing safety and good pasture elsewhere.”
Wylie went on to say that the archbishop should not “throw open the sheep-fold and allow the uncertain dispersion of their sheep into a world full of wolves. Charity, of course, is a two-way street.”
The sequence of events is uncertain, but what is known is, within days, a letter was sent to the Holy See Mission to the UN complaining about Wylie, and Wylie was stripped of his duties. Then, as a guest of the Archdiocese of New York, he was ordered from New York and sent home to South Africa. A formal letter of complaint was also filed with Wylie’s Bishop in South Africa.
Usually, a priest who spends time negotiating for the Holy See at the UN is rewarded with an influential posting. Wylie was left languishing without an assignment for weeks. Finally, twelve weeks later, on September 14, Wylie was assigned to a church in a township called Thokoza.
In an email to American friends, he said, “I am appointed to the troubled parish of Thokoza. It has been vacant for some time. Five priests left in rapid succession over the last couple of years. The parish house is derelict, so I may have to lodge in the sacristy [the storage room for sacred vessels and vestments].”
After Soweto, Thokoza is the second largest black township in South Africa. It was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in the final days of white rule. Photos of the church with dead bodies on the street can be seen in some of the photojournalism of the time.
The biographical story of four photographers covering the war, called The Big Bang, took place near Wylie’s new church.
A 1994 CNN story featured the fighting in Thokoza, revealing people beating already-dead bodies. The church Wylie is assigned to can be seen at 1:34 through a crowd of rioting South Africans.
The church today is smaller now, with a corrugated ceiling, and appears not to have doors.
One of Wylie’s defenders, Christine Niles, who hosts the Forward Boldly radio show and is a correspondent with ChurchMilitant.TV, points out the disparity between the treatment of the Church of the Holy Innocents and Father Wylie and how “the New York Archdiocese never interferes with gay-friendly St. Francis Xavier Church, which just celebrated ’21 years of LGBT ministry.’ The image is a screenshot of the parish website, complete with rainbow flag runner up to the High Altar… So while the NYC archdiocese is swift to punish a good priest, it leaves unhindered the heterodoxy flourishing at St. Francis Xavier.”
Holy Innocents is famous for a number of reasons. It is the site of the “Return Crucifix,” so called because a Frenchman prayed there for a return to the faith prior to joining the French Army in World War I. The soldier later joined a monastery in France. The Crucifix is also the site of where poet and critic Joyce Kilmer returned to the faith.