529 West 121st Street
In the shadows of the huge complexes of Columbia University and Columbia Teachers College stands a modest structure. At first one thinks the white stone facade set against a red brick exterior is a copy of an 18th century meetinghouse – transplanted from Boston to Morningside Heights. But a closer inspection reveals the cleverness of the architect. For the stone facade is simply attached to a small, modern high-rise – a miniature skyscraper!
Inside the meetinghouse theme continues. The church is small – really a large chapel. The plain white of the columns walls and ceiling, the galleries, the black and white floor and the crystal chandeliers evoke the look of 18th century America. But in the sanctuary, in the side chapel and at other strategic points of the church gleams the gold of Catholic art – 14th century Italy, Siena and Fra Angelico are the inspirations here. And this marriage or tension – between the Catholic and the Calvinist, between trecento/early quattrocento Florence and colonial New England did not arise by chance, but is the decorative scheme original to the construction of this church. Yet one soon realizes that this very elegant space is really a rectangular auditorium to which a semicircular apse and galleries have been appended. As in the case of the entire parish building itself, the architect has once again cleverly disguised modernity.
Now the architect was Wilfred E. Anthony, whose grand church of St Catherine of Sienna (1931) is both the last great Catholic church built on Manhattan Island and the first serious attempt there to “engage” modernity. Corpus Christi church of 1936 is a much more conventional exercise. It is one of the last examples of that strange genre of Manhattan parish where Church, rectory, convent and school are consolidated in one space-and–money saving structure. This was already the format of the first building for Corpus Christi parish (the parish opened in 1907). Other examples include, in Hell’s Kitchen, St. Clemens Mary (now Baptist) and St. Ambrose (now Centro Maria) and, in Yorkville, St. Stephen of Hungary (still active). But, while only the Hungarian community and its immediate Yorkville neighbors know of he latter church, Corpus Christi, which resembles it architecturally in a number of respects, has enjoyed a truly extraordinary amount of publicity over the years.
That started with the most famous figure associated with Corpus Christi, Thomas Merton, who was both converted and baptized here. He wrote of “the little brick church of Corpus Christi hidden behind Teachers College” which he first visited shortly after it was finished:
“How bright the little building seemed. Indeed, it was quite new. The sun shone on the clean bricks. People were going in the wide open door into the cool darkness an, all at once, all the churches of Italy and France came back to me…. It was a gay clean church with big, plain windows and white columns and pilasters and a well-lighted, simple sanctuary. Its style was a trifle eclectic but much less perverted with incongruities than the average Catholic church in America. It had a kind of seventeenth century, oratorian character about it, though with a sort of American colonial tinge of simplicity. The blend was effective and original…” 1)
Corpus Christi is certainly one to the limited number of parishes in New York today to have the sense and pride to provide a precise and exhaustive description of the architecture and art of its church on its website. 2) But in his account of this church, a post-conciliar Catholic academic develops in fanatic detail aesthetic impressions similar to Merton’s into an ideological manifesto of architectural Americanism:
“It deserves to be asked why Father Ford (the first pastor of Corpus Christi), famous for his progressivism in many other respects, did not embrace the orthodox architectural modernism that just around 1935 had reached a high point of international repute. … For neo- ”Georgianism,” like (the architecture of Corpus Christi), was a hallmark of cultural assimilation: the idea was to manifest a cordial Americanization, if necessary with an underlying British, instead of “foreign,” accent. At the time Columbia University and America at large were not accustomed to conspicuous evidence of Catholicism on the highest levels….. It would have been all too easy to get something simplistically “Catholic” in look, only to stand yet again apart. But notwithstanding the basically Oxford-Movement tone set by Father Ford – distinguished liturgy and preaching, a university ministry, social concern, even a Newman cult of sorts – this was not going to be a temple of medievalizing nostalgia.”
In other words, even though Corpus Christi was not even remotely in line with then current modernity, all is forgiven in view of its prostration before “American Art” and its avoidance of a specifically Catholic architectural idiom. The neo-colonial atmosphere is indeed, however, balanced by the gold of numerous replicas of 14th and 15th century Italian art. But even here, as our guide approvingly describes:
“Also visible from the (apse) end of the gallery …(the) angels window is the only neo-Gothic feature of the church, one well hidden, as though for ecumenical and diplomatic as well as stylistic reasons: a stained glass window commemorating English Catholic martyrs from the time of Elizabeth I to Cromwell.” 3)
From this perspective, Corpus Christi exhibits, like the new St. Agnes or Holy Family, one of the most individualistic and “ideological” architectural programs of any Catholic parish in New York City. I have not read the memoirs of Father Ford, but it appears to me unlikely that the modest sanctuary of Corpus Christi was intended to bear this much intellectual baggage.
It is here we come to an even more noteworthy feature of Corpus Christi parish: it musical heritage. That also started with Father Ford and is claimed to evidence his “progressivism”:
“(A)s late as 1964, the “fun” High Mass with good choral music and maybe some congregational singing was considered “liberal” and “progressive.” … The bedrock, faith-of-our–fathers conservatives in the archdiocese did not know what was worse about this radical Father Ford: his too-friendly relations with protestant ministers, university professors and other dangerous types or his church where the choir energetically sang Mozart masses and the congregation sang … Gregorian chant.” 4)
But the unique musical heritage of Corpus Christi is even more closely associated with Msgr. Myles M. Bourke, Pastor of Corpus Christi 1966-1992. He combined ”advanced” ideas in theology and biblical studies with a refusal to totally succumb to the liturgical madness sweeping the church. He did this, however, not by retaining and restoring Tradition – that would be reserved to a later generation- but by crafting his own English liturgy accompanied by music of the Catholic tradition (chant, polyphony and largely “pre-conciliar” Catholic hymns). Corpus Christi benefitted musically – then and now – by having a separately endowed professional choir.
Indeed, a successor to Msgr. Bourke pointed out that, at least at the “high mass” on Sunday, no changes needed to be made in 2011 at the introduction of the new mass translation; Corpus Christi had never adopted the earlier (banal and superseded) translation of the Novus Ordo. ( The pastor had, however, succeeded in switching all the other masses to the “accepted” translation, however). 5)
So things have continued to the present day for this parish with a “fierce stubborn streak.” 6) In the eyes of the Archdiocese, it is “one of the few places in the city to hear the early music of the Church” (sic) 7) The chaplaincy of Columbia University had been transferred a number of years ago to the much more aesthetically impressive Notre Dame parish to the south; recently it returned to Corpus Christi. The parish school still exists and this parish was informed from the beginning that it would not be touched by “Making all Things New.”
To attend the “high mass” at Corpus Christi, as I did some weeks ago, is to step backwards in time to the era of Msgr. Bourke: the same 1966 hymn books, the same kind of music (contemporary sacred, polyphony) very competently performed by the professional choir. Certainly the quality and orthodoxy of the sermon appeared miraculous to me compared to my own experiences of “campus ministry” in the 1970’s. It is a remarkable level ofachievement in word and music, still by far exceeding that of most parishes in the Archdiocese; that deserves our respect. But obviously, at the present day, a number of other churches in the New York area equal or exceed Corpus Christi liturgically: in preaching, in the music and above all in the ceremonial of the Mass. And this competition no longer seeks to create its own “traditions” or idiosyncratic style but aims at an ever deeper immersion in and understanding of the ageless Tradition of the Church.
(There is an excellent parish website: http://www.corpus-christi-nyc.org)
1) Merton, Thomas; The Seven Storey Mountain, 207 (Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1948). We admit that, on closer review, this passage is not totally coherent.
2) http://www.corpus-christi-nyc.org/about-us/art-architecture/; Maschek, Joseph, The Church of Corpus Christi and its Art, http://www.corpus-christi-nyc.org/masheck-article/
4) Day, Thomas; Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, at 40-41(Crossroad Publishing Co., New York, 1990)
5) Otterman, Sharon; “As Catholics prepare for New Mass Translation, Parish Carves its own Path” (The New York Times, November 25, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/26/nyregion/as-catholics-prepare-for-new-mass-translation-corpus-christi-parish-carves-its-own-path.html?_r=0
7) Poust, Mary Ann; “Incredible History,” (Catholic New York,October 26, 2006) (Of course, this is in large part due to an endowment not under the control of the Archdiocese)