Holy Family Church
315 East 47th Street
New York, New York 10017
Perhaps you have noticed, if you happened to be walking on the north side of East 47th Street near Second Avenue, a windowless edifice of polished gray stone, situated behind metal handrails and stone planters. You probably assumed it to be the seat of some anonymous institution: a “permanent representation,” a foundation, perhaps a synagogue. Yet, crossing the to the south side of the street, you find it to be a church: some five stories high, adorned with a stylized metal steeple, whose ersatz carillon rings forth on the hour an imitation of “Big Ben.” This is Holy Family Church, erected in 1964, whose parish boundaries include the nearby United Nations.
The uninviting exterior is in part forbidding, in part insipid. The blank façade, whose only colors are grey, silver and dark brown, is the center of a small complex, contemporary with the church. Apart from the stone façade, these structures are adorned with white and pale green brick, with accents of yellow over the side windows of the church. It is a veritable encyclopedia of bad taste in color, like the infamous “white brick” apartment buildings of that era.
Between the rectory and the church huddles a small park. Entitled nowadays “Mary’s Garden”, it is cheerful if barren in the bright light of early April but dark and desolate in November’s gloom. There is an empty blue pool over which arches a small bridge leading to a silver statue of a woman – is it supposed to be the Immaculate Conception? From the donors’ list in the Church one learns that forty years ago this space was “Our Lady’s Garden.”
On the east side of the church is a small annex which now forms the entrance to a school. It is apparently a Montessori method school: “multicultural, nonsectarian” of course – did it once house the parish’s parochial school? As for the church itself, the smooth, uniform façade, institutional doors, metal lanterns, stone planters and stylized lettering seem like a final flowering (an inappropriate term) of the 1930’s.
Plaques set in the facade, kept polished to a bright golden finish, commemorate previous Papal visits to the United Nations. To the left of the main entrance is a giant commemorative medal of Pope John XXIII imparting a blessing. Is there any significance to the fact that the last papal visit – that of the current pontiff – bypassed Holy Family?
One enters the church through a low vestibule or narthex. The list of donors recites the attributes, now vanished, of the Traditional rite: altar crucifixes, communion rails, low and high mass vestments, etc. The hierarchical, nostalgic accent set by the facade medals is continued in a series of fine stone coats-of-arms set in the floor of the “nave”: Cardinal Spellman, Paul VI and the Archdiocese of New York are immortalized here.
The interior of the church is a unitary, high-ceilinged space: a simple rectangle with rounded corners. The walls are faced with cream-colored stone with more of the ubiquitous metal tracery on the ceiling. Over the altar stands a gigantic elongated aluminum statue of the risen Christ. There is no crucifix (except for a processional crossset up to the side). The overall effect is cold, bureaucratic and barren, like the Art Deco lobby of the Department of Justice in Washington with its silver statue of Justice (the one whose breasts were covered over under the prior administration).
Two small shrines are set into the corners of the sanctuary on either side of the altar. Their location makes them only partially visible to the congregation directly facing the main altar. That on the left is the only intrusion of tradition and color into this church. A ceramic Byzantine icon of Our Lady in bright yellow, blue and red is suspended above the altar against a blue mosaic background. Before it hang several lamps; below sits a stylized but nice gold and enamel tabernacle in the form of a church. With this unique layout the interior designer (in 1964, or was it 1993?) was able to “kill two birds with one stone.” Both tabernacle and Marian shrine are combined and partially removed from the direct line of sight of the congregation.
The altar on the eastern wall, of St. Joseph, commemorates Italian soldiers who died in the Congo “for the ideals of peace of the United Nations.” For those too young to remember, this was an early 1960’s example of UN – sanctioned violence followed by massacres, the overthrow of an authentically Catholic leader, and eventually, the return of that nation to pre-colonial barbarism. A chalice contributed by Pope Paul VI is also here: it was recently the subject of an attempted theft.
Two dimensional panels and cutout figures adorn both walls: their appearance recalls that of a 1960’s amateur ceramic art kit. Facing east, banks of electric candles are mysteriously set before a wall that is blank except for what appears to be the Stations of the Cross.
Only the west wall has windows, predominantly blue, of mediocre craftsmanship but unprecedented in theme. A parade of figures, characterized as Jews (there seems to be a vague reference to Hitler’s Final Solution), Moslems, Hindus and others, marches toward a non-representational emblem of the Divinity, vaguely cruciform, in the northernmost window. The word “hope” in various languages accompanies the procession.
On the rear wall we read an utterance of Paul VI from his visit to the UN and to this church of October 4, 1965: “The peoples of the earth turn to the United Nations as the last hope of peace.” Not God, not Christ, not the Church, but the United Nations. The role of clerical stupidity in the crisis of the last forty years has not yet received sufficient attention from commentators.
During services the interior is bathed in bright, artificial light. But this space is only endurable at other times, when, with the main lights extinguished, the colors of the windows and the tabernacle are allowed to emerge. We notice then another most unusual feature: the glass cruets of holy oil and chrism are set in clear, floor level windows. These are surrounded by relics (from a prior altar?).
More than 15 years ago this church underwent a restoration. It succeeded in sprucing up an increasingly musty interior (modern architecture does become outdated so rapidly!) but, as always, left painful scars. We can still see where the communion rail was yanked out, and the baptistery in the narthex is now occupied by a statue of the Holy Family – plus a planter. In exchange, the waterfall of a small baptismal pool now tinkles away in the nave. But in contrast to other, earlier churches one does not sense any clash between these innovations and the prior architecture. The polished black blocks which form the altar (reminiscent of the notorious black stone in the meditation “chapel” of the United Nations) fit in naturally here.
The phony “moderne” style of Holy Family, dated even before it was finished, is sad evidence of the state of Catholic artistic sensibility in the early 1960’s. That the Archdiocese on New York (and presumably the Vatican) would select a building of this kind as the public face of the Catholic religion to the world is indeed mind-boggling.
Why waste time upon such insignificance, you ask? Don’t other similar structures regretfully still stand, relics of the last great pre-conciliar building boom? New York area traditionalists may recall, for example, the chapel of Manhattanville College in Purchase, similar in style to Holy Family but ten times larger.
But just consider that here, a newly erected Catholic church began, however timidly, the rupture with the traditional language of Catholic parish architecture. A utilitarian unadorned box, having no symbolic, historical or aesthetic references, Holy Family church is intended exclusively to accommodate a congregation for “celebrating the liturgy.” Whatever elements of Catholic devotion remain (the tabernacle, banks of votive candles, some of the statues) survive only in stylized form, or are displayed in a manner that relativizes their prior importance. At the same time, new themes and images, unheard of in Catholic tradition, are introduced. The spirit of Holy Family is globalist, secular, ecumenical and above all institutional.
We are often told that the current problems of the Church derive from our forty year collective failure to understand and follow the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council. If only (so they say), we would return to the original texts, repudiating subsequent abuses and distortions, to order to rediscover that euphoric vision of a Catholic renaissance. Holy Family, contemporary with these events and indeed standing before the end of the Council itself, helps us test these claims. Brick, stone, glass and metal, which do not lie, here set forth a very different story: that fabled springtime was a fantasy from the very beginning. We did not evangelize the world, rather the world (at the church of the Holy Family, quite literally, as embodied in United Nations) has taken possession of us.
We thank Cedric Echecs for making available to us an earlier version of this post.