Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius and Saint Raphael
502 West 41st Street.
Catholic New York seems to superabound in cathedrals. There are both the old and the new St. Patrick’s. All Saints is the Cathedral of Harlem; another large Harlem parish disputes the claim to that title. Most Holy Redeemer was called the “German Cathedral” in the 19th century; the demolished old St. Ann’s really was a cathedral – that of the Catholic Armenians. And, on the farthest West Side of Manhattan, in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, there stands in splendid isolation the parish church of Saints Cyril and Methodius and St Raphael: the national parish of the Croatians, one of the more unusual nationalities of New York City.
It is a sight viewed daily by thousands of commuters to and from the Lincoln Tunnel: the unexpected apparition of a Gothic cathedral with its spires and finials, surrounded by streets, entrance ramps and high-rise buildings, Saints Cyril and Methodius and St. Raphael seems to soar above the tumult of the traffic and still strangely dominates its incredibly inhospitable environment, for this church is not yet completely enclosed by the luxury apartments springing up everywhere around it.
(above)The entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel looms immediately next to the church property.
Now of course the original neighborhood of this parish was not what we see today. Originally the church was a regular parish church of the Archdiocese of New York established in 1886 to serve the expanding population of Hell’s Kitchen. Like most Archdiocesan parishes of that day it was predominantly Irish. The church of St Raphael, completed in 1902, is one more witness to the magnificent quality of ecclesiastical architecture in the New York of 1890-1920. Indeed, the site seems to have offered the architects more than the usual opportunity for creative expression. St Raphael’s does not display the usual exterior of a Manhattan Catholic parish church: a splendid façade with the rest of the church hidden by the surrounding buildings. The façade of Saints Cyril and Methodius is much more fully developed with its twin towers, and the decoration of the transepts and apse indicates that the rest of the exterior was, at the time of construction, at least partially visible.
In addition to the “standard” parish churches of Hell’s Kitchen, a series of ethnic churches arose in in the first two decades of the twentieth century in this very neighborhood: St. Clare for the Italians, St Clemens Mary for the Poles. And this brings us to the Croatians. They were originally attracted to the West Side by the opportunities of working in the docks – a glance at the map shows the lengthy coastline of Croatia. And at the time Austria–Hungary, to which Croatia belonged, was no mean naval and shipping power itself. In 1913 Sts Cyril and Methodius parish was established for the Croatians. It acquired a former protestant church at 552 West 50th Street.
Soon thereafter the situation of this area of New York City rapidly deteriorated. It was not so much crime but relentless commercial development and expansion of the transportation network, which caused the Catholic population to diminish on the far West Side. A critical blow in the immediate vicinity of the parish was the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel, which opened in 1937. The Italian parish of St Clare closed and was merged into St Raphael’s. It was at this time that St. Raphael’s acquired its isolated setting and undoubtedly lost much of its congregation. And further construction work on the Tunnel continued into the 1950’s.
It was shortly after this that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, perhaps St Raphael’s most famous parishioner, lived in the parish and indeed cast his first vote in the basement of the church. He reminisced about those times. True, Old Hell’s Kitchen always was thought to be a rough area – but, compared to the situation after the 1960’s, the neighborhood of his youth was idyllic.
Things took at drastic turn for the worse in the 1960’s and 70’s. Crime, drugs and decay overwhelmed the area. Need we point out that the immediate neighbor of St. Raphael’s across the street to the east is Covenant House? It was in 1974 that rescue came in the form of a merger with Saints Cyril and Methodius church. The Croatians moved in and the parish, now “Saints Cyril and Methodius and Saint Raphael” reopened in 1977. Since then, the Croatians have maintained their church in splendid condition as a national parish attracting a congregation from all over the Metropolitan area.
The exterior testifies to the relatively fine condition of this building. The twin towered façade features elaborate stonework, large windows with gothic tracery and ornate iron railings. High above in a gable the statue of St Raphael still presides over the facade. Here and there we find unusual heads sculpted in in stone and metal.
The interior is of unexpected spaciousness and grandeur. Although the church has a nave, an apse and true transepts, the effect is almost that of a centralized space. The decoration from the early years of the parish appears, in general, well preserved and is of magnificent quality – a beautiful stone altar, vaguely Beuronesque murals and elaborate stained glass. Some of the scenes depicted in glass are rather unusual – such as the Pharisee and the Publican. There have obviously been changes and additions to the furnishings made by the current occupants – in general these are tasteful and unobtrusive. We can only commend the Croats for their dedication to the upkeep of this church- the interior was completely repainted sometime after 2005.
Saints Cyril and Methodius today is administered by Croatian Franciscans. A visit on a Sunday reveals a lightly attended but correctly celebrated English mass and a full house for the main Croatian language service. Most of the congregation are very well dressed – just like in the old country (or how the old country was 75 years ago). It’s quite a contrast to the usual appearance of a Catholic congregation nowadays.
What will the future bring? The process of the gentrification of this area is truly amazing. Between the parish and Covenant House another luxury apartment building is now rising. The builder acquired in 2012 the parish’s air rights from the Archdiocese for $16.46 million dollars – one hopes Saints Cyril and Methodius will receive its rightful share of that.1) One also would hope that this splendid ethnic cathedral could go on to be an anchor of Catholicism in this new and improbable version of venerable Hell’s Kitchen.