When I commenced this review of the Catholic churches in Manhattan I did have in the back of my mind that I might be documenting a rapidly disappearing past. Now August 1, the implementation date of “Making all Things New” is fast approaching. Let’s go to the front lines of “MATN” to see what is happening in those parishes either closing or threated with closure. Of all these churches there is none that exceeds the historic and artistic significance of St. Stephen’s on East 28th street.
The grandiose church of St. Stephen’s in the 19th century was one of the greatest parishes of New York, with a congregation of twenty-five thousand. In this church you can still sense the legacy of its great pastors. Jeremiah Cummings, noted writer and first pastor – who brought to St. Stephen’s Renwick as architect and Brumidi as painter. His successor was the famous Fr. Edward McGlynn who, while continuing the development of the architecture and decoration of his church, attained national notice with his impassioned – if sometimes eccentric – support of the workingman. And his successor was Fr. Charles Colton, who hailed from the parish but was much more of an establishment figure (he became chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York and then Bishop of Buffalo). Colton built the magnificent parochial school building (he also founded the school itself – now part of the Epiphany school), paid off the parish debt and is responsible for much of the decoration in stained glass and marble that adorns the interior of St. Stephen’s today.
The lack of significant artifacts dating after 1918 testifies to the declining importance of this parish. True, under Cardinal Spellman a new rectory was built and in 1952 a restoration was carried out. But it was already reported then that major work had been necessary to return the church to its former glory. And the drab brown 28th Street exterior is an unfortunate legacy of that restoration.
From there things continued downhill. One sees it in the gray and white paint jobs that disfigure the interior walls of this church. In the 1980’s the nearby Carmelite church of Our Lady of the Scapular closed and that parish was merged with St. Stephen. Indeed the combined parish was given to the care of the Carmelite friars. That was hardly a strengthening of the parish. At some point an ugly altar was erected in the middle of the nave. Some ten years ago the Carmelites were in turn unceremoniously dismissed from the parish. Then, in 2007, the nearby parish of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary was closed and reduced to a chapel. We wonder how much of the funds realized from the sale of most of that parish’s property came to St Stephen’s. And so the vicissitudes of St. Stephen’s continued. A partial restoration of the Brumidi murals a number of years ago involving the marketing of reproductions also did not help. Need I mention that an obvious solution to revitalizing such old parishes (practiced in Chicago, for example, since the late 1980’s ) – entrusting them to one of the new traditionalist or conservative religious orders – still remains taboo in the New York Archdiocese.
Let us skip forward to the current administrator, Fr. Robert J. Robbins, who seems destined to have the dubious distinction of being the last pastor of this church. I don’t think I need to tell readers of this blog that his short tenure as pastor of his other church – Our Saviour’s – has been controversial. But at St Stephen’s one must say that under his direction efforts had been made in the last two years to address some of the more egregious aesthetic problems. The nave altar – and associated junk – was removed. A new disposition of the lighting (if I am not mistaken) illuminates the altars and the main Brumidi mural of the sanctuary clearly for the first time in memory. But it is all too little, too late.
A visit to the recent Sunday 8:00 AM mass illustrated other problems – in addition to ongoing administrative confusion and bungled restorations – that have brought things to the current state. For this, the only mass on Sunday, hardly a hundred people were in attendance – most obviously not of the higher income brackets and with only two families among them. But this pathetic turnout was not just a cause of the parish closure but the effect of mistaken polices in force for years. Since the closing of the parish was announced the church has only been open for two hours a day for one 8:00 AM mass (including Sunday). And before that, St. Stephen’s recently has been closed entirely for weeks for “structural review” and in the summer as well. Before the “Making all Things New” days the situation was hardly better; the church was open for only a few more hours in the day (until 12:45PM or so). It’s no wonder attendance dwindled.
This Sunday mass was also indicative of decades-old liturgical problems. A monsignor(in residence at Our Saviour) was assisted by a female lector and one man (an acolyte?). The Novus Ordo mass was celebrated as it is daily in hundreds of other archdiocesan churches – in a summary and casual manner with a complete absence of ceremony. The left-of–center homily – the celebrant: “I will probably offend everyone here” – was lively – if you disregarded the fact that monsignor left the sanctuary to work the pews (they still do that?). Later, monsignor first elevated the host and chalice and, when so raised, consecrated them – but I longer know what in the Novus Ordo is liturgical abuse or an accepted departure from the norm. My conclusion would be that the level of liturgical celebration at St Stephen’s in recent years – of which this service was representative – would not be an attraction to outsiders.
The pending closing of the parish inevitably weighed heavily on the proceedings. The subject came up again and again among the congregation. At the end of the service the lector read this:
“MAKING ALL THINGS NEW
The merger of the Parishes of Our Saviour, St. Stephen-Our Lady of the Scapular, and the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary will become effective on Saturday, 1 August. That same day will also mark the official closing of St. Stephen Church for regular celebrations of Mass and the Sacraments. We would like to celebrate the many, many blessings that have come to thousands of people who came to St. Stephen since its founding in 1848. Since St. Stephen’s is so awfully hot in the summertime, it has been decided to have a Mass of Thanksgiving in St. Stephen’s Church on Sunday, 20 September at 2:00 p.m. Please feel free to invite former parishioners, students of the school and anyone else who would like to have this final opportunity to say “goodbye” to one of our Archdiocese’s most prominent and historic churches.”
Towards the end of this statement she burst into tears – or was it laughter?
Monsignor finally hoped some of those present would make the move to Our Saviour – “even though it’s an uphill walk.” At least this priest realizes that many of the parishioners in New York City (and in some other parts of the Archdiocese as well, like Port Chester) walked to their church. The walk from Our Savior to St Stephen’s, for example, is a good 15 minutes – assuming you are not elderly or have no health issues. This is a significant burden on many people – one that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Archdiocesan planners.
Monsignor closed by wishing once again that people would come over to Our Savior for “we’re not as bad as we appear to be.” After the mass, a handful of parishioners recited the rosary. At 9:00 AM a female “janitor” brusquely announced, “I’m closing.” That was it – the two hours were up. And in way it was an epitaph for this grand historic church.
(Above) The interior of St Stephen’s was much improved just in the last year and a half by the removal of a central altar and assorted junk that had been inserted in the transept.
(Above)) The view facing the rear. (Below)The price of these improvements was the walling off of the pew area by a crude barrier and the removal of the pews between the barrier and the entrance. In effect, a much smaller church was created; it goes without saying that the transept galleries also have been unused for ages.
(Above) The magnificent high altar. The furnishings of the sanctuary, like most of the glass in this church, seems to date from the 1890’s onward – the Marian altar is dedicated to the memory of a lady, Madeline May Wynkoop Dewey, who died in 1892. “She was shaken in health and strength, while in Italy with her husband, through Roman fever, and a runaway team.”
(Above) The casual celebration of the new mass amid the solemn trappings of the past.
(Above and below) Churches have recently spent fortunes recreating this kind of Victorian-era stenciling.
(above) This mural above the entrance seems to show damage that has arisen just in the last few years.
(Above) This painting of St. Stephen by Brumidi was the original high altar of this church before the great expansion of 1865-66. Although darkened and difficult to see, it shows greater sensitivity and a more explicitly baroque inspiration than most of the artist’s later grandiose murals.
(Above) A trompe l’oeil effect creating a “transept” to the side of the main altar.
(Above) St Stephen’s has perhaps the most extensive stained glass of any Catholic church in New York aside from St. Patrick’s cathedral and St Vincent Ferrer. The above rose window may be roughly contemporary with the architecture. Most of the windows, however, are German and date to the 1890’s onward.
(above) The amount of window space in St. Stephen’s was so vast that some early windows were never replaced with more modern glass. This curious window shows the ghost of an Irish harp in the centre. Its original paint seems to have washed away.
(Above) As is so often the case in old New York churches, a large crucifix is found near the entrance.
(Above) Near the church is this Fatima shrine – still tended by someone but gradually being overwhelmed by weeds.
(Above and Below) Advice for those on the receiving end of “Making All Things New”: find your new parish!(handout in St. Stephen’s)