Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood
113 Baxter Street/109 Mulberry Street
Nowadays, the only New York Italian church that rivals Our Lady of Pompeii for public recognition is Most Precious Blood fronting on Baxter Street. For it lies in the very heart of “Little Italy” – that prime touristic hot spot in New York. For as long as I can remember the immediate neighborhood of this parish has been a kind of Italian Disneyland with throngs of visitors, souvenir shops, a couple of decent food stores and row upon row of restaurants, some good, many not so good.
But when this parish was organized (in a basement in 1891), Italian immigrants were pouring in. Most Precious Blood, like Our Lady of Pompeii to the north, started as an initiative of the Scalabrini fathers. The effort to manage two immigrant parishes was evidently too much for the resources of the young order of priests. In 1894 the parish was handed over to the Italian Franciscans, already established at nearby St Anthony of Padua. Most Precious Blood then remained a Franciscan parish until 2014. In 1914 this small parish had 15,000 parishioners and witnessed 1167 baptisms, 190 marriages….. 1)
The Franciscans were able to complete the church in 1904 ( it was dedicated by the apostolic delegate to the United States) In 1914 they added a fine stone façade in a Romanesque style. 2) It is very nice – so typical of the fine work lavished in that era upon even minor parishes. The “renaissance” interior of the church, although modest in scale, is balanced and harmonious. And like the exterior, some of the details (like the capitals) are well done.
(Above) The same interior in largely natural light in 2009.
The facade, executed in a fairly standard Romanesque style reminiscent of some Victorian buildings – but also recalling the Norman cathedrals of Southern Italy?
But, like Our Lady of Pompeii, it not so much the architecture of Most Precious Blood but the decoration that catches our attention – its exuberance forms a stark contrast to the “classical” restraint of the building. For the images, paintings and devotions of this church seem innumerable. Compared to Our Lady of Pompeii, there is a more specific South Italian focus – including intriguing images of the patron saints of less well known towns and villages.
Some more exotic devotions and patrons:(above) The Madonna di Ripalta from Cerignola in Apulia, near Foggia (copy of the unique thirteenth century icon); (below) Saint Catald, a monk from Ireland (!) bishop of Taranto in the 7th century In addition to Taranto, he is widely venerated elsewhere in Southern Italy and is the patron of, among others, the town of San Cataldo in Sicily. 3)
Some universal devotions have been “Italianized”: (above) The German/Hungarian princess St. Elizabeth is given Italian features; (below) a typical New York Lourdes grotto is transformed by beautiful flowers.
(Above and below) San Vincenzo, patron of Craco (a ghost town in the Basilicata featured in many movies). This image appears to be a newcomer to Most Precious Blood. Not visible in 2009, it was formerly in the church of St Joseph (closed in 2015 under “Making All Things New”). 4)
To explore this church is a strange but calming experience. So many details are unusual and intriguing! Yet, despite the chaos in Mulberry Street outside, very few tourists venture in to disturb the twilight quiet and fewer still stop to pray. At times you do worry whether you yourself have become a ”spiritual tourist.” In 2016 there may be much more traffic than in recent years, given that Most Precious Blood has been designated to have a “Holy Door of the Year of Mercy.”
Most Precious Blood is most famous, of course, for its association with September’s San Gennaro Festival: the longest, loudest, best known but least religious and least attractive Festa, perhaps, in all of North America. It is a relative latecomer to the parish first having been celebrated – as a one-day affair – in 1926. In 1994 Mayor Giuliani forced a handover of the leadership of the festival to a new organization because of alleged Mafia infiltration. 5) In recent years, however, stories have been published alleging continuing Mafia connections and questioning the use of the festival’s funds even under the new sponsoring organization.6)
Most Precious Blood had been magnificently restored in the 1990’s. But by 2014 the congregation had dwindled to few hundred. The last Franciscan pastor, 88-year old Fr. Fabian Grifone, celebrated his last mass in the parish early that year and the Franciscans gave up their mission here after 120 years. 7) It looked like Most Precious Blood would be “low-hanging fruit “ for the “Making all Things New “ planners – especially given that spiritual, historical and aesthetic factors counted for nothing. Despite this church’s location in a tourist zone, general indifference seemed to prevail regarding the likely fate of this church.
But then something unusual happened. Most Precious Blood had in recent years also become the spiritual home of the city’s Vietnamese Catholic community. Of the 400 people who attended four masses on the weekend, 200 attended the Vietnamese language mass at 2 PM on Sunday. 8) The Vietnamese must have made their objections known, because Cardinal Dolan stated that reasons for not approving recommendations to close a parish included:
“special considerations for unique groups. For instance, one parish suggested to close was also serving the deaf community, another welcoming people who desire the Latin Mass, another the Vietnamese Catholics, all of whom, while not living within the parish neighborhood, were still in need of pastoral care and a spiritual home.” 9)
I believe in the case of the last church Cardinal Dolan is referring to Most Precious Blood.
So did Our Lady of Lavang, whose image is one of the latest additions to the devotions of Most Precious Blood, stretch out her protecting hand over this church?
Since 2015 Most Precious Blood church is no longer a parish but the “Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood” a chapel of St. Patrick’s church to the north. Is this twist of fate not appropriate? – was not for many decades Old St. Patrick’s itself de facto an Italian ethnic parish? On Sunday, however, only one mass is now celebrated at the shrine – in Vietnamese. 10) And yet in this year one of the Archdiocese’s Holy Doors is located here. Perhaps this bodes well for the future – perhaps it will attract visitors who, instead of just seeking out food and raucous festivity , feel somehow called to rediscover their heritage both spiritual and historical.
A new addition (apparently since 2009): Our Lady of Lavang, a Vietnamese devotion. But she apparently played a key role in saving this church!
1) The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Vol. 3 at 352; Vol. 1 at 236-37. (Catholic Editing Company, New York 1914).
2) The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Vol. 1 at 236-37.
3) https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madonna_di_Ripalta; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catald
4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craco; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincenzo,_Martyr_of_Craco
5) Tonelli, Bill. “Arrivederci, Little Italy”. (New York Magazine, September 27, 2004).
6) e.g., http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/19/nyregion/mob-is-back-at-san-gennaro-festival-officials-say.html?_r=0; http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/exclusive-feast-san-gennaro-lights-mobsters-records-show-article-1.1946299
9) http://cardinaldolan.org/index.php/making-all-things-new-update/ (July 1, 2014)