101 East 7th Street
Strolling east from Astor Place we enter the so-called “East Village” – actually the northern reaches of the Lower East Side. Now this is an area with “character. ” It seems – at least in appearance – to stubbornly resist the radical upgrading occurring almost everywhere else on the island of Manhattan. In recent decades the East Village has been better known for its drug scene and ancillary industries: tattoo parlors, “purveyors of Day-Glo paint” etc. 1) But there is much more here than just the alleged “counterculture.” The East Village abounds in curious buildings and relics left by earlier ages and earlier inhabitants: Germans, Irish, Jews, and Italians. Moreover, this neighborhood still shelters perhaps the only remaining presence of Christian and Catholic European ethnicity on Manhattan Island. Every year chips away at this remnant: Kurowicky’s Meats closed in 2007; Surma Ukrainian shop closed just this year after 98 years in business. But much of interest still remains.
Of these nations the Ukrainians of the Eastern rite are by far the most visible, with their splendid church of St George, built as recently as the early 1970’s, and their various restaurants and other institutions scattered over the neighborhood. Just over the northern border of this area we have on East 15th Street the church of St. Mary of the closely related Ruthenians. The Orthodox are also well represented, with St Nicholas of Myra church on Tompkins Square (Ruthenians) and the Orthodox cathedral of the Protection of the Holy Virgin on East 2nd street. I want to focus here, however, on Latin Catholics. I have described elsewhere in this series the “mainstream” parishes (originally Irish, German and Italian – later Hispanic) that existed (or until recent Archdiocesan actions, did exist) in the East Village. Here we will cover two ethnic holdouts.
St. Stanislaus is the surviving Polish national parish in Manhattan. Poles never acquired in the New York region the prominence they have in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest. And even then, one thinks of Greenpoint, Brooklyn or even Eastern Long Island, rather than Manhattan, as the major centers of Polish life in New York. But wherever they are, Poles have jealously defended their religion, language and culture. For them, the union of Faith and Nation is self-evident. And however abhorrent this formula is to the Conciliar Church, we cannot question its effectiveness – just ask the surviving leadership of the former Soviet Union.
This parish was founded in 1875; our main source for this early period tells a convoluted tale of ongoing strife among parishioners that was only resolved in the 1890’s. A saga more typical of the life of New York parishes in the first half of the 19th century before Archbishop Hughes took over! The current church was dedicated in 1901. By 1913 the church had 10,000 parishioners and a parochial school with 369 boys and 381 girls. Since 1986 this parish has been under the care of the Pauline Fathers.2)
The visitor enters through the doors of the plain façade into a dark vestibule or narthex. It abounds with older statues, icons and paintings – it serves as a veritable chapel. This is fortunate, since outside of Sundays – and presumably other mass times – the nave of the church is usually closed. There are also some curious things to read. An unexpectedly beautiful metal plaque from 1911 honors the pastor who really created the present parish in the time before the First World War. A later plaque commemorates the Requiem Mass celebrated here on July 2, 1909 for the famous actress Helena Modjeska. And then there is a poster in Polish pointing out the occult and satanic significance of certain medallions commonly worn by women today. I think to myself: I am going to like this place….
(Above) Fine plaque commemorating Fr. John Strzelecki, who in essence refounded the parish after 1892 and built the present structures.
After the vestibule the nave of the church is somewhat of a disappointment. In its architecture and its dimensions, St. Stanislaus parish is a modest affair. It overflows with images and art from all the different ages of the parish’s life, but seems to have suffered from thoroughgoing modernizations in pre-conciliar times. (Judging from the form of the altar and the green stone sheathing, these restorations probably dates from sometime between the late 1920’s and the 1950’s – probably towards the latter part of that period). And since then, new devotions and shrines have been added continually: images and relics of Pope John Paul II and Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, a shrine of Divine Mercy, etc. It all leaves a mixed impression – a heterogeneous jumble of all kinds of artifacts and styles. It’s quite a contrast with the lavishly decorated, unrestored Polish parishes I have visited in Chicago, New Haven, Yonkers or Jersey City. Yet everything is in good order well maintained.
(Above) St. Stanislaus. The figure on the left is wearing armor of a 17th century Polish “winged hussar.” (Below) the wide variety of styles in this church is evident.
The masses seem to be plain but correct examples of he Novus Ordo. I don’t much appreciate, however, the large screen to the right of the altar upon which the words of the liturgy are projected. (Wasn’t the Novus Ordo intended to make the mass clear to the congregation?). As I prepare after mass to take pictures of some of the stained glass – which is not bad – suddenly all but two of the windows are plunged into darkness. But for those two windows, the stained glass is only visible because of artificial lighting on the outside…
(Above and below) Images and relics of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko and Pope John Paul II.
In contrast to most other Manhattan churches, this parish obviously still benefits from ongoing immigration. There are several masses celebrated in Polish and English on Sundays and weekdays; the parish still claims 900 registered parishioners. Numerous parish societies – many of them traditional activities and devotions – are still active, just like they did in the “good old days.” 3) On my recent visit the parish priest was announcing a dance social, a fundraising drive to repair the church’s steeple and news on the parish’s Polish school. So there seems to be continuing vitality. Moreover, the strong national commitment of this parish coexists with an apparent willingness to reach out to the broader community of Catholics and non-Catholics of the neighborhood. And even if the artistic expression of the new devotions are of uneven aesthetic quality, they nevertheless testify to an ongoing, vital Catholic life. St. Stanislaus parish is no museum!
1) An observation of the late Seymour Britchky
2) “St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Roman Catholic Church” – Parish History (Parish brochure); The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Vol. 3 at 372-74. (New York, The Catholic Editing Company, 1914)
3) “St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Roman Catholic Church” – Parish Life (Parish brochure)