Church of the Guardian Angel
193 Tenth Avenue
(Now “Guardian Angel Worship Site” of the “Parish of Guardian Angel/St. Coloumba”)
(Above) One of Chelsea’s “preserved” streets with many townhouses of the mid-nineteenth century. (Below) The 19th century bulk of the Anglican General Theological Seminary, across the street from Guardian Angel and so closely associated with the origin of Chelsea. It has been slowly but steadily losing ground to the “world” – here the “Highline Hotel.”
Few areas of the city have seen such twists and turns of fortune as Chelsea. It began as an upper income area, with rows of stately townhouses erected in the 1840’s and 50’s. But almost from this neighborhood’s beginnings, industry, shipping and commercial development took off as well. West Chelsea became a center of the maritime industry. Up to 1935 the main piers for luxury passenger ships were located here. Yet, unlike most of Hell’s Kitchen to the north, Chelsea was never depopulated or reduced to a purely commercial landscape. The 1939 WPA guide to New York City spoke of its “preserved” character.
The spiritual needs of the longshoremen and other workers in the maritime trades led to the founding of Guardian Angel parish in 1888. In this respect, the parish is similar to several others on the far West Side: St Veronica in the Village and the original church of St. Cyril and Methodius also originated as “waterfront churches,” while several other parishes on this side of town acquired that character as well. And, years later, didn’t Fr. John M. Corridan SJ, the model of the priest in On the Waterfront, work out of the nearby Xavier Labor School? 1). Like most (but not all) of these churches, the congregation of Guardian Angel was overwhelmingly Irish. The original church was replaced in 1910. And in 1911 a parochial school was opened.
Then came this parish’s first encounter with what later became known as the “High Line”: the New York Central Railroad wanted to relocate its tracks leading to the factories and warehouses of West Chelsea to a new, elevated line. Old Guardian Angel parish, at 511 West 23rd Street west of Tenth Avenue, was squarely in the way. In exchange for this property, the railroad transferred land and cash to the parish to enable a brand new church and school to be built; they both opened in 1931. So Guardian Angel, like St Michael’s in Hell’s Kitchen or Our Lady of Pompeii, obtained a grand new building due to the relentless development of the city’s transportation system.
Guardian Angel testifies to the high standards of Catholic Church architecture around 1930. The exterior gives a convincing impression of a southern Italian Romanesque church. The parish claims specific inspiration in the cathedral of Bitonto in Apulia. 2) Most interesting are the extensive carvings and reliefs surrounding the main entrance and the lengthy frieze extending around the church. In fact, the exterior is more elaborately decorated than the interior.
The interior is a simple space, modest in scale, yet seemingly spacious and of great harmony. In contrast to the extravagant decor of van Pelt’s earlier Slovak ethnic church of Saint John Nepomucene, decoration is reduced to a minimum. While some of this is undoubtedly due to a post conciliar clearing out of the sanctuary and to the lack of financial resources at this parish, do we not also detect a hint of modern ideas of simplification and stylization? Except for a window that undoubtedly came from the predecessor church, the stained glass is all non-figurative or illustrates symbols of various kinds. Sculpture is mostly limited to the expressive capitals of the columns. The stained glass windows allow a clear but subdued illumination.
Today in the inside of this church is a quiet refuge from the nearby summer touristic frenzy nearby – I don’t know if this was the case when the trains were rumbling by on the active railroad viaduct. All in all both the interior and exterior of this church are amazingly successful aesthetically; much more so then some more celebrated buildings of that era like the church of Corpus Christi parish.
(above) The architect, John van Pelt, created here in 1931 a smaller version of his earlier Manhattan church of St. John Nepomucene in Yorkville. As in that church, the irregular surface of the facade in brick and stone is intended to suggest the weathering of the ages. The style is the Southern Italian romanesque – the parish claims specific inspiration by the cathedral of Bitonto near Bari in Apulia.
(Above) The church and, to the right, the still functioning parochial school – built in the same style.
Most impressive is the abundance of carved details on the facade and on the capitals inside. Scenes from the bible, monsters, angels, rows of heads all executed in a convincing neo-romanesque style – do we not even detect hints of then – contemporary art deco at places like Rockefeller Center? As in the case of van Pelt’s St John Nepomucene, the care lavished on a relatively minor parish church testifies to the extraordinarily high standard of Catholic church architecture and art in the 1920’s and 30’s.
(Above and below) The form of the interior is simple, yet spacious and harmonious. In the sanctuary is a unique art deco baldacchino. Regrettably, the sanctuary also exhibits the scars of a thorough post-conciliar “renovation.”
Angels! (Above) From an altar in the pre-1930 church? (Below) Older New York churches often feature one or two statues of angels bearing holy water fonts; this church has four.
More Angels: (Above) On the facade of the school. (Below) On the Art Deco baldacchino.
(Above) The central roundel of the rose window of the facade is about the only reminder of this parish’s once prominent role in the maritime community. (Below) This window in the sanctuary, in an older figurative style, appears to have been inherited from the church that preceded the present building. The glass in the 1931 church is otherwise non-figurative or symbolic.
Now Guardian Angel, although a parish of relatively modest size (for that era!), was not merely one more local territorial parish for longshoremen. It was the “Shrine Church of the Sea,” the headquarters of the Archdiocesan chaplain to the Port of New York and, under Cardinal Spellman, it was proclaimed the “Seaman’s Church.” Guardian Angel exercised a highly visible citywide mission in the decades after the completion of the new church.
In 1946, for example, 2500 representatives of the maritime and transportation industries of the port of New York attended the annual benefit and reception for the Guardian Angel Shrine Church of the Sea. 3) In 1950, 1200 waterfront workers received Holy Communion at a mass celebrated by the pastor of Guardian Angel at Pier 61 of the United States Lines on West 21st St. This event, originally scheduled for Guardian Angel church, had to be moved because of the great number of participants. After the mass, the longshoreman and other workers marched north to the Waldorf Astoria for a communion breakfast. This event seems in part to have been prompted by the desire of the port chaplain to show a picture of life on the waterfront other than that of labor conflict, economic exploitation and crime.4)
Even as late as 1966, the New York Times took special note of a mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrated in a baggage room on Pier 40 at W. Houston St. The 400 worshipers included “husky longshoreman, truck drivers in leather windbreakers, customs officials in neat uniforms and office workers in spike heels and miniskirts.” Organizing these masses were three priests from Guardian Angel church, including the port chaplain. “For nearly an hour yesterday, beginning at noon, work at Pier 40 came to a standstill. The only sound was an “Irish baritone” voice singing a hymn at the offertory. The celebrant (from Guardian Angel) lamented certain “literary Catholic magazines” that tended to play down the role of the Virgin Mary in the church of today.5)
The following year Cardinal Spellman died. Those years, actually so recent, now seem like a far off dream. The rows of piers on the Hudson which in the early 1960’s still formed such a grand sight from the elevated West Side highway had started to disappear by the end of that decade. The death of of passenger liner travel, the development of container transportation and the general decline of New York industrial life all brought an end to the saga of the Manhattan waterfront. By the 1980s, except for a few piers for cruise ships, the maritime life virtually synonymous with New York City since its beginnings in the 17th century had entirely disappeared. Simultaneously in Chelsea the factories and warehouses near the docks largely closed, the elevated train line ceased operation and gradually fell into ruin. By this time the streets on the far west side of Chelsea near Guardian Angel had become at night one of the spookiest parts of Manhattan. By the middle of the 1980’s the only relic of the glorious past that remained was the metal plaque on the façade of the church still proclaiming it to be the home of the chaplain of the port of New York. A post World War II influx of immigrants from Puerto Rico was in large part responsible for maintaining the congregations of the Chelsea parishes.
But already the rest of Chelsea had started an economic turnaround; it was one of the first areas of the city to experience gentrification – a process continuing to the present day. Many were attracted by its old-fashioned townhouses and low rise streetscapes. Then, Chelsea succeeded Greenwich Village as the center of New York homosexual life. Remaining piers were converted into sports and leisure facilities. The meatpacking district at the southern end of Chelsea was similarly transformed from an industrial and commercial area to a region of boutiques and restaurants. Finally the long ruined and abandoned viaduct of the railroad was transformed into the High Line: an elevated park. Guardian Angel parish now found itself in the center of New York City tourism. Where once poor longshoreman had lived and struggled to make a living, there were now multi million dollar condos and townhouses. Chelsea was now an area representative of the contemporary hedonism of international tourists and locals alike.
How has the parish fared in this startlingly new environment? Like many others, Guardian Angel had difficulty recovering from the loss of its original mission and of most of its original congregation. Indeed, it was considered for closure under Cardinal Egan. Then, under “Making All Things New,” it was first scheduled to become an adjunct church of the much older Chelsea parish of Saint Columba (originally also connected with maritime trades). But in fact it was Guardian Angel that became the senior surviving parish in the merger with Saint Columba that occurred in 2015. Other recent news from this parish was the high-visibility pastorate of Monsignor Michael F. Hull between 2009 and 2014. It is reported that the parish owes to Msgr. Hull a lavishly restored rectory. He is currently living with his wife in Europe as an ordained minister of the Anglican church of Scotland. 6)
Will this parish be able to recover and represent Catholicism in the midst of these utterly changed and indeed hostile surroundings? Realistically, one should be pessimistic given recent experience elsewhere in the City and more specifically at Guardian Angel. Moreover, after the merger Guardian Angel is called not a parish, a church or a chapel but a “worship site.” Such a demoralizing, un-Catholic appellation reveals all too well the mentality of those behind “Making All Things New.”
Yet we see signs of hope – of attempts to establish contact both with the visitors and the residents of this neighborhood. The parish has had the foresight to hoist a banner near the roof so those milling on the High Line can see it; it has also made colorful pamphlets available in the church of both Guardian Angel and Saint Columba. The combined parish website is very fine. And of course what is now a rarity in Manhattan parishes: the parochial school of Guardian Angel continues to function. So we would hope that what once was a mission church to the gritty waterfront will develop an entirely different mission: reaching out to the unchurched who find themselves, either as inhabitants or tourists, in a contemporary neighborhood of leisure and luxury.
(Above and below) The church abuts directly on the High Line – the building of which was the cause of its present location.
The view from the High Line:(Above) Haha – you are likely to be disappointed! But, seriously, wasn’t the opportunity to peep into nearby hotels and apartments one of the original attractions of the High Line? (Below) Guardian Angel fights back by hoisting this banner, level with the footpath of the High Line.
(Above) Seen from the High Line, much of Guardian Angel is obscured by foliage – no peeping into the apse windows is possible!
Under a prior management, traditional masses at Guardian Angel: (Above) January 8, 2008, showing Christmas decorations; (Below) Later in 2008 – Msgr Gilles Wach, ICRSS, celebrant.
1) See, e.g., “The Waterfront Priest” http://www.regis.org/2014/multimedia/corridan.cfm
3) The New York Times,February 8, 1946 page 3.
4) “Mass for Dockmen Offered on Pier: a unique Setting for a Communion Mass” The New York Times, May 8, 1950. It has been described as a kind of counterdemonstration by the pastor of Guardian Angel to the “black legend “ of the waterfront (seen in “On the Waterfront”) allegedly propagated by the Jesuits. See Fisher, James T., On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2009) at 139-42.
5) Dugan, George, “Catholics Hold Service at Pier to open Program for Workers,” The New York Times, December 9, 1966
6) See http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/abb/abb_94trainofscandal.html ; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-anne-hendershott/another-catholic-scandal_b_8837572.html (the original article by Maureen Mullarkey at First Things appears to have been deleted)