What the site of Our Lady of Vilna (or Vilnius) looks like today. Demolition started in May or June. We weep for the little church where the regular use of liturgical Latin in New York City(albeit in the Novus Ordo) recommenced circa 1982.
What the site of Our Lady of Vilna (or Vilnius) looks like today. Demolition started in May or June. We weep for the little church where the regular use of liturgical Latin in New York City(albeit in the Novus Ordo) recommenced circa 1982.
Today Holy Rosary parish presents a desolate appearance indeed behind the grand, fortress-like facade. For many years only the basement has been open for religions services. The decoration consists mainly of statues brought down from the main church. The parish has been targeted for closure; its last mass is scheduled for July 26. Naturally the congregation disagreed withe this decision – but what could be done? Nowadays Holy Rosary is a poor congregation without significant financial connections outside the parish or media allies.
One recent Saturday afternoon a solitary lady was tidying up the basement church. She did not know why she was doing this – the church was closing in week, after all. Yet, she had resolved that when the doors are finally shut, they will find the church clean.
(Above and Below) These heavily repainted statues of indifferent quality undoubtedly date to the decades when Holy Rosary was virtually an Italian ethnic parish.
(Above) A reproduction of the oldest Christian image of the Philippines.
Our Lady of Peace.
Another prime target of “Making all Things New” is Our Lady of Peace. It was originally an Italian ethnic parish – a former protestant church that became one of the most extravagantly decorated Catholic sanctuaries in the city. It gradually grew into a “regular” if small parish of the Archdiocese in an area that had become very affluent indeed. But all the art in this church was created in the Italian, pre-Conciliar days.
Like several other small parishes in well-to-do areas( St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. John the Martyr and – unsuccessfully for the time being – St. Thomas More) the closing of this parish undoubtedly appeared as a real opportunity to the Archdiocese! Needless to say the parishioners of Our Lady of Peace did not at all agree with his action which erases their small but successful parish. The resistance has been spirited. Like the parishioners of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, they have lodged an appeal with Vatican; the Archdiocese has curtly informed them that this will not delay the scheduled closing on August 1.
(Above and Below) Unfortunately the sanctuary has suffered severe damage in the wake of the Council. But much of the originally elaborate furnishings survives – like the ornate communion rail.
(Above) For a small church there are a multiplicity of devotions. (Below) Our Lady of Fatima
(Above) Santa Fara – a local Sicilian favorite – in her glass case.
(Above) A recent mass. In this austere but dignified liturgy the topic of the imminent closing was not mentioned. But all the more vehement were the reactions and discussions of the parishioners after the mass! Needless to say no one was arguing for the Archdiocesan plan.
For when a Church dies… (St Elizabeth of Hungary)
How many things are lost when a church closes! Catholics and non-Catholics alike lose the presence of a familiar landmark, anchoring the streetscape. The small church of St Elizabeth of Hungary presides over a tree-lined block of quaint buildings, which has miraculously survived intact to this day. Whereas elsewhere the inhumanly scaled towers of the financial and legal empires and the equally monstrous high-rises of the superrich increasingly dominate, here the tower of a small church still presides over walkups and modest storefronts. Above the façade rises a tower of unfamiliar form, mimicking those of the “Old country” like the Teyn church in Prague. It’s a church which is both part of the streetscape yet soars above it. St. Elizabeth’s assumes a guiding role in this block’s appearance while modestly remaining part of the community.
When a church dies a thousand memories disappear which link the rootless post -conciliar Catholics of today to the sacrifices of prior generations. Slovak immigrants – never as significant a force in New York as elsewhere in the US – organized St. Elizabeth as their first church in 1892 on the Lower East Side. That building still stands, and some of the furnishings in St. Elizabeth undoubtedly come from that church. Now Archbishop Corrigan of New York rejected the first suggested patron for the new parish (St. John the Baptist), and ordered it to named instead for St. Elizabeth of Hungary. As he rather insensitively put it, “as St Elizabeth was one of your national saints, you ought to be very glad to be placed under her invocation.” (Slovakia was part of Hungary for a thousand years) 1) And then in 1917 the parish moved to Yorkville and took over and redesigned a Protestant church.
After that, if one flips through the parish history, things settle down to the routine of parish life: meetings and banquets of the innumerable organizations that filled the calendar even of a small parish back then; fundraisers; the archepiscopal visits of Cooke, O’Connor etc. Beginning in the 1950’s rising rents gradually displaced the Slovak population. A more generic Catholic middle class – including many Irish – filled the church in what was steadily becoming a more affluent area. By 2000 some parishioners were not totally clear what was the language found on inscriptions all over the church – was it Polish? That problem will disappear – when this church dies the Slovak commemorations on the windows as well as the plaques of donors in more recent fundraising efforts likewise vanish.
And finally came the New York Catholic deaf community. For them St. Elizabeth was ideal for this apostolate – a small intimate space, where the signing could be easily seen. And, after all, a church for the deaf is even more important in the Novus Ordo rite than it would be in a Traditional community! Cardinal Cooke celebrated a mass for the deaf here in 1983. And so St. Elizabeth continued on, sharing the vicissitudes of the city and the neighborhood. Can we not forget how fourteen years ago, across the street from the church, candles flickered at night around a hastily improvised memorial to a local victim of 9/11?
But what will also be lost when St Elizabeth closes is not just a historical monument, but also an existing refuge of beauty and quiet in New York. Inside this church, the Slovaks in plaster created the appearance of a late gothic sanctuary out of hewn stone. The interior is admittedly just one large simple space. The statues are largely of plaster. I also concede that some of the 1950’s “Liturgical Movement” altars are mediocre. But if modest, all the decor and furnishings are tasteful and finely executed – the metalwork, the statues, the windows, the blue of the ceiling studded with gold stars. Rarely has so much been accomplished in a church with such little resources! It is quintessentially Catholic. There is hardly any other Catholic Church that so lends itself to meditation, especially when the lights are extinguished and the only illumination is the stained glass windows and the many (real)votive candles. The din of the city does not intrude into this space.
Yes, when a church dies so much that is unique, beautiful, precious and rare disappears! The great emperor Charles V said when he saw the new church that the canons of Cordoba cathedral had erected for themselves inside the old cathedral (a former mosque): “they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.” And yet in that case Christian worship continued! For what happens when a church dies is, above all, the loss of one more space consecrated to God. One more visual proof is offered (or so it would seem to the “man in the street”) that the forces of organized unbelief are prevailing, that the Christian Church is continuing its retreat toward oblivion. And what is obtained in return? A few million dollars that will be powdered away in the blink of an eye? A new set of luxury condos? A heritage of bitterness among the parishioners? Finally, do we need to point out the contrast between what is happening at St.Elizabeth’s to one of the most “marginal” communities in New York and what is being trumpeted nowadays by the Vatican?
(We should point out that “all is not lost.” St. Elizabeth has lodged an appeal with the Vatican that will be heard by September 1. In the meantime the deaf community will be moving to St Thomas More, another parish on the hit list that obtained a miraculous reprieve (after adverse commentary in the press). St. Elizabeth’s community had previously rejected the ludicrous suggestions of large churches like St, Monica’s or St. Patrick’s cathedral. St Thomas More is also a formerly Protestant building of modest dimensions.)
For a full description and video see HERE.
1) The Church of St Elizabeth of Hungary, New York, New York, 100th Anniversary at 13(St. Elizabeth’s Church, New York, 1992)
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)
414 East 14th Street
The Catholic churches of New York offer so many unexpected sights to the inquisitive researcher! Walking toward the eastern end of 14th Street at First Avenue, you see on the north side of the street the phalanx of unprepossessing redbrick apartment buildings that is Stuyvesant Town. To the south is the so-called “East Village,” caught between a Bohemian, if decidedly mixed, past and a gentrified present and future. On the south side of 14th Street rises a romantic, picturesque complex of Gothic-stye buildings executed in brick, including a tower, gables, gargoyles, projecting chapel and a rectory. It the church of Immaculate Conception Parish – a strange but enchanting vision amid the nondescript but fortunately modestly scaled structures that now surround it.
The parish of Immaculate Conception and its church are really the story of two different congregations and two different faiths. Archbishop Hughes founded Immaculate Conception parish in 1855:
“When the dogma of which the church (Immaculate Conception)is to be a memorial and a monument was proclaimed as an article of faith, I was but four or five feet distant from the Holy Father. Just at that moment I resolved on my return to New York to erect a church to commemorate the event.” (so Archbishop Hughes at an 1857 fair held to finance the construction of the parish.) 1)
But lots had already been acquired in 1853 for a new Catholic church here – Immaculate Conception was one of the wave of new parishes that were springing up all over the island. Dedicated in 1858, within twelve years the church had to be expanded and a school was established. Further extensive redecoration with new altars and windows took place in the early 1900’s. In its exterior appearance the old Immaculate Conception parish was a typical Victorian parish church of that day, with a facade in a kind of Italianate Gothic. We lack images of the interior but judging from the timetable above the overall effect was probably not too different from that of Holy Innocents parish today. The parish bounds included parts of the notorious “Gas House“ district (where Stuyvesant Town now stands), but the 19th century congregation probably was representative of all kinds of income levels, much like old St. Ann’s parish not too far away. The Irish made up the majority of the parish; we read that in 1914 “the basement church for the Italians is in charge of Rev. Joseph A. DeMarco.” 2) The Italians of the vicinity would shortly get their own parish of Mary Help of Christians on East 12th Street.
(Above) The old church of Immaculate Conception Parish.
Now in the 1890’s Grace Church, one of the main Episcopal churches of New York City, constructed an elaborate “chapel” at 414 East 14th Street for those who could not afford pews at Grace. The complex also included a hospital, a garden within a courtyard, and even a water fountain on the street (at a time when that might have been more than a welcome convenience on hot days). It was an “outreach program” (as one would call it in the conciliar church of today) to the Protestants of this poorer side of town. The whole was executed in a late Gothic or “Francis I” style” – intended to resemble that of the châteaux of the Loire, I suppose – but the overall layout resembles that of other “English country” Anglican parishes in New York. Renwick’s Grace Church provided the template: a church, often dominated by a spire or tower, surrounded in romantic disorder by a complex of buildings: a vicarage, schools, chapels, even here and there a cloister. The formerly Anglican, now Catholic Church of St Thomas More on the Upper East Side is another, smaller-scaled example. 3) The New York Times, in an early review of doings on the Lower East Side, celebrated “Grace Chapel” (as it was known) as the most magnificent effort of ecclesiastical architecture to be found in the entire neighborhood.
As the twentieth century advanced the Catholic parish of Immaculate Conception fell on harder times as the neighborhood grew poorer. But then an extraordinary thing happened. In the 1940’s the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company launched a project to build a vast complex in the vicinity: Stuyvesant Town. It was destined to be the last hurrah of the middle class on the island of Manhattan. To build Stuyvesant Town a whole neighborhood had to be razed – including two old Catholic parishes. St. Mary Magdalene – bereft of its now embarrassing patron saint – later was reincarnated in the new St.Emeric parish. Immaculate Conception church also lay in the path of redevelopment. But in the case of this parish, the miraculous took place. Grace Chapel had been closed by 1943 because of the disappearance of Protestant population in the neighborhood. The entire complex was then acquired by the Archdiocese as the new home of Immaculate Conception parish. So our parish in modern day Baghdad-on-the-Hudson was much more fortunate in its exchange of a new church for the old than was Aladdin’s wife in her dealings with the lamp merchant!
(Above) The picturesque fountain.
As ever, the exterior of Immaculate Conception presents a handsome face to East 14th Street. Unfortunately the quaint water fountain remains dry – as seems to have been the case for decades. Indeed there is netting over it now. Over the late-Gothic arch leading into the church is a statue of the Virgin taken from the old Immaculate Conception Church.
The interior is impressive – high, light and airy – with a splendid wooden ceiling. Immaculate Conception is one of the “bright” as opposed to the “dark,” Gothic churches of the city. Other than the ceiling, the most impressive decorative feature is the series of exceptional “Protestant” windows, celebrating figures of the Old and New Testaments, including some female personages hardly ever depicted in Catholic churches.
(Above) The Redeemer surrounded by Sarah, Deborah, Elizabeth and Salome.
(Above and below) The “Protestant” windows from the 1890’s
Aesthetically speaking, Immaculate Conception and St. Thomas More – both 19th century Anglican structures – were the two most successful Catholic churches created by Cardinal Spellman in Manhattan. It is hard to get a sense today for the initial Catholic decorative scheme of the 1940’s – this parish underwent an early “conciliar” house cleaning in the 1960’s. But the original decor seems to have been restrained – already influenced by the Liturgical Movement. In general, while since 1943 the Roman Catholic Church has added very little of aesthetic value to this church, it has been, except for one outrageous modern mural facing the main stained glass window, nowhere near as destructive as elsewhere.
(Above and below) Catholic contributions. Below, the recently restored high altar.
You can wander into the former garden, now a kind of cloister. There you can admire the unfinished walls of the church – those that do not face the street. The school is still there – and for the first time in decades sisters are active here again, from the new European congregation “Das Werk.”
Immaculate Conception has remained an active parish with a functioning school up to the present day, buoyed by the ongoing stability of Stuyvesant Town. It has lived through the vicissitudes of the rest of the neighborhood, however; its southern surroundings in particular by the late 1970’s took a radical turn for the worse, only to rebound- at least economically – under the recent gentrification wave. Its neighboring parish to the south, Mary Help of Christians was a victim of this resurgence, recently closed and sold by the Archdiocese to a developer of luxury condominiums. But since this parish was technically merged into Immaculate Conception, that parish’s congregation – and at least some of the money from the sale of its church – ended up in Immaculate Conception parish.
Over the years the maintenance of the parish complex – the roof, the windows – has been an ongoing effort. The high altar was recently reconfigured under Cardinal Egan. And a new chapel of Mary Help of Christians has been just opened in the basement. It’s Novus Ordo 2014-style:a stark modernistic auditorium adorned with traditional decorative furnishings – some taken, as is so often the case, from another destroyed church. Elsewhre in Immaculate conception church, the most recent restoration campaign eliminated a huge Lourdes grotto, but restored the original baptistery.
(Above) The old Lourdes shrine and (below) its recently installed successor.
So Immaculate Conception parish perseveres having endured some of the the most amazing twists of fortune – favorable and unfavorable – of any church in the city! Despite it all, for the foreseeable future this parish remains committed to its mission in this part of the city. As one of the last and biggest disasters generated by the pre-2008 real estate bubble, Stuyvesant Town was sold to a financial group which wanted to upgrade the property. Elsewhere in the city such gentrification has not necessarily been a blessing to the local Catholic parish. In the wake of the crash, however, the new purchaser became insolvent. So an element of uncertainty remains over the future of this complex – which in this case may be beneficial for Immaculate Conception parish.
The parish has a very informative website.
1) Shea, John Gilmary, The Catholic Churches of New York City at 371-72 ( Lawrence G. Goulding & Co., New York 1878)
2) The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Vol. 3 at 336 (Catholic Editing Company, New York 1914)
3) Gray, Christopher, “Streetscapes/The Immaculate Conception Church on East 14th; A Protestant Complex Converted to Catholicism” (The New York Times, July 26, 1998) at http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/26/realestate/streetscapes-immaculate-conception-church-east-14th-protestant-complex-converted.html
444 East 119th Street
East 119th Street in East Harlem – “Spanish” or, earlier, “Italian” Harlem. For many decades now it’s been a quiet, off-the beaten-track location – Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Rao’s are located a few blocks to the south. At least the streets here aren’t totally dominated by the government-sponsored brick complexes that have destroyed so many other parts of East Harlem. As you approach the East River, you see first a high tower, then a veritable gray stone castle. This roughhewn stone exterior, with its intricate pattern of windows, gables and arches, is the grand façade of Holy Rosary church.
(If you peer over the side of this facade, however, you see that rest of the church – hidden even by the lowrise buildings lining this block between 119th and 118th streets – is executed in plain brick…).
Holy Rosary is one of the great parish churches of New York that seemed to spring up every year in the era of the Archdiocese’s greatest splendor (1890-1920). It was founded in 1884 as a “mainstream” (non-ethnic) Archdiocesan parish as this part of Harlem rapidly developed. By the end of the 19th century the initial church was already totally inadequate for the growing parish. The present structure was begun in 1898 and dedicated in 1900.
It’s difficult to form a full assessment of the artistic merit of this church for, except for the “lower church” (the basement), it has been closed for years now. We can say, however, that the appearance of Holy Rosary in both the exterior and the interior seems very similar to that of the church of the Ascension on West 107th Street, a structure almost exactly contemporary. Holy Rosary is built in a style called “Romanesque revival” – relying on Romanesque rounded arches but also incorporating Gothic, Renaissance and Byzantine elements.
The rugged, almost militant exterior creates the impression of an “ecclesiastical castle” – a spiritual refuge in a traditionally very poor area. Holy Rosary stands out proudly as a Catholic church especially in the midst of streets where the old buildings remain, where everything is still on a human scale. It testifies to the commitment of the Catholic church to the neighborhood and the city regardless of the whether the parishioners were Irish, Italian or Puerto Rican. It tells of a religion that was once not afraid to stand up and assume a leading role in society when others would not.
(Above and below) The imposing tower.
(Above) Most Holy Rosary in 1914 (From “The Catholic Church in the United States of America,” Vol. 3)
By 1914 the parish included 5200 persons. The congregation was Irish and German – the clergy in 1914 are all Irish – but already there was a strong Italian representation. A few decades more and Holy Rosary had become virtually an Italian ethnic parish. After the Second World War the parish gradually became overwhelmingly “Hispanic.” It seems that Holy Rosary parish remained extremely vital well into the 1970’s 1)
But gradually deterioration set in. The parochial school of Holy Rosary – which still exists – was merged with that of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. By 2008 plaster was regularly falling off the ceiling. The church reached out to former parishioners now living all over the region and the country to raise funds to restore the church. At the time the Archdiocese pledged $500,000 to help. I was informed in 2012 that restoration had in fact commenced and the church “would never be closed.”
Apparently it all was not enough. Since 2009, apparently, services have been held in the basement (or “lower church”). I gather there was a period recently when even this was closed. It is a sad story of Archdiocesan neglect. Of course, allowing a church to deteriorate, as a prelude to closing it is a favorite tactic: consider St. Vincent de Paul or Our Lady of Vilna.
Holy Rosary parish seems to have received clear early indications that it was on the hit list of “Making all Things New.” That decision was in fact announced in November. What a loss to the neighborhood – the potential disappearance of one of its few landmarks and spiritual centers. Naturally the parishioners do not at all agree with this – either during the “Making all Things New” process or now – but what can such a poor parish do? 3) The great fortress of East 119th Street may finally be seeing the end of its existence.
(Above) As do other great Catholic parishes in neighborhoods throughout the city, Holy Rosary acts as a cultural and spiritual anchor radiating far beyond the limits of the parish community. The archdiocese does not grasp that.
1) See generally: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Rosary_Church_(Manhattan); The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Volume 3 at 333-334(Catholic Editing Company, New York 1914).
2) Mallozzi, Vincent, “New Way to Support Old Church” The New York Times (July 30, 2008)
3) A difficult-to-use parish website exists that provides information and pictures on recent developments: https://sites.google.com/site/holyrosaryeastharlem/home
St. Thomas More
65 East 89th Street
It’s an elegant area indeed around East 90th Street near Park, the so-called “Carnegie Hill.” Even up to the early 1980’s it had the reputation of being a lesser known, less socially prominent but quieter alternative to the Upper East Side to the immediate south. But those days are long past and both areas are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable. Yet overshadowed by the cold luxury of the high rise apartment buildings we find a remarkable sight straight out of the English countryside: a small stone Gothic Church, in the midst of a rambling set of buildings and crowned by a curiously articulated, romantic tower. For good reason we always encounter the same adjectives in articles about this church: ”quaint,” “picturesque,” “quirky,” “charming.” Even if, nowadays, St. Thomas More is dwarfed by the monstrously scaled buildings that surround it and which condemn this delicate little sanctuary to partial perpetual shadow.
There is much history here. St. Thomas More is the second oldest church on the Upper East Side, yet it is also one of the most recent Catholic parishes on the island of Manhattan– for it was not even built as a Catholic church! 1) When this church was built in 1870 it stood isolated near the developing district of Yorkville, far to the north of the built up areas of New York City. It was created by the Episcopal church as the Church of the Beloved Disciple for “St. Luke’s Home for Indigent Women.” As time went on more structures were added: a chapel to the west, a rectory and a parish house to the east, giving the church its present romantic appearance.
In 1925 the Church of the Beloved Disciple merged with another Anglican parish that had migrated from further south in the city. The buildings then were acquired by the Reformed Church of Harlem (which was undoubtedly fleeing south from developments in that area). Which congregation, it is reported, installed eight stained glass windows from their previous church (How was this done? Did their stained glass by chance exactly fit the windows of the Church of the Beloved Disciple or did they have to be cut down?) In the meantime the former Church of the Beloved Disciple, which had been on the far outskirts of the city, now found itself in the northern reaches of the city’s most affluent residential area. 2)
In 1950 Cardinal Spellman acquired this church for the new parish of St. Thomas More. I have heard entertaining tales as to why this was done – usually revolving around rivalry with the Jesuits of St. Ignatius Loyola parish. It is said that the proprietor of a funeral home had had a falling out with Jesuits of St. Ignatius Loyola parish. In revenge he instigated the creation of a new parish to which he could offer his services. Or that Cardinal Spellman himself wanted to break the monopoly of the Jesuits to the Upper East Side (the wealthiest neighborhood of the country, even of the world). More likely, as in the case Our Saviour’s parish erected a few years later, Cardinal Spellman just wanted to give the residents of a well-heeled enclave a neighborhood church of their own. For it was an age where church policy favored the establishment of smaller, more accessible communities in place of the huge (both in terms of the size of the congregation and of the church) parishes of yore.
The dedication of the new parish, St. Thomas More – like that of Our Saviour’s – would be elegant and English. The same held true of the alterations to the interior to convert the church to Catholic worship:
“Inside the church, a marble communion rail was installed at the forward edge of the chancel and shrines to the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph were installed along the left and right sides of the chancel. (A) wooden reredos an(d) angel-topped riddle posts, both displacing (sic) table flower ornaments characteristic of the “Decorated Style,” were also installed.” 3)
(Below) The photograph exaggerates the size of church.
Much of this decoration is still in place. It is all very 1950’s “liturgical movement,” very restrained and very elegant. The white statues of the side altars barely emerge from the wall – no exuberant army of painted images here! It is understandable that only one or two candles – even if real – are lit before such images. A severe post conciliar housecleaning removed, among other things, the communion rail. More recent restoration added a prominent organ in the sanctuary. The overall appearance of the sanctuary today would not offend the sensitivities of the prior Anglican and even Dutch Reformed proprietors of this place.
Nevertheless this small church is a place of contemplation and beauty – entirely attributable to the former Protestant congregations who left a legacy of architecture and stained glass – in the Catholic Style, as Pugin would have said – to the parish. The Gothic arches of the aisles support a wooden hammer beam ceiling. When the lights are dimmed the bright colors of the stained glass glow in the obscurity. These windows constitute the most prominent decorative element of the church. At least the wood of Cardinal Spellman’s reredos does not dispel these impressions.
(Above and below) The “Protestant” Windows.
The Church of St. Thomas More, both in its interior and exterior, demonstrates how, despite a restricted scale, good architecture can make a profound impression. It is a testimony to the declining state of the arts in the Catholic church of the mid- twentieth century, though, that Cardinal Spellman’s two most successful churches in Manhattan – St. Thomas More and Immaculate Conception – were 19th century structures created by Episcopalians.
And the complex of St. Thomas More is not just the church. There is the 1879 Foley chapel – named after a later donor who funded its refurbishment. It now includes two confessionals. On the other side of church is the grandly scaled rectory (1880) and parish house of 1893. Within is one of the most impressive halls – an “overcroft?” – of any parish in New York City. 4)
(Above) The “Foley” chapel – which at one point was considered a “Lady Chapel.” (Below) After the chapel became Catholic, a window with the coat of arms of the Dutch Reformed church was replced by this window which includes Marian symbols.
After its establishment, St. Thomas More parish quietly carried on in its corner of Manhattan. In the early 80’s it was the scene of some surprising and original lay initiatives. The prior management of the parish were among the few clergy of the day who saw the need to reach out to the “young professionals” (at that time there was a more disparaging term in circulation) of the city. The result was a successful series of social events and Catholic devotions aimed at this population. Similarly, 1981 saw the start of the Narnia club, which even today runs an orthodox catechetical program for the students of non-Catholic schools.
(Above and below) Window with the new “Catholic” dedication of the the Narnia Clubs (see below)
Later, though, thanks to the Kennedy family, this parish found itself in the national celebrity spotlight. When Jacqueline Kennedy – an allegedly “devout” parishioner – died in 1994, the funeral had to be held in St Ignatius Loyola for lack of space at St Thomas More. But when John F Kennedy Jr.’s 1999 service was held in this parish, a blaze of media publicity resulted. The church was reserved to the Kennedy family and their courtiers – not just the church but all of East 89th Street was sealed off from gawkers.5)
So, despite its small scale, St. Thomas More parish seemingly could do little wrong. It was affluent, active and “vibrant.” It was and is in the black. A nursery school was established on the premises of the parish. St. Thomas More parish had carried out a multi-year restoration of the exterior and interior. That included the restoration of the stained glass. In what seemed at least to me to be a controversial choice, the dedications of the original Protestant donors were knocked out and the names of the new donors to the restoration campaign substituted. As we shall see, however, their glory may be short-lived.
Yes, at least as far as the churches of Manhattan island are concerned, St. Thomas More appeared to be the ideal Archdiocesan parish. It is characteristic that the o-so-very-progressive court historian of the Archdiocese, (Fr.) Thomas J. Shelley, who wrote effusively about labor unions, class conflict and the civil rights movement, chose to reside for years not at parishes such as Holy Agony, St. Teresa or All Saints (to name three options just in Manhattan), but here.
The news that the Archdiocese intends to close St. Thomas More parish was thus all the more crushing. Especially since the parishioners would be “invited” to attend St. Ignatius Loyola church; after all, St. Thomas More had been founded to sever this neighborhood from St. Ignatius Loyola and its Jesuits! The parish would not seem to have any of the signs of distress identified by the Archdiocese in “Making all things New.” (Whatever one may think of the appropriateness of these exclusively materialistic criteria.) The stated reasons given for this “merger proposal” did not immediately appear convincing: “that since St. Thomas More will eventually close some day, it is better to do it now rather than later, when there is presently a momentum within the Archdiocese to merge parishes.” 6) “I can’t just close poor churches.” 7)
Peggy Noonan, however, has cut to the heart of the matter:
“If St. Thomas More is closed it can be sold. New York is experiencing a real estate boom, Carnegie hill is desirable. The church and its land could bring in $50 million, maybe $100 million. Any number of developers would jump at the chance. It’s rumored –rumored- any number have.” 8)
So St. Thomas More parish now is in the first – and perhaps last – great crisis of its 64-year existence. What a tragedy for the parishioners, the neighborhood and the city as whole to lose such a unique architectural landmark – and reverent place of prayer! Perhaps this is the lesson: even if one – a parish, a diocese or an individual Catholic – leads an economically sheltered life, even if one abides by all the ecclesiastical “rules of the game,” the worsening crisis of the Roman Catholic Church will inevitably overtake him. I wish this parish, which I have known for so many years, well in its campaign for survival. An affluent parish like this does have some powerful and articulate allies. Yet I would also encourage them to reflect on the life of their patron saint – who, after all, also lived – and was martyred – in a time of conflict, confusion and chaos within the Church.
See the informative parish WEBSITE for materials on the proposed closure and on the parish, online petitions etc.
1) Dunlop, David W. From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship at 247(Columbia University Press, New York, 2004)
2) “History of Our Church” at http://thomasmorechurch.org/history-of-our-church
4) Gray, Christopher, Streetscapes: “St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church; a Touch of the English Countryside in Manhattan, ” the New York Times (4/2/1989)
5) Kleinfeld, N.R., “The Kennedy Memorial: the Service; Doors closed, Kennedys Offer Their Farewells”, The New York Times (7/24/1999)
6) “Fr. Madigan’s Message about Proposed Merger of St. Thomas More with St. Ignatius Loyola November 23, 2014” at http://thomasmorechurch.org/documents/2014/11/Fr._Madigans_Message_about_Proposed_Merger.pdf
7) See Noonan, infra.
8) Noonan, Peggy, “Cardinal, Please Spare this Church,” The Wall Street Journal at A13 (12/27/2014)
St. Joseph’s (St. James and St. Joseph)
5 Monroe Street
The high façade of St Joseph’s – San Giuseppe – enjoys a rare unobstructed site overlooking the Lower East Side. Not too far away stands the Brooklyn Bridge, surrounded by its entrance ramps. This is a changing area indeed: in part being absorbed into Chinatown, in part experiencing transformation into entertainment and even upscale residential areas.
Built in 1924 as an Italian national parish, St. Joseph’s has been directed from its beginnings by the Missionary fathers of St. Charles Borromeo (the Scalabrini Fathers). The school opened shortly thereafter – in 1926. Like other smaller parishes in New York, St. Joseph’s building houses a combined church and school.
In 1967 St. Joseph’s absorbed the activities of the Parish of St. Joachim, another Italian national parish directed by the Scalabrinians, when that church had been demolished for a housing project. In recent years the congregation of this parish has become increasingly Chinese. A few years ago the St. Joseph’s merged with (really, took over) the ancient parish of St. James located to the south. 1) The parish school merged with that of St. James parish in 2010; in 2013 the combined school closed. So rapid is the decline! (Transfiguration parish school has taken over the building of St. James)
I do not know much about the parish of St. Joseph, located as it is in an out-of-the-way corner of the city. With its two towers and elaborate classical details, St. Joseph’s appearance is much more church-like than that most of its sister parishes sharing a similar, institutional layout. Its façade even bears a certain resemblance to that of Our Lady of Pompeii – built at the same time and also directed by the Scalabrini Fathers. The interior is simple, and, although colorful, is decorated in an infinitely less lavish style than that of its sister in the Village. The quality of the murals, statues and other decoration is very variable: while some statues are very fine, other elements verge on folk art. As might be expected of an Italian parish, we encounter a seemingly limitless number of statues – here, rather unusually, situated in niches along the walls. Their gold background picks up the theme of the vaguely Byzantine apse.
Now, despite having a claimed Sunday mass attendance of 600-700, San Giuseppe is scheduled for closure. The congregation is to be merged with nearby Transfiguration parish – also predominantly Chinese but rather small. 2) We will see how that works out in practice.
The real catastrophe, however, would be the loss of St. James church – one of the most historic Catholic churches in Manhattan and alsoone of the most aesthetically pleasing. The Order of Hibernians intervened once before to prevent the closure of this church and to finance a beautiful restoration. Will the same occur now? After all, St. James – the parish of Al Smith – is of infinitely stronger importance to the Irish experience in America than St. Brigid’s over which such a struggle was recently waged. For St. James parish, see “Faith of Our Fathers.”
2) Arino, Lisha, Catholic Church’s Closure Stuns Lower East Side Parishioners (DNA Info/ East Village and Lower East Side 11/04/2014)
St. Stephen of Hungary
414 East 82nd Street
With St. Stephen of Hungary we depart from “Spanish Harlem” and enter old Yorkville or, nowadays, the gentrified “Upper East Side.” A neighborhood that as recently as the early 1980’s contained a treasure trove of German, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak churches, shops and restaurants – although even by that decade most of the old time residents had left. Now, except for one or two restaurants, only the churches survive.
St. Stephen of Hungary parish began in 1902 in the basement of the (still-existing) St. Stanislaus church. In 1905 it acquired a former Protestant church of East 14th street. By 1914 the congregation numbered 4000 Hungarians. Like the Slovak congregations of St. John Nepomucene and St Elizabeth of Hungary – Slovakia then being part of Hungary – the parish subsequently migrated to Yorkville. A new church was begun in 1927 and completed in 1928. Like the churches of St. Lucy or Corpus Christi, it was a combination school, church and community center. In 1922 the Franciscans had taken over direction of the parish. The consecration of the church in 1928 by Cardinal Hayes was an important Hungarian national manifestation – over 10,000 were in attendance.
From that time forward St Stephen soldiered on as an important center of Hungarian culture and religious life in New York. But already by the 1940’s the congregation was an increasingly composed of non-Hungarians (predominantly Irish-American) – the girls’ choir of the school won awards in that decade for singing in English and Gaelic! Certainly the pastors since that time were also mainly Irish. Further waves of immigration after the Second World War did reinforce the Hungarian element, and St Stephen’s remained a focal point of Hungarian culture. In 1974 the heroic Cardinal Mindszenty celebrated mass here one year before his death. 1)
Despite all this, the number of Hungarian speakers dwindled further even as the average income within the bounds of the parish drastically increased. According to the parish website only one mass on Sunday is now n Hungarian (although my personal experience of just week ago suggests that this is not entirely accurate.2)
By 2009 Stephen’s parochial school was in crisis with just 150 students. It attracted considerable favorable media attention by 2012 with its alleged success repositioning itself to cater to the educational needs of the current (affluent) inhabitants of the neighborhood of St. Stephen’s. Basically the school was trying to break with what had become the predominant model for the parochial schools of Manhattan: basically, the providing of poor relief. The entire discussion, conducted in completely secular terms, reveals how deeply eroded the mission of this parochial school – originally national and religious – had become. It also reveals the inability of the parish and school to adapt to changes in the neighborhood – a problem shared by many other parishes and by the Archdiocese as a whole. 3)
The façade of St Stephen’s is more that of a school than of a church. Yet the effect, with its Romanesque revival decoration and “Boys”” and “Girls'” entrances, is nevertheless very pleasing. So is the church – as in all such church/ school complexes, basically an auditorium. That of St. Stephen’s is much more spartanly decorated than most – has the strong influence of the Hungarian reformation penetrated even here and overcome the national baroque traditions? Upon closer examination the sparse decorative elements – like the non-figurative glass with a host of sometimes enigmatic symbols- are attractive in their way. A drastic conciliar “updating”of the sanctuary has not helped. But all is maintained in very fine condition.
Finally, the dominant artwork in the church is a large stained glass window of St Stephen in the sanctuary. St. Stephen, who converted Hungary to Christianity, places the crown of Hungary before God and at the foot of the Madonna – the window also is surrounded by images of the saints of Hungary. Is it not strange? – if the Archdiocese has its way, within just a couple of years the churches of St Stephen of Hungary, St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Emeric – all the parishes in Manhattan dedicated to saints of Hungarian origin – will have been shuttered. The saints of these churches testify to an age where not just individuals but an entire nation could be consecrated publicly to Christ. That created a bond that survived the many vicissitudes of the Hungarian nation: the Mongols, the Turks, the First World War, the Soviets…. It is why thinkers like Thomas Molnar could never accept the liberal ideology of the separation of church and state. In our time we have seen the last gasps of that dying era, the age of Christendom.
St Stephen of Hungary parish is now scheduled to close. A pall hangs over the parish. The fate of the school is uncertain. Here in New York, the closing and sale of so many churches accompanying the retreat of the Church into a private suburban cult witness to a “new age” antithetical to that of Christendom. Can we nevertheless turn to the founders of the now-vanished age of Christendom – like St Stephen – for guidance in navigating the new era of established unbelief?
1) See generally: St. Stephen of Hungary Parish New York City 1902 – 2002 (St Stephen of Hungary Church, New York, NY, 1979 (sic)); http://www.nycago.org/organs/nyc/html/StStephenHungary.html;
3) Anderson, Jenny, To Survive, a Catholic School Retools for a Wealthier Market (The New York Times, 8/19/2012; Curanaj, Linda, Struggling Catholic School turns things Around (MYFOX.COM 9/07/2012; 9/11/2012)