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