A period of noticeable intolerance against Catholics after the French Revolution encouraged some French Catholics to immigrate to America, many settling in New York where French-speaking enclaves had already taken root. French culture had, by now, become fashionable in the United States; Dolley Madison closely following French styles and wearing, almost exclusively, Parisian gowns.
There were, however, no Catholic churches in New York that offered masses in French. French Catholics, unable to understand the English sermons, began simply staying away. Alarmed at the news, the Archbishop of Nancy traveled to New York in the 1830s and from the pulpit of St. Peters Church on Barclay Street preached a sermon in French. The purpose was clear: the French Catholics of New York must establish their own parish.
The French immigrants listened. They established the parish of St. Vincent de Paul in 1841, erecting their first structure on Canal Street. In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, the parish had grown and a new church was planned uptown.
The congregation purchased land on 23rd Street between 6th and 7th Avenues and commissioned the architect Henry Engelbert to design it. Engelbert would go on to design other notable churches, including the renovation of the burned Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street. He produced a classically-inspired temple with twin towers. Completed in 1857, the interior featured inlaid marbles, mosaics, massive fluted Corinthian columns and brilliant frescoes.
Photograph Michael Henry Adams
The pastor of St. Vincent de Paul, Annet Lafont of the Fathers of Mercy, was not content with merely providing a venue for his French-speaking congregation. In New York of the 1850s, blacks endured a “truly pitiable condition.” In the words of the Fathers of Mercy, the blacks “could hold no real estate, were permitted in no public vehicle or place of amusement, and when traveling, they had to use a special car which was little better than those for cattle.”
Father Lafont opened the Catholic school to black children, stressing that “They must receive the same moral and mental training as the white children.” When some of the white families threatened to move their children to other schools, the Father instructed the black children himself in his home. Hearing of this, Haitian immigrant Pierre Toussaint, who would later be nominated for sainthood, helped fund Lafont’s endeavor. It would be another 70 years before another school for black children would be opened in the US.
Around the church the 19th Century entertainment district sprouted. Next door was Koster & Bial's Music Hall, on the opposite side of 23rd Street was Booth's Theatre, and down the block was The Grand Opera House, to name a few. St. Vincent de Paul seemed, perhaps, out of place in its neighborhood of nighttime recreation.
Because of Lafont's advanced social ideas, St. Vincent de Paul was the first Catholic church to welcome both black and white worshippers to partake in communion together. His foundation of racial and social tolerance never faltered. Decades later when New York took in Jewish refugee children from France at the end of World War II, the church offered comfort to them.
In 1939 the congregation chose to restyle the 23rd Street façade. Architect Anthony H. Depace stripped away the Engelbert facade, replacing it with a restrained Roman-inspired frontage. Four fluted Corinthian pilasters support a heavy, classic pediment. The New York State Historic Preservation Office has called Depace’s renovation “an outstanding intact example of the Neoclassical style specifically inspired by Roman architecture.”
The French masses continued throughout the 20th Century, attracting Haitian immigrants fleeing the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier, as well as Candian, Belgian, Swiss and French-speaking Africans.
It was here, in December 1961 that Edith Piaf married her final husband, Theophanis Lamboukas. Marlene Dietrich was her maid of honor.
Despite its history-making social and religious innovations and its architectural interest, St. Vincent de Paul has never been designated a landmark. The Catholic Church continuously threatens to close the French-speaking church and rumors of demolition persist.