Archbishop John Hughes had created the parish just six years earlier for the rapidly-developing Murray Hill area. Although the original St. Stephen’s was opened in 1849 on East 27th Street, its proximity to the Harlem Avenue railroad on Fourth Avenue proved intolerable. Land was purchased on East 28th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues and the cornerstone laid on April 17, 1853..
Completed a year later, the brownstone building made use of elongated stained glass windows in the front face to accentuate the verticality of its architecture. A parapet with a rose window and a corbelled porch visually dominated the exterior. Frescoes covered the ceiling and walls of the interior of the $40,000 church.
The archbishop attended the dedication ceremony on Sunday, March 5, 1854. Despite the $1.00 admission, each seat was filled; the only trouble occurring, according to The New York Times, when “one old lady, whose full proportions in the aisle threatened to stop the procession.”
As the streets of Murray Hill became populated with wide brownstone mansions, St. Stephen’s became a wealthy and significant parish. Despite the ordinance against opening a vault or digging a grave below 42nd Street, the Board of Aldermen gave St. Stephen’s the “privilege” of interring parishioners in the vault below the church in 1860; a significant concession.
Early on the church became a favorite among the musical community. On December 18,1865 the funeral of Italian buffo singer Augustine Rovero was held here. The church choir was augmented by the chorus and solo singers of the Italian Opera and the funeral procession was led by the orchestra of the Opera.
That same year it was decided to enlarge the church due to the ever-increasing membership. The building was extended to 29th Street, resulting in a nave 200 feet long. Constantine Brumidi, who simultaneously painted the frescoes in the Capitol Building rotunda in Washington DC, executed 43 murals, and Meyer of Munich created 100 stained glass windows.
|One of Brumidi's magnificent murals over the marble altar. Some of the Meyer & Munich windows are visible at the sides. photo catholicmanhattan.blogspot.com|
In 1868 the altar was replaced with what The New York Times called an “elegant structure, which is one of the handsomest and most expensive in the country. It is made of statuary marble imported from Italy, and cost $30,000,” three-quarters of the original cost of the building.
While the great St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also designed by Renrick, was rising on Fifth Avenue St. Stephen’s was the foremost Roman Catholic church among New York’s wealthy. On November 28,1870 the sanctuary was filled as hundreds attended the wedding of the Spanish Minister, Senor Mauritio Lopez Roberts to Angela Terre. In attendance were the ministers of Portugal, Prussia, Russia and Italy as well as the French Charge d’Affaires and diplomats from Cuba, Washington DC and Spain.
Four years later the King Ka’akaua of Hawaii and his party worshipped here. “The music especially pleased his Majesty, and was of that brilliant character which has gained for St. Stephen’s its reputation in this repect,” reported The Times.
An awkward moment followed the service when the king attempted to wait for the church to empty so he would not have to leave through a crowd. But the parishioners, eager to get a good view of royalty, did not budge and a stalemate of unmoving bodies resulted.
Even with the dedication of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Stephen’s remained in the forefront for Catholic society. In 1882 James D. McCabe, Jr., in his “New York by Gaslight,” commented ‘The most fashionable church, as well as one of the most beautiful, is St. Stephen's...The interior is beautifully decorated with frescoes, and the altar, of pure white marble, is one of the most magnificent in the Union. The altar-piece, representing the Crucifixion, is a noble work of art, and the music the best in the city. The church will seat 400 people, and is always crowded. Father McGlynn, the rector, is one of the most gifted pulpit orators in the city."
By now, owing to the Rev. Dr. Edward McGlynn’s moving oratory and persuasive character, the membership had risen to between 25,000 and 28,000 persons and was one of the country’s most influential parishes.
All would not stay idyllic, however.
The outspoken and liberal-minded priest had made his opinions clearly heard, even though they often ran counter to the stance of the Church. He spoke out against parochial schools, saying that public schools were quite adequate, for instance.
He ignored Archbishop Corrigan’s orders to correct his behavior, and when he offended the Vatican and was summoned to Rome, he ignored the command and instead spoke out more strongly. Finally in January 1887 he was excommunicated and stripped of his priestly functions.
When a new Pastor, Rev. Arthur J. Donnelly, was assigned in McGlynn’s stead, the parishioners rebelled. The engineer, Mr. Johnson, resigned and mailed his key to Dr. McGlynn which resulted in there being no heat in the church for Sunday services that January morning. The choir director of eight years, Agatha Munier, walked out and the boys choir refused to sing. There could be no collection taken because the collectors refused to serve. “The money tables were not in their usual places just inside the entrances: no tickets for seats were sold, and the worshippers sat where they pleased,” noted The Times.
The paper reported that “Father Donnelly will remain at St. Stephen’s until quiet is restored and opposition is removed.”
Eventually quiet was restored and the opposition removed. In 1894 McGlynn was reinstated as a priest, although not at St. Stephen’s. In 1900 the funeral for the feisty priest, whom The New York Times called “the Great Agitator,” was held here. Over 30,000 people viewed the body and 110 policement were required to control the crowd.
As the 20th Century progressed, the area became more commercial and the membership declined substantially. Father Francis Cummings, who arrived in 1919, made significant renovations including electrical lighting, restoration of the exterior and stained glass and installation of a new organ.
In 1989 the church merged with Our Lady of the Scapular, changing its name to The Church of Our Lady of the Scapular and St. Stephen.
No longer the foremost Catholic church in the city, it remains a treasure of art and architecture too often overlooked.