Saturday, October 22, 2011

The 1887 Knox Chapel (St. John the Martyr Church) -- 259 E. 71st Street

In March 1887, the Knox Presbyterian Church moved into its new chapel and Sunday school room.  The new congregation – only two years old at the time – was moving swiftly to erect a formidable church building at the corner of 72nd Street and 2nd Avenue and the new chapel was the first completed step.

The group intended to make a splash with its projected church structure.   It commissioned the highly-popular architect Robert Henderson Robertson to design the building and spent $65,000 for the valuable corner lot.  Robertson was widely-known for his Romanesque Revival works which were currently all the rage.

Robertson’s sketches laid out a complex of connected buildings with a delightful jumble of roof peaks and angles.  Heavy stone arches of rough-cut brownstone would be supported by polished granite columns and an eye-catching 125-foot bell tower would dominate the corner.  A handsome roof of “red Akron tiles,” would cover the entire complex, as reported in The Real Estate Record and Guide.

Robertson's sketch for the church and chapel, as published in 1888 in American Architect and Building News
The completed chapel and classroom building was finished at a cost of $25,000, not counting the $40,000 lot, and was, as The New York Times reported on the day after opening, “paid for.”  In addition to the chapel area, there was a lecture room, library, and class rooms; all “furnished in hard wood and well arranged.”   The little chapel could comfortably seat only around 700 worshipers.

For some unknown reason, the arrangement of the chapel and Sunday school building were flipped from Robertson’s original sketch – like a reversed photo negative.

A year later hopes were still high that construction on the main church would be moving along.  The Times reported on February 27, 1888 that “It is expected that the church will be built and ready for use some time next year.”

It was not to be.

Another year passed and on March 10, 1889 the Rev. Dr. David G. Wylie, pastor of Knox Presbyterian, praised his congregation for their work and reminded them of their growing numbers which now amounted to 300 members.  “The Pastor made a strong appeal for a new church edifice,” said The Times.

Yet the new edifice would not be built.  The popular Dr. Wylie left Knox Presbyterian in 1891 and turmoil among the members regarding his replacement resulted in a schism.  A meeting on April 29 in the lecture room was called by The Times “a crowded and stormy one.”  The tone of the meeting was summed up in the newspaper’s relating “Dr. Moorhead then took the floor and poured hot shot at the committee until the Moderator compelled him to keep quiet.”

A substantial number of influential congregants resigned and the new church building which once seemed so close to realization was again tabled. 

The church struggled on, although by 1903 the physical appearance of the chapel was less than pristine.  The New York Times noted on July 20 that “from its battered front one would suppose religion were unpopular in that neighborhood.” 

The church was finally sold in 1904 for $39,000 to the newly established St. John the Martyr’s Bohemian Catholic church.  The parish had been established in 1903 and had been worshiping in a house on East 71st Street purchased by Archbishop John Cardinal Farley.  The neighborhood had earned the nickname “Little Bohemia” by now as middle-European immigrants settled in the area.

In celebration of its new home the church received impressive gifts.  The Maschek von Masburg family donated a set of 10 bells; a painting, “St. John Nepomucine,” by Alphonse Mucha was valued at $50,000; another, “Three Martyrs,” by Zimmerman was priced at $40,000.  Another painting, “Mary Magdalen,” by Albert Marx had won first prize at the Vienna Exposition of 1875 and was on its way from Prague and cost the donor $100,000.

At the dedication and blessing of the bells in December, Monsignor Lavelle commended the Rev. Father Prout, pastor of the new parish for “making a beautiful church out of one which only two months ago was a Presbyterian Church.”

Also given to the church were more than 60 holy relics donated by priest who had obtained them from “a noble family in Rome.”  The supposedly miraculous objects were said to include a fragment of the cloak worn by St. Joseph; pieces of bone from 55 saints including St. Stephen the Martyr, St. Patrick, St. Anthony and St. John the Baptist; a piece of the true cross; small splinters of the table from the Last Supper; parts of the sepulcher in which Christ was laid; and a piece of the rope from the scourging of Christ.

Scandal ensued when the relics, some of which were housed in gold cases, were loaned by Father Prout to Msr. Lavelle in 1911.  The relics were reported to have been the cause of “some wonderful cures” in January of that year.  “Sores were healed, swellings reduced, deformed limbs made normal, and weak eyes made strong, and so the people set great store by them and came to the church in large numbers to worship while they were there,” said The Times.

Unfortunately, over a year later, St. John the Martyr’s still did not have its relics back.    The parishioners began demanding an explanation and when reporters questioned Mgr. Lavelle he replied “It is none of the public’ business.  I will say nothing, I tell you.  I insist on being excused.”

Despite the loss of the valued relics, the parish continued.    In 1913 there were 408 baptisms and 165 weddings.

In 1921 Thomas Capek in his “The Cech Bohemian Community of New York” said “The Catholics attend the Church of our Lady of Perpetual Help, 323 E. 61st Street, and the St. John the Martyr’s, 254, E. 72nd Street.  The congregations in both churches are mixed (Cech-Irish).”

On January 29, 1949 an unlikely and potentially tragic event unfolded while 37-year old Rev. Vincent J. Campbell was hearing confessions.  As about 20 parishioners waiting in the pews for their turn, a man suddenly stood and drew a rifle from a paper covering and shot through the confessional booth.

The priest was only slightly injured in the leg and the next day the assailant was captured after a gun battle at his $5-a-week room on 69th Street.  Elmer Stanford, whom newspapers described as a “gaunt, haggard man in his middle forties,” was removed “babbling incoherently under the stress of religious mania.”

Robertson's chapel and parish house, with their rough-cut brownstone blocks, are flipped from the original designs.
Little Bohemia is no longer.  As with most ethnic neighborhoods of Manhattan, the concentration of Bohemian residents has been diluted as new generations move on.  But St. John the Martyr’s Church still survives strongly in the chapel of the grand church that was never to be.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

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