Saturday, October 29, 2011

Le Brun's 1887 Church of St. Cecilia --120 East 106th Street

phto st. cecilia
In 1863 Cardinal McCloskey purchased the plot of land at the northeast corner of 2nd Avenue and 105th Street on which he intended to build a new church. As more and more urban pioneers ventured to the northern end of Manhattan, this Harlem neighborhood was in need of another Catholic parish.

The Civil War interrupted the Cardinal’s plans until a decade later when, in 1873, he appointed Rev. Hugh Flattery to organize the parish of St. Cecilia.  Half a century later “The Catholic Church in the United States of America” would recall that “Father Flattery found the number of his parishioners small and scattered.”

Nevertheless, the priest had a wooden church erected on the land the Cardinal had purchased earlier. On August 230, 1873 the new building, built at a cost of $10,000, was dedicated. The little building served the growing parish for six years until Fr. Flattery resigned.  His successor, Rev. William Flannelly, recognized the need for a more spacious structure and in March 1881 purchased four lots on East 106th Street from Addison and Mary Brown. The residential-sized lots cost the church $25,800; about $565,000 today.

Architects Napoleon Le Brun & Sons were commissioned to design the new structure. Having moved to New York from Philadelphia around 1861, Le Brun busied himself not only with designing several other churches but with the fire houses of the New York Fire Department for which he was official architect.

Progress on the new church, however, crept along. The cornerstone was not laid until September 1883. In an unusual agreement with the pastor, Rev. Michael J. Phelan, (Father Flannelly had unexpectedly died in 1884), Le Brun & Sons drafted the overall designs and ornamental details and laid out the specifications for the construction; however the architects were not to be involved in the construction.

Father Phelan, who would earn the nickname “The Builder of Churches,” insisted on acting as general contractor. He personally contracted the bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters and other builders and oversaw the project. Phelan’s extraordinary ability to handle complex building projects reduced the cost substantially.

Once the basement of the new structure was completed, services were held there until the upper church was finished in 1887. The original frame church had been donated to the parish of the Holy Rosary and was moved to East 119th Street.

The completed church, costing $150,000, is a Romanesque Revival style basilica of textured brick with terra cotta accents. A projecting, triple-arched portico with ten granite columns extends to the sidewalk , above which are seven stained glass windows. Above, is an enormous terra cotta high-relief sculpture of St. Cecilia (the patron saint of music) playing the organ.

Polished red granite columns support the arched portico with its exuberant terra cotta ornamentation -- photo st. cecilia
Le Brun added to the medieval Italian feel of the church by adding two octagonal towers on either end. Inside the church could accommodate 1,400 worshipers

As the New York subway extended into Harlem in 1900, accessibility to the neighborhood was greatly simplified. By 1914 the parish listed 6000 members and the complex included the church, rectory, a school and convent.

A large terra cotta relief of St. Cecilia playing an organ graces the main gable -- photo st. cecilia

In 1939 the Redemptionist Fathers took over administration of the church and its facilities who continue to staff it.

Throughout the decades the demographics of the East Harlem neighborhood have greatly changed. Today the population is mainly Puerto Rican and Afro-American. As the parish changed, the church of St. Cecilia has remained an anchor to the neighborhood. The parish website notes that “…although this has been a somewhat transitory neighborhood at times, there have been dramatic and inspiring changes, much of it promoted and spurred on by churches such as St. Cecilia’s, which serve not only as religious body and educator but as a focus for community action as well.”

photo st. cecilia
The parish has maintained the building, which was landmarked in 1976, in exceptional condition and Napoleon Le Brun’s exuberant brick and terra cotta church looks much as it did when Archbishop Corrigan dedicated it on November 27, 1887.

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