|photo by Alice Lum|
On April 21, 1931 a solid silver casket which the undertaker said had cost $15,000 was removed from the penthouse home of Giuseppe Masseria at 15 West 81st Street. Sixteen automobiles were necessary to transport the floral tributes and 69 cars followed the hearse in the funeral cortege. The shining black cars moved through Manhattan from the ritzy Central Park neighborhood to the humble streets of the East Village and the Italian church of Mary, Help of Christians.
Masseria was best known as “Joe the Boss,” an underworld kingpin who had been shot down in Coney Island a few days earlier. Undercover detectives mixed in with the mourners inside the church. Three priests celebrated a solemn requiem mass in the sanctuary laden with flowers – most of which were from anonymous donors. One exception was a heart of roses with a silk ribbon bearing the initials A. C. It was from Alphonse Capone.
The church was not an overly-ornate one, nor was it a high-profile, important church among the New York Roman Catholic parishes. It was however, integral to the Italian community.
As the turn of the century approached, the Lower East Side was filling with Italian immigrants. In 1898 Archbishop Corrigan, cognizant of the need for increased spiritual guidance for the Italians, invited three Salesian Fathers from Italy to come to New York. Initially they took charge of St. Brigid’s Parish. But by 1906 the burgeoning Italian population required an additional parish. Two houses on East 12th street were purchased; one to be used as a rectory and Sunday school, the other as a chapel.
On July 8, 1908 the mission was elevated to the parish of Mary, Help of Christians. A new church was now necessary in the midst of the Italian community.
The Catholic Church already owned land in the area. It was the Roman Cemetery of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Among the 41,016 graves here was, oddly enough, that of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist who was responsible for “Don Giavanni,” “Cosi fan Tutte” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” Da Ponte had come to the United States in 1805, fleeing debtors, and was buried here on August 20, 1838.
The coffins in the Roman Cemetery were exhumed in 1909 and reburied in Calvary Cemetery. There was now land for the new church. In 1910 the basement was excavated. Six masses were celebrated here every Sunday and one in the chapel.
Plans for the new church were filed by Domenico Briganti in 1911. It would be a Florentine-inspired structure, nearly flat-faced, with two short towers on either end capped by domes. Four shallow Corinthian pilasters would separate the three arched entrances and support a classical closed pediment.
Despite the enormous number of Italians being served by Mary, Help of Christians—according to the 1914 “The Catholic Church in the United States of America” there were 20,000 congregation members (“mostly Sicilians”)--it would not be until six years later, at 4:00 in the afternoon on July 15, 1917, that the cornerstone was laid for the new structure. Mgr. Michael J. Lavelle, rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, officiated the ceremonies.
The zealously religious Italian congregation nearly caused a riot in September 1923 when they were refused permission by police to process through the streets with a statue of St. Rosalia on her feast day. The New York Times reported that about 2,000 Italians “then marched to the rectory in Twelfth Street, near Avenue A, to demand that the church get them a permit.” The newspaper related that the police arrived “just in time” to prevent a melee.”
|A young man parks his impressive-looking car across from the church in 1920 -- NYPL Collection|
Three years before Joe the Boss would be buried from Mary, Help of Christians, the gangland funeral of 21-year old Charles de Luco was held here on July 18, 1928. Police watched vigilantly for the racketeer’s brother, Dominick de Luco, who failed to appear. Nonetheless The Times reported that “gangdom was well represented at the funeral.”
The church was always much more than merely the movie-like scene of gangster funerals. It was the spiritual home to a multitude of pious immigrant families. On the feast day of Mary, Help of Christians in 1933, “several thousand residents of the east side Italian colony participated in ceremonies,” as reported in the newspapers.
On March 19, 1935 the parish had a scare when the church caught fire during mass. Most of the worshipers were women and many had knelt before the altar of the St. Joseph’s Chapel prior to services to light candles. Father Peter Pelegrino was serving communion later to 50 persons and the heads of the other parishioners were bowed in prayer. No one noticed the lit candle fall from its holder in the chapel.
By the time sexton Jack Gulino noticed the blaze, it had engulfed the tapestries and embroidered altar cloths. The flames caught the wax flowers that wound around a five-foot wooden arch that framed the statue of St. Joseph. The flammable wax melted and spread the flames fifteen feet upward.
While Gulino and ushers attempted to beat the flames with their bare hands, the pastor, Father Paul Zolin instructed the women in their pews to remain calm. The priest then helped pry the wooden frame loose. Gulino and the ushers hauled the flaming arch to a backroom to stamp it out. The statue of St. Joseph crashed to the floor and smashed.
Father Zolin again instructed the 200 women who were clustered around the chapel to return to their pews. Services continued outside.
One of the interesting congregants of Mary, Help of Christians was “Mr. Valentine.” His profession was collecting sounds for photograph records, Broadway shows, motion pictures and such. When Lord & Taylor Department Store needed church chimes for their Christmas window display in 1940, Mr. Valentine obliged. “I could have used Trinity or one of the big churches, but I’m loyal to my own parish. The Lord & Taylor bells you heard were the chimes from Mary, Help of Christians Church on Twelfth Street,” he told a reporter.
By mid-century the Italian population was thinning out in the 12th Street area. The four-story convent on East 11th Street, no longer necessary, was converted into apartments. But it was not the end of the line for the church. Not yet.
In 1953 Sara Delano Roosevelt, granddaughter of the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt was married. She had fallen in love with Anthony di Bonaventura, the son of a 17th Street Italian barber. The couple chose not to be married in a society church, but in di Boneventura’s family parish of Mary, Help of Christians. Although the ceremony was small with only a few friends and relatives invited, East 12th Street was crowded with over 2,000 people from the tenement buildings who longed to get a glimpse of the unlikely couple.
The New York Times said the newly-weds posed for photographs “on the steps of the dingy, old-fashioned brick church, as the air rang with cheers and flurries of torn paper were flung from windows, fire escapes and roofs of the tenement façade opposite.”
By the 1970s the neighborhood, never an upscale one, saw an increase in crime. The church was broken into three times within three months in 1973, the thieves taking the money from the poor boxes. The neighborhood was also luring artists and poets. In his “May Days 1988,” poet Allen Ginsburg described his view of Mary, Help of Christians from the window of his tenement apartment across the street.
In January 2007 the Archdiocese announced that the church of Mary, Help of Christians would be closed. In an odd statement in his press release, Fr. James Heuser wrote “Communities and institutions, like persons, have a lifecycle. By all accounts, Mary Help of Christians Parish has had a good run.”
Josephine Ruta and her sister Margaret, doubtlessly disagreed. The women had lived in the same tenement building for over 80 years and had known only one church: Mary Help of Christians.
But the "lifecycle" of the church had run its course and on May 20, 2007 the last mass was celebrated. The lights were extinguished and the doors locked. Inside, where Mafia funerals and a Roosevelt wedding had taken place, dust settles on the altar and pews.
|photo by Alice Lum|
The church sat vacant for six years. Then early in 2013 the property was purchased by developer Douglas Steiner of Steiner Studios as the site of a luxury residential and retail structure. Concerned local residents and preservationists appealed to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to intercede. Despite the historic significance of the church, the 150-year old rectory and the 90-year old school building, the Commission declined.
The developer, simultaneously, refused to consider recycling of the venerable structures. Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation pointed out "A smart developer would recognize that by preserving and re-using these historic buildings and b uilding on the large adjacent yard, he would not only be doing a good deed, but creating an infinitely more unique and valuable development than simply bulldozing the entire site and starting anew."
In May 2013, even as demonstrators rallied outside the church steps urging its preservation, another historic fragment was uncovered in plain sight. An ancient stone wall, typical of those the protected early New York burial grounds runs between West 11th and West 12th Street; quite possibly the surviving wall of the old Roman Cemetery that predated the church. It is yet another historic structure that would be erased by the planned development.
Although the dignified façade of Mary, Help of Christians, looks as fresh and maintained as it did a century ago, its future is uncertain. Even in a time of improved architectural and historic appreciation, this integral page in the history of the Italian community in Manhattan may soon be obliterated.