Saturday, August 25, 2012

The St. Vincent Ferrer Priory -- Lexington Avenue and 65th Street

photo by Alice Lum
As the Civil War raged to the south, the Father Preachers of the West sent representatives to New York.  Among the first was French-born Father Thomas Martin, who moved into a brownstone on Lexington Avenue and 62nd Street in the Upper East Side where similar rowhouses were quickly lining the streets.   Before long more Dominican priests followed and Archbishop John McCloskey encouraged the group to establish a parish in the area.   Urban pioneers who ventured north into what had a generation earlier been sprawling country estates of the wealthy needed a convenient place of worship. 

The “fathers of the white-robed order,” as described in The Evening World, borrowed $10,000 to purchase land at Lexington Avenue and 65th Street.   Plans were drawn for a brick chapel and school, and on November 10, 1867 the cornerstone was laid by Archbishop McCloskey.  Two years later the chapel was completed as well as a simple convent to the rear of the church.  The parish of St. Vincent Ferrer was now established.

As the war came to a close and the workforce marched back home, the area developed at a greater pace.  The Lexington Avenue block between 65th and 66th Streets was soon surrounded by brownstone houses and the accompanying commercial concerns like dry goods stores and groceries.  St. Vincent Ferrer’s membership and religious staff burgeoned and in 1879 the chapel was replaced by a substantial church.  That same year plans were laid for a New York City provincial headquarters, or “convent.”

The Fathers commissioned German-born architect William Schickel to design the new convent.  After studying architecture in his homeland, he had immigrated to New York around 1870, landing a job with Richard Morris Hunt as a draftsman.  Within three years Schickel ventured out on his own.  He would go on to design multiple structures for the German community, as well as several buildings for the Catholic Church.

For the convent, Schickel worked in the appropriate Victorian Gothic style; but also drew from his German training.   Reflecting the building’s purpose—a home and workplace of Catholic priests—the design is restrained and dignified.  There was a decidedly ecclesiastical air to the Gothic arches, the split entrance staircase and deeply recessed entrance.  Schickel masterfully blended materials—brownstone, orange-red brick and slate--to create a polychromatic fa├žade sitting aloofly above street level on a deep brownstone basement.
photo by Alice Lum
Taking advantage of the commodious lot, the architect sat the building back from the property line, affording a grassy lawn and garden space protected by a cast iron fence.  The convent was completed in 1881, deemed by The Evening World as “a large and commodious structure.”  A gallery connected the church with the convent’s private chapel.

The Fathers used the building, as well, for its missionary work.   “At the Convent of St. Vincent Ferrer there are several who are set apart for this particular department of religious work,” reported The Evening World

Then in 1888 an new “parish school-house” addition was erected to the rear at a cost of $80,000, capable of accommodating 1,200 students.   48-year old Father Raphael Ferrari was curate of the St. Vincent Ferrer Convent in 1931 when he had an inspired idea.  The priest began plans for a summer pilgrimage for the school children to Vatican City.

One week before Christmas Day, on December 17, he visited the steamship ticket office of Gaetano La Loggia at 191 Sullivan Street to begin arranging details for the trip.  Suddenly five hold-up men rushed into the office brandishing guns and demanding money.  Hoping that his clerical attire might deter the robbers from harming the two clerks of La Loggia, Father Ferrari rose from his chair and moved towards one of the men.

Two of the hold-up men fired at the priest, wounding him in the stomach and arm.  The would-be robbers then fled without the $500 dollars in cash they sought, leaving Father Ferrari to die on the office floor.

photo by Alice Lum
By the time Father Urban Nagle was transferred to the convent in 1940, it was more often called the “priory.”  Father Nagle was sent here to edit the Holy Name Journal, the official publication of the Holy Name Society.  But the priest was more well-known for his involvement with the Blackfriars—the theatrical group that took its name from the Blackfriars Theatre in London that sat on the site of a 13th century Dominican monastery.   Working with Brother Fabian Carey, he quickly established the Blackfriars Theatre here that year and staged its first production in the fall of 1941.

Father Nagle described the group saying “The professional stage is too dependent on box office receipts.  Accordingly, it is of amateurs that our Guild is composed, men and women who understand the great and inherent power of a National Catholic theatre, and are willing to sacrifice personal comfort and remuneration to the attainment of an ideal.”

photo by Alice Lum
Theater, traditionally considered a harbor of sin and corruption by some, had its detractors within the Church.  Nagle argued, “Today there is no reason why the church and the theatre should fight against each other.  The dramatic instinct in all of us is too strong to be suppressed.  Cannot the theatre be used as a medium to bring beauty and high idealism into the lives of everyone?”

While Broadway drew audiences with renowned actors with names like Barrymore, Lunt and Fontaine; Nagle presented unknown performers and new writers. 

Among the amateur playwrights was another resident of the priory, the Rev. Thomas M. McGlynn.   Father McGlynn had already caught the attention of the Church for his astounding sculptural talents.  He had designed and sculpted the baptismal font in the St. Vincent Ferrer Church in 1932.  He was also responsible for a marble statue of Our Lady of Fatima in the Basilica of Fatima in Portugal.

But in 1944 he turned his attention to script writing.  For the Blackfriars he wrote Caukey.  The play addressed racial issues decades ahead of its time.  In it, blacks were the majority and whites a minority.

By 1948 Nagle estimated that more than 100 actors who started out on the Blackfriars stage were now professionals.  And the priest himself had become a household name.  He made regular appearances on the “Hour of Faith” national radio show, frequently appeared on television and wrote several popular books.  In January 1952, after an apparent rift with the Provincial, Father McDermott, Nagle was assigned as chaplain at the Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse of Saint Mary of the Springs in Columbus, Ohio.

Tragedy struck around 10:00 on the night of July 29, 1974.  Father Fu opened the door of his room to discover smoke pouring into the hallway from the main staircase.  He pushed the fire alarm button, and rushed back to his room where he was joined by two other priests.  As fire trucks roared up Lexington Avenue, the fire and smoke made escape through the main entrance impossible.

Brother Mark Schratz was in his room watching the Yankees-Red Sox game.  A polio victim, he grasped  his crutches upon hearing the alarm and started down the smoke-filled corridor.  Unable to see through the smoke, he fell down a flight of stairs.

When the fire fighters arrived, they “found priests at many of the windows of the second, third and fourth floors, shouting for help, their escape cut off by the fire and intense heat, which swept up the main stairway of the five-story brick building, trapping the priests in their rooms,” reported The New York Times.

Fire fighters raised a ladder to the window of Father Fu’s room, rescuing the three priests.  Another ladder reached the room of the 65-year old pastor, the Very Rev. Paul C. McKenna.  With singed hair and eyebrows, he was lowered to the street in his red bathrobe.

As the firemen battled the blaze, the United Press International received a disturbing phone call.  The caller said he had set the fire and “would ‘bomb’ it next time.”   Later the caller telephoned again, threatening to bomb the church within two months.  “I’m letting loose a tirade against the Catholic Church,” he said, “They’ve buffaloed people since the Spanish Inquisition.”

Indeed the New York Fire Department indicated that the presence of gasoline or other flammable material was discovered where the fire started in the first floor hallway.

Before it was over, 67-year old priest Father Thomas Smith was dead and more than a dozen others had to be rescued from their rooms.

photo by Alice Lum
Three years later, sculptor and playwright priest Thomas M. McGlynn died at the age of 71.  In addition to his Blackfriars play, he had written “Vision of Fatima,” published in 1948, and sculpted busts of Popes Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI.

Today there is little change to the handsome brick and stone convent.  Its silent walls have sheltered missionaries, playwrights and artists.   Sitting somewhat reservedly on its lawn, arm’s length from the passerby, it is a delightful piece of Victoriana amid the hubbub of Lexington Avenue.

2 comments:

  1. A rare Victorian gothic survivor in Manhattan. The entry stairs are wonderfully maintained.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for the ancedote involving Gaetano La Loggia. I am currently researching his great-grandson's family.

    ReplyDelete