Thursday, December 20, 2012

The 1836 St. James Church -- 32 James Street

photo by Alice Lum
 America may have been founded on religious tolerance; but that tolerance was mainly intended for the Protestants.   During British rule Catholic worship was outlawed in New York City; and as the 19th century dawned two religious groups still suffered brutal discrimination:  the Jews and the Catholics.

Both persevered, however; and the stalwart Catholics collected funds to erect churches for the growing population.  In 1833 St. Mary’s Church on Grand Street, founded by Irish immigrants, was dedicated after its original building had been burned in a savage display of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment.   The same year the cornerstone of St. Joseph’s church uptown in Greenwich Village was laid.  As that building began rising, parishioners were forced to stand guard against attacks according to church historian John Talbot Smith.

Two years later construction began on St. James Church at No. 32 James Street.    The Gothic Revival style that would become nearly synonymous with church architecture was still long off and American churches tended to be of the “temple order.”   The Greek Revival style was additionally attractive to the Catholics because it suggested permanence and strength—a message to anti-Catholic bigots that the religious group was here to stay.    Expectedly, this was the style chosen for the new structure.

Completed in 1836, St. James Church was one of three Catholic churches dedicated that year—the others being Transfiguration on Chambers Street and St. Paul’s far to the north in Harlem. 

The architect, whose name has been lost in time, outdid himself.  The sophisticated design and detailing was similar to that of the influential architect Minard Lafever.   The handsome proportions and the refined decorative elements resulted in a nearly unparalleled monumentality.  

Sophisticated detailing is evident in a side entranceway, photographed around 1915 -- collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Constructed of fieldstone and clad in dressed brownstone, the church sat above a broad set of stairs.  Two massive fluted columns upheld the recessed porch, flanked by two separate entrances with handsome Greek Revival ornamentation.  Breaking away from what contemporaries called “pure Greek,” the architect added a Georgian domed cupola to the classic pediment.  Across the brownstone face was carved “D.O.M.S. JACOBO DEO OPTIMO MAXIMO” – To God, the Best and Greatest.

Not long after this photograph was taken, the splendid cupola would be removed -- collection of the Museum of the City of New York
To protect themselves from anti-Irish violence and partly in response to the burning of St. Mary’s, immigrants met in the new church in 1836, forming the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  It would be the beginning of a deep and long-lived bond between the Irish and St. James Church.

The congregation was led by a succession of Irish-born priests.  In 1842 the Rev. Dr. John N. Smith took the pulpit.  It was a time when New York was seeing an increasing, and for some alarming, number of Irish immigrants as they fled the Great Irish Famine.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1844 The Young Friends of Ireland celebrated in the Apollo Saloon.  After several speeches a series of toasts were made, the eleventh of which was “The Heirarchy of Ireland.”   Raising his glass the toaster proclaimed “Honor to them, for all the wealth of the richest nation of the earth could not induce them to sanction the union of church and state.”

Among the boisterous crowd was the Reverend Smith.  The New-York Daily Tribune noted that he “responded to ‘The Hierarchy of Ireland,’ in a happy and appropriate manner; he pronounced a high eulogy on the Catholic Clergy, their well-tried fidelity to their sacred trust, and to the cause of the liberties of mankind.”

photo by Alice Lum
As the immigrants continued to arrive on the overcrowded and unsanitary sailing ships, they were exposed to typhus, what was at the time termed “ship fever.”  In 1847 Father Mark Murphy was in charge of tending to the patients of the quarantine station of Station Island.    As he lay dying of the disease, Father Smith rushed to his bedside.    He, too, contracted ship fever and in February 1848 the Rev. Dr. Smith died “a martyr to charity,” as later described by historian Alphonso T. Clearwater.

Despite the obstacles it faced through its early years, St. James grew and prospered.  In 1865 Father Thomas Farrell was called to New York “to take charge of an immense congregation attached to St. James’ Church,” as recorded by Clearwater half a century later.

photo by Alice Lum
On December 30, 1873 a son was born to Thomas and Catherine Mulvihill Smith.   Little Alfred E. Smith’s grandparents were all immigrants, Irish on his mother’s side and Irish-German on his fathers.  Before he grew to be Governor of New York and the first Roman Catholic candidate for the U.S. Presidency, Smith served as an altar boy in St. James Church.   While still a teenager, he boasted that his church held its own with the great St. Patrick’s, saying it was the “leading Catholic parish in New York, not excepting the cathedral itself.”

The Lower East Side neighborhood of James Street changed in the 20th century as the Italian and Irish population was replaced by a new group of immigrants: the Chinese.    Although at some point, possibly in 1929, the attractive cupola was removed; the structure retained its fine proportions.  When the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building a landmark in 1966, it deemed it “one of the monuments of the Greek Revival in New York City.”

Despite the designation, the venerable structure was threatened in 1983 when the roof was found to be in danger of collapse.  After nearly a century and a half of service, the City closed the structurally unsafe St. James Church.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians which was founded in the building 147 years earlier took up the cause.  It spearheaded a group of concerned citizens that provided the funds for a complete restoration.

A firefighter scales a ladder towards the burning roof -- photo DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg
Then in January 2011 a two-alarm fire, apparently electrical in nature, broke out inside the historic church.   An hour and a half after the first firefighters arrived, the blaze which was located between the ceiling and the roof, was finally brought under control.   There was significant damage, mostly the result of water.

The sedate and noble façade of St. James Church, a true architectural treasure, gives little indication of the ordeals overcome by its founders and early parishioners.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. A great piece of later history from a reader:

    In the early 90's, I was asked to design a new Confessional for St. James, which had been left money for that purpose. It turned out very well and I was then able to design a new marble Altar for the Church. (I based my Work on the Designs of Minard Lefaver, whom the Church was attributed to at the Time; found some rare Books on him at the Library and spent a lot of Time out at Snug Harbor) The The Priest I worked with left shortly afterwards and then I left the City for a while and have been unable to gain entry into the Church, even after contacting the Parish House.


    Kevin Kaufman

  2. My sister and I discovered St James this fall. Our Great Grandparents had been married there, and we both remembered hearing out grandmother's complaints that an aunt had left her house on Oliver Street (now the parish house) and all of her money to the church. So we went to check it out. I've lived in NY for nearly 40 years, and while I had been to see the house on Oliver Street - never knew what was around the corner. It's a beautiful and stately old building. We tried to gain access and also had no joy with the parish house. Evidently the care of the building has fallen to St. Xavior's which is near by, but the main part of the church is deemed unsafe, and only the basement is open to the public. One can only hope that some day it will be repaired and considered safe for a visit. I'd love to see it go the way of The Museum on Eldridge Street.

    Randy Fahey

    1. That's in interesting story about your ancestor and the parish house. I agree with you regarding the restoration -- this building is too important to be in disrepair.

  3. In doing some genealogical research many of my family were parishioners of the church. I only lived in Manhattan for the first nine months of my life, but I was baptised there. My father and uncle were alter boys. I would like to see it and spend some more time searching the church records