|photo by Alice Lum|
At the turn of the century French-speaking Roman Catholics had at least three churches in which to worship —the Eglise Evangelique Francaise de New-York on West 16th Street, the Church of Saint Jean Baptiste on 76th Street, and St. Vincent de Paul on West 23rd Street. But farther north in the developing Morningside Heights neighborhood there was a need for a French-language place of worship.
On March 25, 1910 the Fathers of Mercy, a French community of priests, was given the task of establishing a “grotto chapel” of the Church of St. Vincent de Paul. Land was acquired at the corner of Morningside Drive and West 114th Street. Architects Dans and Otto was given the task of designing a chapel which would include a replica of the Lourdes grotto where St. Bernadette saw the vision of the Virgin Mary in 1858.
The modest church with its remarkable grotto was dedicated by Archbishop Farley on October 2, 1910, almost a year to the day before the structure was officially completed. Then on October 29, 1911 there were “special services” marking the completion. The Sun reported that “At the special vesper services at 3:30 P.M. the Rev. Victor Baron, S. P. M., will preach. At the conclusion there will be a procession around the edifice, followed by benediction of the blessed sacrament.”
But for the building that would become L’Eglise de Notre-Dame, or the Church of Notre Dame, “completed” would never really come to pass.
Within four years the esteemed architectural firm of Cross & Cross was called in to enlarge the structure. The Dans & Otto apse and grotto were left intact and the architects built around them; drawing inspiration from Parisian churches like the Church of the Madeleine and L’Eglise des Invalides.
|Cross & Cross prepared a pencil rendering of the completed design -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GWE4WJA&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
Construction on the new building began in 1914 and would continue for over a decade. Cross & Cross had designed an imposing French neoclassic stone structure. Despite its relatively small size, the effect was monumental. A classic pedimented portico was supported by four fluted Corinthian columns; repeated on the sides as shallow pilasters.
Despite the continuing construction, the church carried on its work. On June 13, 1926 its congregation buzzed with anticipation as Cardinal Charost, Archbishop of Rennes attended mass. “On his way to the church, preceded from the rectory by a procession of priests, acolytes and a crossbearer, his right hand was extended to the men, women and children who lined his path and kissed his ring,” reported The New York Times. “As he passed up the centre aisle to the altar others knelt before him to kiss this emblem of his rank and obtain the blessing it carried.”
The newspaper went on to say that “At the close of the service he conferred the Pontifical blessing on the congregation, then proceeded to the steps of the church where more than a thousand persons knelt before him to receive the blessing.”
|Inside the church Dans & Otto's original grotto remained.|
In the meantime work continued. On February 15, 1925 the pipe organ was dedicated, while in Paris sculptor Edmond Becker was at work on the splendid marble main altar. The sculptor simultaneously worked on a matching communion rail. On January 24, 1927 a group of American Church officials and members of the Academy des Beaux Arts gathered to view the finished work.
A special cable to The New York Times described it. “The altar is constructed of white Carrara marble and is 27 feet long. The decorative scheme depicts the life of Christ, with pedestaled figures of St. John and the Virgin contemplating Christ in the centre. The bas-reliefs on the lower panels represent the Annunciation and the crowning of the Virgin.” The magnificent bas-reliefs were executed in bronze, affixed to the white marble.
The cable said “The inspection of the altar today resulted in a flood of congratulations for the artist.” It was loaded on a steamer for New York City on February 6. On April 24 the altar and communion rail were formally dedicated.
In 1928 work came to a halt before the grand design was completed. As envisioned, the church would be crowned by a massive drum which would pour sunlight into the sanctuary, topped by a dome that would be seen for blocks.
|photo by Alice Lum|
Among the notable marriages and funerals conducted here one stood out in 1932. Operatic and concert singer Renee Thornton was to be married to Duke Fabio Carafa d’Andria in St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 4:30 on January 27. Suddenly “the plans of the couple were changed and the ceremony followed half an hour later at the Church of Notre Dame,” reported The Times.
Notwithstanding their individual celebrities, it was a peculiar occurrence in the Roman Catholic Church. Ms. Thornton had converted to Catholicism for her new husband; but she was a divorcee. She had been the wife of Richard Hageman, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Civic Opera Company and the Ravinia Opera Company. “Four years ago she divorced Mr. Hageman, and the marriage was annulled recently, Miss Thornton renewing her maiden name,” said the newspaper.
The annulment took care of one problem; but the Duke, who “comes from an old and well-known family of Naples,” was also divorced. “He was married on July 25, 1927, by civil ceremony in the chapel of the municipal Building to Mrs. Lucile Zehring of Hollywood, Cal.,” said The Times. “He obtained a divorce a year ago, on the ground of desertion, in New Jersey.”
Sticky details or not, the wedding went on. Acting as best man was Barone Luigi Filippo Marincola. The reception was held at the home of John S. Keith at No. 1060 Fifth Avenue.
Decades before the Civil Rights Movement would take hold in America, the Notre Dame Study Club which met in the church stood up for social justice. On March 26, 1936 the group passed a resolution “that the Negro, as a human being and as a citizen, is entitled to the rights, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” and called on Roman Catholics “to become increasingly interested in the welfare of the Negro; and to engage actively in some form of Catholic Action looking to the betterment of his condition, spiritually and materially.”
Somewhat surprised, George K. Hunton, editor of The Interracial Review, said “this is the first time a Catholic parish group in this country ever has taken such a stand.” He said that the attitude of many Catholics towards African-Americans had been “heretofore one of indifference and apathy.”
A year later the group reached out to Holy Name Societies, study clubs and other Catholic groups nationwide “to cooperate in helping to end lynching.” At a time when racist murders were rampant in the deep South, the Notre Dame Study Club called on Senators Wagner and Copeland “and every New York Representative to support anti-lynching legislation.”
In the 1960s the nagging issue of the uncompleted design was again addressed. It was decided that the magnificent drum and dome of Cross & Cross would be abandoned in favor of a shallow dome. With the finished dome artificial lighting was necessary to supplant the flood of the natural light anticipated by the architects.
|The architects had completed a plaster model of the original design -- photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GWE4WJA&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894|
In 1965 the Second Vatican Council was closed by Pope Paul VI. Among the changes to physical church arrangements that resulted was the repositioning of the altar so the priest faced the congregation.
To comply with the edict the Church of Notre Dame erected a beige and gold wooden altar in front of Becker’s 1927 altar. For over two decades the arrangement worked. And then in 1988 the new pastor, J. Christopher Maloney, had a better idea. The marble altar would be cut away from the ornate reredos and moved eight feet towards the congregation.
While Father Maloney held two meetings to tell to parishioners what he was planning, he had no intention of listening to their input. Members sued under canon law to stop the desecration of the artwork, complained in a letter to Pope John Paul II and pleaded with the Department of Buildings to refuse to issue a building permit.
Supporters of Maloney called the protestors “meddlesome” and “hysterical.” The pastor said “We’re just bringing the church up to date.”
Others, like Barbara Geach Liccione, said “They are destroying a work of art. It’s like sawing a painting or a sculpture in half.”
One congregant, Helen McQuillan, threatened to change churches if the priceless reredos was cut apart. She quoted the Gospel reading Father Maloney had used the previous day, “If any place will not receive you or hear you, shake its dust from your feet in testimony against them as you leave.”
Today the Church’s web page diplomatically skirts the issue of the vandalized art. “In 1988, a renovation was made in the church which allowed the main church altar to be used for the celebration of Mass once again.”
Despite never having been completed, the wonderful Church of Notre Dame is a noble presence in Morningside Heights. The “AIA Guide to New York City” calls it “classical and cool within and without.”
|photo by Alice Lum|