|photo by Alice Lum|
In 1885 The New York Times noted “The west side of the city presents just now a scene of building activity such as was never before witnessed in that section, and which gives promise of the speedy disappearance of all the shanties in the neighborhood and the rapid population of this long neglected part of New York.”
The next decade would see the flurry of development in the Upper West Side continue. By now passengers could ride public transportation north all the way to Harlem. Architects played with a mixture of styles, creating eccentric rowhouses adorned with stained glass, carved gargoyles, turrets or balconies. It seemed like the burgeoning neighborhood had everything—except a Catholic church.
In response Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan established the Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension on October 27, 1895, naming as pastor Rev. Nicholas M. Reinhart. Plans for a new church structure moved swiftly. A perfectly square plot of land, 100 by 100 feet, was purchased midblock on 107th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and the Boulevard (later renamed Broadway). On February 1, 1896 The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced that the church intended to build a “one-story Romanesque granite church thereon, and reported that architects Schickel & Ditmars “have been retained to draw the plans, which also include a rectory.”
Bavarian-born William Schickel and his partner Isaac E. Ditmars were already responsible for many of the buildings of the New York Roman Catholic Diocese, beginning in 1879 with the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer. For the Church of the Ascension, they would turn to Sicilian Romanesque for inspiration; while peppering the design with complimentary elements from other styles.
Two months later, on April 28 construction was underway when the Record and Guide announced the cost of the project would be around $60,000; or about $1.6 million today.
By the end of June the basement had been completed and “the first tier of beams is laid,” said The Sun. The elaborate cornerstone ceremonies were conducted on June 28 and The Sun reported the following day that “Five thousand people endured the rain yesterday to witness the laying of the corner stone of the Catholic Church of the Ascension.” The New York Times noted that “The ceremony was performed with all the pomp that the ritual of the Catholic Church prescribes, but the occasion was rendered even more important by the presence of Archbishop M. A. Corrigan as the officiating clergyman.”
The ceremonies had begun at the Lion Park Hall, where the congregants were temporarily worshiping. Then a march proceeded to the Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor on East 106th Street where a service was held in the chapel. Then the rain-drenched participants marched to the building site where a temporary floor had been laid and “a platform decorated with flags and flowers built,” said The Sun. According to The New York Times “The houses in the vicinity of the church and along Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues were decorated in honor of the event, and on every side was to be seen the Papal colors—yellow and white—twined with the American flag.”
More than 50 priests from the surrounding area assisted the Archbishop, whom The Times described as being “robed in the rich vestments of his office, together with a magnificent cope and jeweled mitre.” There were altar boys and acolytes “in their bright cassocks and lace surplices, and with burning tapers.” Twenty-six church societies were among the crowd and a band played music “that helped make the occasion more enjoyable,” opined The Times.
Two sermons were given, one in English by the Rev. Thomas Campbell; the other in German by the Rev. Jerome Henkel. Finally Archbishop Corrigan blessed the cornerstone and the copper box was sealed within it by Rev. Reinhart who used a silver trowel.
Inside the box were United States currency “of this year’s mint,” copies of New York daily newspapers, plans of the church with a sketch of the completed structure, and a parchment document with the names of the Archbishop and various dignitaries of the archdiocese.
At the end of the ceremonies, Rev. Reinhart envisioned “to have his church finished a year hence,” said The Times, which predicted “The church will be one of the most magnificent on the upper west side.” The newspaper got the construction facts slightly wrong saying “It will be of Romanesque type of architecture, the front being of white marble and the interior of pressed brick over a skeleton of steel.”
By the middle of December construction had advanced to the roof. To help pay for the expensive project, the women of the church held fairs in the basement—a common fund-raising tactic throughout the city. On December 15 just before supper time, the afternoon fair was over and at 5:00 the roofers went home. The men placed their “furnace” filled with hot coals into the stone cupola for safety where the coals would burn themselves out. But an hour later high winds arose and showers of sparks from the furnace eddied out of the cupola against the darkening sky.
A passerby, seeing the red embers flying from the cupola, believed the building was on fire and sent out an alarm. Firemen arrived and anxious neighbors rushed from their homes onto the sidewalk. The firemen used an extinguisher on the little furnace and the temporary tumult was over.
The following day The Times reported “A fair is in progress in the basement of the church, but at the time the alarm was sent out the afternoon crowd had gone home, and there were not more than a dozen ladies and gentlemen in the building. There was some excitement in the neighborhood, but none in the church, and the fair went on as usual last night.”
As the Rev. Reinhart had predicted, the church and its abutting parish house were completed in 1897. The medieval, rigidly-symmetrical façade was faced in rough-cut gray granite Three recessed entrances within connecting arches were accessed by a short flight of stone steps. Above this base a simple bracketed cornice supported the upper portion, the focal point of which was a large rose window. The window sat on a delicate blind arcade of stone columns. A stone corbel table, twin cone-topped towers and decorative buttresses completed the church's Southern Italian complexion.
|The parish house shared the 100-foot plot -- photo by Alice Lum|
The interior featured a soaring barrel-vaulted ceiling and stencil-decorated arches supported by plaster columns expertly painted to resemble marble. Above each arch a circular stained glass window streamed light into the space.
The early congregation was composed of a mixture of nationalities and social ranks. But a large number of the parish were German and Irish immigrants who rubbed elbows in the pews with more upscale members. One of these was Hugh McNulty, a wholesale butcher.
McNulty was 60 years old when he entered the church on Sunday morning October 4, 1903. He had risen early that morning, left home to attend to some business and returned around 9:00 for breakfast. In seemingly good health, according to his family, he went to church.
In the middle of the service “the congregation was startled by a sudden groan that sounded from a pew at the rear of the church,” said The Times the following day. A nearby doctor was called as ushers pulled McNulty to the vestibule. When Dr. James Duffy arrived, Hugh McNulty was dead of a heart attack.
|photo by Alice Lum|
A year after McNulty’s tragic death in the church, all of New York City was terrorized by an epidemic of meningitis. In 1905 it continued and already by March 18, 1905, the Health Department reported that 386 persons had succumbed to the disease that year. That same day the New-York Tribune wrote that “Meningitis is still on the increase. Last week the records of the Health Department show that it caused 99 deaths.”
Alarmingly, the Tribune reported “The latest well known sufferer from meningitis is the Rev. Dr. Edwin M. Sweeny, pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension, in 107th-st. He has been ill for three weeks, and although his life has at times been despaired of he now is believed to stand a fair chance of recovery.”
Two days later the newspaper updated its readers, saying “It was said at his home that he was ‘holding his own,’ and was, if anything, a little better. He is being attended by Drs. McAneny, Janesway and Booth.” Despite the panic caused by the uncertainty of the cause of the horrific disease, officials of the Catholic Church, Monsignor Edwards, Monsignor Mooney and Father Lavelle, risked their own health by visiting the ailing priest.
Within the next year the meningitis epidemic was over and Rev. Sweeny had fully recovered. By 1908 he was fully able to participate in the extravagant celebrations surrounding the visits to New York of Cardinal Logue, Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh. Three years later he oversaw the construction of the church’s four-story school on 108th Street.
|photo by Alice Lum|
Of the many weddings and funerals held in the church at the time, perhaps none was more notable than that of Edward Harrigan, actor and impresario. Born of Irish immigrant parents, he started his career as an Irish comic singer in a San Francisco saloon in 1867. By the mid-1880s he was well known as half of the Harrigan & Hart vaudeville team. Following their breakup, he continued on as an actor and theater owner. In 1891 he opened his grand Harrigan’s Theatre at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 35th Street, just off Herald Square.
Edward Harrigan took his last bow on stage on March 16, 1910. Less than a year later, on June 9, 1911, his funeral was held at the Church of the Ascension. The New York Times reported that over 1,000 mourners attended the solemn requiem high mass. The church was filled with luminaries from the theatrical field, along with a Supreme Court Justice, former Borough President and former Police Captain and an Assemblyman.
Just before the services began, a blind man “about 70 years old and led by an aged woman” appeared at the door of the church. The man asked permission to touch Harrigan’s coffin. The Times recounted “He said that he had come from Yonkers, and that before he lost his sight he had seen the actor in every play he had produced.”
In a heart-warming gesture, as the pallbearers brought Harrigan’s casket up the aisle, they paused long enough for the blind man to put his hand on it.
In the first half of 1919 the country was torn by the debate over Prohibition. Five months before enactment of the National Prohibition Act, known as the Volstead Act, Father William B. Farrell was making his stance undeniably clear. Charles E. Hughes was a former Justice of the United States Supreme Court and had run for President in 1916. He now had his own legal practice. Father Farrell had no intention of someone with Hughes’ credentials swaying public opinion to the side of alcohol.
He made a formal statement to the press on Tuesday night, February 4, 1919 saying “he had been told on ‘excellent authority’ that Mr. Hughes, Elihu Root and Louise Marshall had been retained as counsel to oppose national prohibition.”
Hughes was quick to refute the priest’s charges. “I ought to say that there is no truth in the statement that I have given an opinion to the effect that the prohibition amendment is unconstitutional. I have given no opinion upon the subject. There is also no trust in the report that I have been retained to assail the amendment. I have no connection with the matter.”
|photo by Alice Lum|
Today the interior has been restored and, despite a few alterations like replacement entrance doors, the Church of the Ascension is little changed after over a century of serving the Upper West Side.