Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus -- West 51st Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1876 the West Side of Manhattan north of 42nd Street was rapidly developing.  Cardinal McCloskey recognized that “a parochial district was demanded by the growth of the city in that direction,” as explained by The Evening World twelve years later.  The Plymouth Baptist Church on West 51st Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues was available, and the Catholic Church purchased it for $24,500.  Another $1,000 was spent “in fitting it up for the Catholic worship,” said The Evening World, and on June 25, 1876 the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was dedicated.

Before the first service was concluded, it was obvious that the current structure would not be sufficient.  The church building was relatively new; but it accommodated only about 900 worshipers.  In his remarks during the dedication, Vicar-General Quinn “urged the people of the parish to build a larger structure, for it was easily seen that the church he had opened would soon be too small for the growing demands of the parish,” reported The Evening World.

Father Martin J. Brophy was selected by the Cardinal to head the parish.  He immediately started fund raising efforts and purchased land along the 51st Street block in anticipation of upcoming building projects.  In October 1880 construction on the pastoral residence was begun on the plot abutting the church.

Three years later Brophy was ready to tackle the larger task—the building of a new church.  Two days before Christmas in 1883 The New York Times reported “The Rev. Martin J. Brophy, Rector of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in West Fifty-first-street, has perfected his arrangements to build an edifice of sufficient size for the wants of his congregation.  This work will be commenced at an early day.”

Brophy had put together a building plot 81 feet along 51st Street, extending back 100 feet.  Architects Napoleon Le Brun & Sons were commissioned to design the new structure. Having moved to New York from Philadelphia around 1861, Le Brun busied himself not only with designing several other churches but with the fire houses of the New York Fire Department for which he had been official architect since 1879.

The architects were tasked with designing a space capable of seating a congregation which, at the time. Father Brophy estimated at about 11,000.  The Times reported that the church would be “constructed of stone and brick, with seats for 1,500 persons…For the greater accommodation of the people, the old church will be used as long as possible.”  The fund-raising had been successful and the estimated cost of $100,000 was already in the bank.

On Sunday March 30, 1884 Father Brophy celebrated the final mass in the old building and the following morning demolition began.  By July 13 the walls were up.  That afternoon a “very large crowd,” as described by The Times, assembled for the cornerstone laying ceremonies.  Flags “of all the nations” decorated the church walls and the platform as 30 priests and 20 altar boys took part in the impressive service.  The Archbishop sprinkled the walls with holy water, the normal psalms and prayers were recited, and the lead box was placed into the cornerstone and sealed.

Construction continued for another year.  On May 16, 1885, as the building neared completion, Archbishop Corrigan was back to consecrate the “three magnificent marble altars,” as described by The Times.  The custom-built organ, which along cost $10,000 (about $234,000 today), was also nearly completed.

The day following the consecration of the altars, the new Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was dedicated and blessed.  According to The Sun on May 18, 1885, “Two thousand persons were present.”  The choir consisted of a double quartet with a chorus of 150 voices.  The newspaper reported that the completed structure had come in just above budget at $125,000.

The Evening World reported that “the appointments throughout are elegant and artistic, the interior of the church itself being one of the handsomest and most imposing in the city.” 

photograph from "The Catholic Church in the United States of America", 1914 (copyright expired)
Napoleon LeBrun & Sons had produced a red brick beauty touted by architectural critics as vaguely “Venetian.”  The architects trimmed the hefty structure with limestone and terra cotta; a Romanesque Revival show stopper with touches of Gothic and Moorish.
Large areas of terra cotta, like textile, create a visually-tactile contrast to the brick and the carved stone trim -- photo by Alice Lum

Father Brophy continued on with his expansion projects.  In May 1887 he purchased four houses on 51st Street near the church for $72,000 in preparation for the erection of a large parochial school.  On January 31, 1888 The Evening World remarked “Father Brophy is famous for his executive ability and business tact, and it is worthy of note that during the past year, besides meeting all the running expenses and paying interest on mortgages, he has reduced the debt of the church $30,000.”

The mostly Irish and German congregation of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was one of the largest in the city.  The combined political power of such a large group did not escape the notice of the clergy and in 1894 eyebrows were raised city-wide when news leaked out that the priests were using the pulpit to sway voters.

The pastor was now Father Joseph Mooney, Vicar General of the Diocese of New York, and he diplomatically avoided celebrating mass on November 4, 1894, while the other priests stumped from the pulpit.  The next day The New York Times reported that political speeches were made by the priests at all masses except the one for children.

“The remarks made by the officiating clergymen created a sensation among the members of the congregation, most of whom live in the Eighteenth Assembly District, because all Catholics, of whatever political faith, were entreated, almost commanded, to vote the straight Democratic ticket.”  The newspaper went on to say “it was at first understood by those who were present or who heard of the action taken by the Sacred Heart clergy that the whole power of the Catholic Church throughout the city had been thrown to the side of the ticket supported by Tammany Hall.”

Republican candidate for State Assembly Lawrence P. Mingey was outraged.  On the Saturday before Election Day he had strong support among voters.  He told reporters that the priests, by “advising the voters in the congregation to vote for the protection of their religion against all candidates but those on the Democratic ticket,” cost him fully 1,000 votes.  He lost the election. 

The disgruntled politician fired a strong, but respectful, letter of complaint to Archbishop M. A. Corrigan, who had denied affiliation with Tammany Hall.  In part Mingey’s letter said:

“You indignantly repudiated such a scandalous imputation upon the honor of the Church. Surely the same righteous indignation will be stirred at the established fact that one of the churches in your diocese and under your control has prostituted its holy services in assistance to the organization from the touch of which you gather your robes lest their purity be sullied.”

Whether it was the church’s close proximity to the notoriously gritty Hell’s Kitchen area, or simply a case of boys-will-be-boys; but on February 27, 1906 the building was shamefully vandalized.  Father Mooney telephoned the West 47th Street police station that night, reporting burglars in the church.  When police arrived, they found that there were no burglars; but “small boys who had got on the roof of the church and were throwing stones at the windows.”  The delinquents escaped when the police arrived, but not before breaking several windows.

Prior to the turn of the century the reputation of theatrical types often prevented their being married in tight-laced churches.  By the time the boys were breaking windows in the church the situation had relaxed.  On November 30 that year two high-profile people from the entertainment world were wed in the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Frederic Thompson had become famous along with his partner Skip Dundy through their over-the-top entertainment projects.  They had created the massive Hippodrome on Sixth Avenue; conceived and built Luna Park; and, as described by The Sun, designed and built “similar wonders at the Chicago, Atlanta and Buffalo expositions.”

At 19-years old, actress Mabel Taliaferro was markedly younger than her 32-year old fianc√© of two weeks.  She was raised in a stage family and was known as a child actress.  At the time of her quiet wedding here, she was playing in Pippa Passes at the Majestic Theatre.  New York audiences had previously seen her in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch and The Little Princess.

It was not the grandeur of the ceremony—the only witnesses to the wedding were Thompson’s brother-in-law and his chauffeur—but the fact that it involved two celebrities that earned it a spot in the newspapers.
photo by Alice Lum

Joseph F. Mooney was eagerly anticipating the visit of Archbishop Giovanni Bonzano, the new Papal Delegate, to New York who was scheduled to arrive on May 3, 1912.  Now elevated to Monsignor, Mooney still held his position as Vicar-General and would play an important part in the Archbishop’s reception.

Three days before the arrival, on April 30, Monsignor Mooney was riding in a taxi when it skidded into a parked automobile.  Shards of flying glass struck the priest’s head, inflicting a two-inch gash over his right temple.  The Sun reported “This wound has been dressed, but the doctors have insisted that Mgr. Mooney remain absolutely quiet.  Mgr. Mooney will not be able to take part in the reception of Archbishop Bonzano.”

If Mooney was dejected over his bad luck; perhaps he was less so when Bonzano, along with Cardinal Farley, Monsignor Ceretti of Washington and Monsignor Lewis arrived at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Rectory to pay a personal visit on May 4.

When Cardinal John Murphy Farley died on September 17, the 70-year old Monsignor Mooney became temporary head of the archdiocese, in addition to his role as pastor of Sacred Heart.  The Evening World reported the following day, “With the death of Cardinal Farley, Mgr. Joseph F. Mooney automatically becomes administrator of the archdiocese of New York.”  The newspaper added that he “has the title of prothonotory apostolic from the Vatican.”

To show their respect for Mooney, more than 3,000 Catholic men filed into the church on the morning of March 9, 1919 to attend Holy Communion.  “The service is in connection with a testimonial being offered the Monsignor on the occasion of this twenty-fifth anniversary as spiritual director of the Archiocesan Union of the Holy Name Society,” explained The Sun.

A more worldly token of appreciation came to Mooney in June 1921.  The monsignor had been hospitalized since November 7, 1920; however he had improved to the point that doctors felt he could attend mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus for his golden jubilee as a priest.  Mooney had been rector of the church since 1890.

On June 3, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported that “as a mark of the high esteem in which he is held,” he was being presented with a gift of $10,000 (about 12 times that much in today’s dollars).  The newspaper added “He also will be presented with an automobile.  The car will be the gift of the clergy of the Catholic archdiocese of New York.”

An unspeakable tragedy occurred on April 22, 1922.  Nine-year old Vincent Jennings received his Confirmation in the church that morning.  Less than an hour after the service, he was struck by a delivery truck a block away at the corner of Tenth Avenue and 52nd Street.  The truck driver rushed the boy to Roosevelt Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Just before 11:00 on the night of May 13, 1923, the Right Rev. Monsignor Joseph F. Mooney died in the rectory.  He had suffered a succession of paralytic stroke which left him wheel chair bound.  The 83-year old priest’s passing would trigger the most impressive ceremonies to take place in the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

His body was laid in state in the church the next day and The New York Times reported that it “was viewed by thousands of the venerable pastor’s parishioners.”  On May 16 a solemn pontifical mass of requiem was celebrated by Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes.  There was not enough space within the church to accommodate the crowd, estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000.  In addition “thirty-one hundred boys and girls of the Sacred Heart parochial School lined Fifty-first Street, from Ninth Avenue to Tenth Avenue, in accordance with Mgr. Mooney’s dying wish,” reported The New York Times.

Flags throughout the parish were flown at half-staff and American flags were flown from hospitals, tenement and apartment house windows, and other facilities.  More than 300 priests were in attendance, along with three bishops and more than two dozen monsignors.

Several times Monsignor Mooney had refused elevation to Bishop due to, according to newspapers, “his modesty and humility.”  Nevertheless, he was dressed in the vestments of a bishop in his coffin.

In 1930, as now, the church posed an imposing presence on the block -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
A disturbing set of events started during the 10:00 mass on July 22, 1934.  About 500 worshipers were in the church when smoke wafted into the sanctuary.  Rev. Cletus McCarthy sent an altar boy to investigate.  The boy found fire fighters tackling a blaze in the Sacred Heart School.  When Father McCarthy realized that the congregants were not in danger, he continued services.  Fire fighters estimated the damage to the school building at about $1,500.  “The blaze was believed to have been of incendiary origin,” reported The New York Times.

Exactly one week later another fire started, this time in the church basement directly under the altar.  While priests groped through the dense black smoke to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and sacred vessels, firemen flooded the basement with three inches of water.  Once again the fire marshal deemed the fire “of suspicious origin.”

More damaging to the interior of the church than any fire were the ramifications of the 1965 Vatican Council.  Witnesses reported that the marble altars were smashed with sledgehammers.  The Stations of the Cross were demolished and the Victorian LeBrun interiors were savagely modernized.  It was most likely at this time that the great rose window was bricked up.  The entrance doors at some point were discarded, to be replaced with unsympathetic glass panels with modern etched designs more expected in a restaurant than a church.
The replacements to LeBrun's Victorian entrance doors could best be described as hideous -- photo by Alice Lum
Today the neighborhood is ethnically diverse and one Sunday Mass is celebrated in Spanish.  The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus continues its important role in the community, participating in the Feeding Our Neighbors project that replenishes food pantries.

The exuberant 1885 structure is no less imposing on the quiet 51st Street block today than it was 130 years ago.  Despite the regrettable attempts at improving its unimprovable design, it remains a fantastic treasure.

photo by Alice Lum

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