Monday, July 21, 2014

The Lost St. Leo's Church -- No. 12 East 28th Street

A mansarded house nestles up to the church building.  The vacant lot with the picket fence would become the site of the House of Repose for the Stranger Dead.   photo Nickerson's Illustrated Church, Musical and School Directory (copyright expired)
Father Thomas J. Ducey was accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the upper class.  Born in Ireland in 1843, he came to the United States at the age of five.  His mother found employment as the housekeeper for the wealthy bachelor James T. Brady (not to be confused with “Diamond Jim” Brady). 

Just three years after the family arrived, both Ducey’s parents died.  The millionaire adopted the orphaned boy and the eight-year-old’s life took a remarkable change, of course.  Historian Lately Thomas mentions in his 1967 book Delmonico’s, A Century of Splendor, “This early association had given Ducey a tenuous connection with the world of wealthy, and as a priest he had devoted himself to the spiritual welfare of that class.”

In fact, Brady had hoped that Ducey would follow him in the legal profession; but as the New-York Tribune later explained, “the call to the priesthood persisted.”  But even after he was ordained, Ducey lived in Brady mansion and when the lawyer died in 1869, the priest inherited a fortune.

In 1880 the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around East 28th Street was lined with the mansions of some of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.  Just six blocks to the north sat the staid brownstone homes of William and John Jacob Astor.  What the neighborhood did not have was a Catholic church. 

That year Cardinal McCloskey appointed Father Ducey pastor of a newly-founded parish—St. Leo’s.  On December 12, 1880 The Sun remarked that “its wealthy parish” was a “neighborhood that has long needed” a Catholic sanctuary.  The newspaper estimated the Catholic population in the parish to be about 10,000.

It was the perfect setting for the moneyed priest.   He was well-connected with the city’s richest Catholics, was personal friends with the Delmonico family, and maintained a country estate in St. James, Long Island.  The New York Times estimated that the cost of the new church structure, including the site, would cost “something over $100,000” (more than $2 million today), but “owing largely to the energy and popularity of the Rev. Thomas J. Ducey, who was appointed Pastor its success has been more than assured.”

The cornerstone was laid on August 15, 1880 at Nos. 11 and 13 East 28th Street.  The Sun reported the following day that “The floor of the uncompleted church was thronged and the street outside was blockaded by men and women.”  A month later the New-York Tribune advised that “A pretty little edifice is being erected for St. Leo’s Roman Catholic Church.”  By anyone else’s estimation, this would be anything but a “pretty little edifice.”

Architect Lawrence. J. O’Connor had designed a Gothic Revival structure of rough-cut brownstone.  Fifty-feet wide and 100 feet long, its strictly symmetrical central mass was offset by a soaring octagonal tower with stone bandcourses and a sharp conical cap.  An immense pointed-arch stained glass window dominated the façade.  The spacious sanctuary would contain 100 pews to accommodate the estimated 2,500 parishioners, according to The New York Times.

In the 19th century it was common for parish women to hold bazaars and fairs to raise money for the building funds.  While other churches sold baked goods and hand-made doilies; the articles sold at the St. Leo’s Church Fair during December 1880 were a bit more upper crust.  The Sun, on December 12 noted “The display of articles for sale at the fair is remarkable handsome, and very valuable objects are to be raffled for.  Among these are $1,000 in gold, and a fine brougham and $1,200 team of bay horses, with handsome harness.  A richly mounted sword is offered to that officer of the city militia who obtains the most votes.”

On April 24, 1881 The New York Times anticipated the dedication of the new building.  “By next Sunday the church will be almost entirely completed.”  The newspaper said “The ceremonies at the dedication of St. Leo’s Church…will be very imposing…The cards for admission are being rapidly secured, it being arranged that the number shall be limited to the seating capacity of the church.”

The Times described the interiors of the structure that seven months earlier the New-York Tribune had deemed “a pretty little edifice.”  “It is handsomely finished inside, the chancel in inlaid stone and the nave in plain.  The ceilings are elaborately frescoed.  The altar is one of the handsomest in the City, and was the gift of a gentleman of the congregation.”  The magnificent white marble altar had been executed by Theiss & Janssen.  The firm, located at No. 413 East 25th Street, engaged some of the premier stone carving craftsmen of the day.

A turn-of-the-century postcard showed the magnificent frescoes and stained glass.

Father Ducey received four “splendid sets of vestments” from a “lady of the congregation” according to The Times.  The priest would be well arrayed—the cost was estimated to be about $40,000.

Among the major contributors to the building fund were the Delmonico brothers, owners of the fashionable Delmonico’s restaurants.  At the funeral of Lorenzo Delmonico on September 7, 1881, just five months after St. Leo’s opened, Father Ducey noted that he had contributed $5,000 to the church.

Father Ducey would often be found in Delmonico’s and he earned the nickname of the “apostle to the genteel.”  According to Lately Thomas, diocesan authorities would sometimes raise their eyebrows at the jokes inspired by the pastor, such as “Why is St. Leo’s like a certain theater on Fourteenth Street?”  Answer:  “Because it has a tony pastor.”

A year after the church was dedicated The Sun reported that “the parish has grown and prospered to such an extent that another priest has been found necessary…which makes three priests who are now regularly stationed” at St. Leo’s. 

In the meantime, finishing touches were still being done.  “The interior…is being frescoed and decorated throughout,” reported The Sun.  “A new organ, of large size, is being placed in position in the loft, over the front entrance.”

Like other wealthy New Yorkers, Father Thomas Ducey enjoyed his summers away from the city.  As a rule, the more fashionable churches closed during the summer months as their congregants shuttered their mansions and escaped to Newport or country estates.  On May 22, 1883, the day before Father Ducey left for Europe, the men of St. Leo’s enjoyed “a pleasant gathering” at Delmonico’s in honor of the priest.

The New York Times reported that “St. Leo’s is to-day one of the strongest Catholic churches in the country, and Judge Daly, in presenting to Father Ducey a handsome purse of money to cover the expenses of his trip abroad, gave him the credit of putting the church on its present substantial basis.”

The charismatic priest gave over $100,000 of his own money to St. Leo's Church -- King's Notable New Yorkers 1896-1899 (copyright expired)

A year later the high-profile priest narrowly evaded personal scandal.  On May 23, 1884 a Deputy Sheriff was stationed outside the home of banker John C. Eno at No. 46 Park Avenue.  Eno was accused by Anson Phelps Stokes of embezzlement from the Second National Bank.  Servants reported that the banker was sick in bed.  The Times said the following morning that “During the evening a number of persons of both sexes, apparently friends of the family, entered and left the house.  Father Doucey [sic], of St. Leo’s Church, was also seen to enter and leave the house twice during the evening.”  When Ducey left the house at 10:30, he told the Deputy that Eno was not at home.

The following day, after a warrant for Eno’s arrest had been issued, officers entered the house to arrest him.  “Every nook and corner and room and closet in the house was carefully searched, and at the end of half an hour the deputies looked at one another in blank amazement.  John C. Eno was not in the house”

Suspicion that Father Ducey had abetted Eno’s escape were strengthened when the priest himself disappeared.  Canadian authorities were notified and Detective John Fahey, of Montreal, became suspicious of a man “accompanied by a gentleman bearing the appearance of a Catholic priest.”  Eno had taken the alias of McCluskey and Robert Pinkerton of Pinkerton’s Detective Agency told reporters that he was “of the opinion that Father Ducey has been the active agent in furthering Eno’s escape.”   He attributed “his successful flight to the skillful plans of the priest after the house had been searched.”

Through Detective Fahey’s work, Eno was arrested and Father Ducey returned to New York.  His popularity and reputation were enough for the some to excuse him.  “The Rev. Father Ducey, who is brought into this unfortunate predicament, is well known in this city as an able and learned priest, whose ministrations have been unusually successful,” said a reporter for The Times on June 1, 1884.  Rather than depicting Ducey as abetting an escaped criminal; the newspaper described him as a loyal ally.  “Since Mr. Eno got into trouble Father Ducey has been a firm friend to him, visiting him often during the time when his house was being watched by the Deputy Sheriffs.”

The editor of The New York Times was less charitable than his reporter.  On the same day that the story ran, an editorial complained “The Rev. Father Ducey, of St. Leo’s Church, appears to have aided him in his flight and accompanied him to administer comfort and consolation in his exile…it is a fine business for a minister of the church which professes to exercise a special rigor upon offenders against the criminal law.”

Father Ducey had restored his slightly-tarnished character by 1892 when The Evening World praised his stance against what the newspaper termed “dives.”  The priest told a World reporter “Such nests of crime spread moral contagion in the community.  In the neighborhoods where they exist they must be constant instructors in vice to the young.  If the young are corrupted what hope have we for the future?  Corrupt children cannot be the founders of pure families, and if families are corrupt, what hope is there for Church or State?”

A different view of the interior shows elaborate stencil-work and another exquisite window.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By now the neighborhood around St. Leo’s had changed.  William W. Astor’s mansion had been demolished to make way for the Waldorf Hotel and Fifth Avenue’s millionaires were moving northward.  As the wealthy congregation dwindled, church finances suffered.  In April 1892 Father Ducey informed the quartet choir that its services were no longer needed.  According to The Sun on April 2, “he told the quartet that the reason he intended to dispense with their services was that the church was compelled to reduce expenses and could not afford to pay $5,000 a year for its music.”

By 1906 the condition had worsened.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted on September 15 that year “The whole neighborhood has become one of hotels and apartment houses.”  But despite a bank foreclosure and sale of church property to satisfy a mortgage earlier that year, the periodical felt that rumors of “the passing of St. Leo’s Church” were “deemed by well-informed persons to be premature.”

Indeed the rumors were premature and, in fact, the following year St. Leo’s purchased the adjoining lot.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported “it is said that it will be used as a site for a new building to be used for church purposes.”  The “church purposes” would be unique.

The new building would replace a less-permanent structure on the site.  Father Ducey had earlier recognized a need for a temporary resting place for the bodies of businessmen, tourists and other out-of-towners who unexpectedly died while in the city.  He founded the House of Repose for the Stranger Dead, described by the New-York Tribune as being “open for the temporary home of the dead of any race or creed pending the arrival of relatives of friends.”  Father Ducey instructed “The chapel for the repose of the dead must be used to carry out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as a resting place for the dead who die in hotels and may need the kindly charity of Christian consideration before interment, Catholics and Protestants alike.  Its use must be limited to the dead who die in the district between 23d and 59th streets and Broadway to Fourth avenue.”

By the time the French nuns arrived, St. Leo's had lost its pointed spire and the street was lined with apartment houses and hotels.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1908 a group of 14 French nuns arrived at St. Leo’s Church.  They made up the only branch of the Society of Marie Reparatrice in America.  While 12 of the nuns were teaching parish children, two prayed at the altar rail.  There was never a time of the day when two of the devoted nuns were not at prayer.  “Their prayers are never for definite, concrete things not even for the success of their mission and settlement work or the repose of the souls of the dead,” explained The New York Times a few years later.  “They pray always that mankind may be saved from the burden of its sins; that reparation may be made for the world’s evil; that men and women may become better and gentler and more spiritual, and life a holier thing.”

The same year Father Thomas Ducey showed the first symptoms of intestinal disorders.  A year later, on August 22, 1909 he died at his 15-acre country estate.  The body was returned to Manhattan for the elaborate funeral at St. Leo’s Church.  The New-York Tribune remembered his high-class ways.  “Beloved by men and women of note, of culture and of wealth, a favorite guest at dinners, brilliant, witty, an art critic and raconteur of rare attainments, he was liked equally by those in and out of his own religion.”

Father Ducey’s will left nearly his entire estate, about $1.5 million today, to St. Leo’s Church for which he had “labored like a slave in every way for its usefulness.”  The will instructed that all the priest’s silverware be melted “and made into a chalice ciborium for holy mass.”

The drastic change in the neighborhood was reflected in a New-York Tribune article on May 17, 1914.  “One of the most picturesque spots in the city, located in the centre of the shop and club district, within a few steps of seething, skyscraping office buildings, big hotels, the clang of cable cars, the whiz of motors and the eddying gayety of Fifth av., is old St. Leo’s Church, in East 28th st., so long famous under the pastorage of the late Father Ducey.”

“This church, since Father Ducey’s death, has become the chosen sanctuary for harassed men and women, many of them evidently of wealthy and position, who steal away to this quiet spot as refuge from their various woes, their social duties, their physical ills and their hearts torn by the various troubles that come to all those whose lot is cast among the active conflicts of life, no matter what their situation”

The article reflected on the sisters of the Society of Marie Reparatrice, called “The Blue Nuns” because of their picturesque robin’s egg blue habits.  “The Sisters give that impression of refinement and culture which we associate with women in the social world.  They have culture, manner and charm in no small degree.”  In 1910 the sisters were given the church and in 1914 the former rectory was converted to a convent.

The church was the scene of a surprising series of crimes in September 1915.  Mrs. Catherine Northrup, alias Mrs. Randolph Fitzhugh, of Virginia, checked into the Holland House with luggage containing a significant wardrobe.  Within the next two weeks a flurry of robberies had been reported from within St. Leo’s Church.

Detective Beadle finally cracked the cast on September 23 after becoming suspicious and trailing the woman.  Catherine Northrup would enter St. Leo’s, sit behind a female worshiper, and when the congregation knelt in prayer would reach over the pew and remove money from the woman’s purse.

She then returned to the hotel, changed clothes, and headed back.  Detective Beadle followed her movements all day on September 22 when she repeated the process four times.  The New-York Tribune reported two days later, “She appeared at St. Leo’s again yesterday morning, Beadle said, and when she left the church the fourth time went to the Holland House, changed from the light costume to a dark one, and went to the church one more.  Each time she sat in a different part of the building.”

“The woman, who is also known as the ‘church robber,’” said the newspaper, “was held in $1,000 bail by Magistrate Cobb in Yorkville Court after she had pleaded not guilty.”

As the 28th Street neighborhood continued to change throughout the 20th century, the handsome brownstone church remained.  Although its sharp spire was lost early in the century, the St. Leo’s survived virtually intact until the last quarter when it was demolished for a 13-floor hotel at the rear of the plot.  The site of the church is now an open plaza for the Madison Belvedere Apartments.

photograph by the author

1 comment:

  1. Appalling demolition, might as well have built a lousy parking lot.