Tuesday, July 14, 2015

St. Mary's R. C. Church -- No. 438 Grand Street

In June 2015 scaffolding testifies to further restoration.

Despite New York City’s Protestant beginnings, in the years following the Revolutionary War the Roman Catholic population had significantly increased.   The city got its first bishop and in 1815 St. Patrick’s Cathedral was completed on Mott Street.

In 1826 the Vatican appointed John DuBois to succeed Bishop John Connolly.   At the time the former Rutgers and Delancey estates had been dissected into building plots and a new neighborhood was forming.   There was talk of a new Catholic church to service the area which would, generations later, be known as the Lower East Side.

Coincidentally, the seventh Presbyterian Congregation had fallen on hard times and was obliged to sell its church on Sheriff Street.   The Catholic Church purchased the small brick-faced frame building in April 1826 for $7,000.   It had a tower and bell, making the new St. Mary’s Church the first Catholic church in New York with a bell.  (Bells in chapels were prohibited by law in Ireland and the habit seems to have carried over.)

Bishop DuBois dedicated the church on March 25, 1827.  Church records would record “Nearly every priest in the city was present.”

Religious prejudice against both Catholics and Irish in New York was strong and often violent.  Armed Catholic defenders would have to fight back an angry rabble in 1844 intent on burning St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  But more than a decade before that incident, St. Mary’s would be the target.

Unlike the attack on the cathedral, it was a lone person who broke into St. Mary’s Church on November 9, 1831.   Although the church diplomatically blamed "a burglar," The Evening World later pointed at the Irish Protestants.  It wrote "respectable Catholics kept out of their way, while the fighting Catholics went out to meet them.  There were riots, murders and occasional burnings."

The church was set on fire and completely destroyed; only the heavy iron safe remained in the smoldering ruins.   The pastor, Rev. Luke Berry who had established the school in the basement of the church, fought the blaze valiantly.   Injured and exhausted, he died on December 7.

Two weeks later, on November 23, 1831, land was purchased at Grand and Ridge Streets from Peter Allen for $9,000 and ground was broken in January 1832.  The cornerstone of the new St. Mary’s Church was laid on April 30 by Bishop DuBois.

While the edifice rose, the priests of St. Mary’s turned their attention to the cholera epidemic that broke out that summer.  The Catholic Church in the United States of America noted “the severity of the labors of the priests in attending the dying may be imagined from the statement of a parishioner that he saw five coffins carried out from one house in one morning.”

Mass was celebrated in the basement of the new structure beginning in December; then on June 9, 1833 Bishop DuBois was back to dedicate the completed church.  As was expected in the 1830s, the church took the shape of a Greek temple.  Four massive brownstone Doric columns supported a classical portico.  The side walls were constructed of undressed fieldstone

Almost immediately a parochial school was opened and a year later the pastor, Rev. William Quarter, brought three Sisters of Charity to the church.  They opened St. Mary’s Academy in May 1835.  But progressive steps like these were relative.  Parishioners were apparently still governed by the will of the pastor.  

On July 7, 1835 the Morning Herald reported “On Sunday before last, as we have been informed, the Rev. Wm. Quarter, one of the Catholic priests who officiate in St. Mary’s church, in Grand Street, embraced the opportunity during the morning service, to denounce and prohibit to his congregation the reading or perusal of the Morning Herald, under the usual penalties made and provided by the holy church in all such and similar cases.”

Accommodations for the growing congregation were made in 1840 when galleries were erected on either side of the organ for school children and overflow crowds.  At the same time a handsome Georgian-style bell tower, complete with a clock, was erected above the entrance.

In 1840 a bell tower was added to the Greek-inspired church -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWGL9S5C&SMLS=1&RW=1536&RH=770
The influx of Irish immigrants exploded the population of the area and continued to tax the physical limits of the church building.  In 1861 the parish was split and St. Teresa’s parish was formed to handle the overflow.  Only seven years later another split resulted in the parish of St. Rose.

The immigrant congregation was, on the whole, poor.   St. Mary’s Church responded with charity.  The Ladies’ Benevolent Society, formed in 1849, distributed nearly $15,000 among the poor in its first 12 years.    The women held a “fair and festival” on February 16, 1860 to raise money for the poor.  Church fairs were a common vehicle for fund-raising.  The New York Times described the event, held at the City Assembly Rooms, the following day.

“The attendance was large and liberal.  A band of music was in attendance.  Pendant from the balcony were several American flags, with the green flag of Erin, baring the golden harp wreathed by the shamrock, proudly hanging in the center. Around the rooms extended tables loaded with every variety of inviting edibles, captivating toys, freshly-culled flowers, and choicest books.  As usual at fairs, pretty maidens presided at the tables, and there was a constant lively competition in buying chances.”

The women collected about $3,000 at the fair—a hefty $87,000 by today’s standards.

Within a few months the attention of the parishioners of St. Mary’s, along with the rest of New York City’s citizens, would be riveted upon activities in the South.  On April 12, 1861 Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.  The Civil War was under way.

Three days later President Lincoln issued a Proclamation calling for 75,000 militiamen and, on the same day, Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union Army.   On Saturday morning, April 27, St. Mary’s made an unmistakable show of its patriotism.  The Times reported that Rev. Michael McCarron, “in the presence of about 5,000 persons, hoisted the ‘Stars and Stripes’ on the cupola of that edifice.  The national airs were sung by the children of the Sunday School and several addresses were delivered.”

In 1870 an enlargement and updating of the church building was proposed.  The old rectory on Ridge Street, directly behind the church, was demolished in order to extend the depth of the structure.  On July 1870 the $93,000 project began.   The dedication of the renovated St. Mary’s was held on February 26, 1871.

The building had not only been extended; it emerged from the make-over unrecognizable.  Irish-born architect Patrick Charles Keely specialized in ecclesiastical design and worked almost exclusively for the Roman Catholic Church.  According to architectural historian Kevin F. Decker, he would be responsible for every 19th century Catholic cathedral in New England.

The fieldstone extension stretched far to the rear.

While he continued the unassuming fieldstone along the sides, he stripped off the Greek Revival façade and replaced it with a rather prim version of the Romanesque Revival style.   Faced in red brick with brownstone trim, its severely symmetrical design featured two square end towers topped by twin steeples.   Keely’s disciplined façade was offset by his interior renovations.  A stunning leaded and stained glass dome spilled light into the sanctuary adorned with Corinthian pilasters.  A stained glass skylight over the chancel provided an ethereal light.

But St. Mary’s Church continued to grow and change—a virtual work in progress since the laying of the cornerstone.  On August 9, 1885 The New York Times reported “The improvements at St. Mary’s Church in Grand-street, are approaching completion.  New pews have been placed in the edifice and the position of the side altars changed so that the sanctuary has been much beautified. The old pews have been given to other churches.”   Assuming that the “old pews” dated from the 1871 renovation, they were only 14 years old at the time.

The enormous flood of Irish immigrants into the Grand Street neighborhood is evidenced by the confirmation service in St. Mary’s Church on May 19, 1886.  Archbishop Corrigan was there to officiate as 630 candidates received the Sacrament of Confirmation.  

In 1914 there appears to be a coat of white wash over the red brick.  The Catholic Church in the United States (copyright expired

The neighborhood was seeing another flood of immigrants by now—those of the Jewish faith.   And so, despite the hundreds of confirmations at St. Mary’s Church every year, it was one in 1890 that especially stood out.

On May 25 that year The Sun reported on the congregation’s newest member, Dr. Simon Koppe, Ph.D.  “Mr. Koppe was born of orthodox Hebrew parents.  He has studied very assiduously, the priests at St. Mary’s Church say, for the last eight weeks, and three weeks ago he was baptized into the faith.  Yesterday he received his first communion and was confirmed.”   The eye-brow raising event was preceded a month earlier by the baptism of Koppel’s 11-month old child.

A calamitous lightning storm hit New York on June 6, 1893.  Severe damage was reported throughout the city, including two strikes to one of St. Mary’s steeples.  The following day The Sun reported “The church has two octagonal towers of wood and slate on the Grand street front.  These towers were crowned wit two wooden crosses four feet high, gilded, and set upon wooden pedestals.”

At 3:55 that afternoon the first bolt hit the western tower.  “A shower of slate and bricks and bits of wood fell into the street.  A section of the pedestal of the cross was hurled across Grand street, and nearly hit Butcher Maloney of 439.”  A four-foot section of brickwork crashed to the street below and pieces of slate rained down.  Only about a minute later another lightning bolt hit the cross, exploding it into wooden shards.

An enterprising passerby realized the financial potential in the mishap.  “A prompt citizen dashed up in the rain and gathered up the bits of the cross to sell for relics to Father Hughes’s congregation,” reported the newspaper.

By the turn of the century it was not just poverty, but crime that tainted the neighborhood.  On August 28, 1905 the building next door at No. 436 Grand Street was raided.  Detectives found an illegal prize fight going on there.

Following Father Nicholas J. Hughes’s death four years later, the New-York Tribune commented on the area.  “St. Mary’s Church was once the leading Catholic parish in New York and has always been in high favor with those of the clergy who aspire to irremovable rectorships. It is now in the centre of a large foreign population, but there still remain many old families who will maintain the church and two schools, one for boys and the other for girls.”

The newspaper had earlier reported on Father Hughes’s funeral.  On April 22 it reported “Those who were unable to gain admission to the church lined both sides of Grand street while the services were in progress, and waited two hours to get a last look at the dead priest.  Ten clergymen took part in the services.  Twelve hundred of the former and present members of St. Mary’s parish paraded in the funeral procession."

Unlike in other parts of the city, the Catholic parishioners of St. Mary’s Church coexisted peacefully with their Jewish neighbors.  In February 1919 Rev. James M. Byrnes struck out at bigotry.  “I wish to state that it is a shame and an outrage to have to read so often the uncalled for remarks in regard to the Jewish people living on the East Side.  As a rule, I am certain that the ones who make these assertions are highbrows, and scarcely know, or rather never have been on, the East Side.”

He berated the “fakirs” and reminded them of the patriotic support of the Jewish community during the war.  “Did the Jewish boys of the East Side go ‘over there’ in hundreds?  Did the Jewish father and mothers of the East Side buy Liberty bonds?  We are proud to say they did, and were glad and happy to do so.”

On May 9, 1926 St. Mary’s Church celebrated its centennial in a much-changed neighborhood.  Where once small private homes lined the streets, now tenement buildings dwarfed earlier structures.  The Lower East Side was predominately Jewish now; yet St. Mary’s Church forged on, the third-oldest Roman Catholic Church in New York.  Cardinal Hayes officiated at the Pontifical Mass “with men and women of different faiths mingling with the parishioners” that day.

At the time of the centennial, St. Mary's Church was hemmed in by other structures.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Throughout the 20th century St. Mary’s Church continued to minister to the humble residents of the neighborhood.  One of the most memorable and poignant moments came on January 18, 2006 when the funeral of seven-year old Nixzmary Brown was held here.  The innocent girl had been tortured and beaten to death by her stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez, in an explosion of rage over a cup of yogurt.  He told reporters she was a “troublemaker.”

An honor guard of uniformed United States Marines carried the small white casket into the church and back out.  The overflow crowd stood in the drizzling rain outside on Grand Street.  The New York Times journalist Alan Feuer summed it up in one sentence.  “There are few things more confusing than a young girl’s coffin.”

The neighborhood around St. Mary’s Church continues to change.  Building go up and come down.  Today the parish is largely Hispanic.  But the church building, for decades changed and changed again, survives much as it was in 1871.

 non-credited photographs by the author

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