On February 16, 1888 The Evening World remembered “When the Redemptorist Fathers first came to this country, in 1842, they were not very cordially received.” Indeed they were not. Anti-Catholic sentiments in New York City were deeply rooted. In 1788 John Jay had urged the New York Legislature to prohibit Catholics from holding public office. Now, in 1844, Bishop John Hughes stationed armed guards at Catholic churches to prevent mobs from burning them. The feisty Irish-born priest famously warned the mayor “If a single Catholic Church were burned in New York, the city would become a second Moscow.”
The parish of the Most Holy Redeemer was founded and in 1844 the Fathers erected a school, rectory and temporary church “all in one plain frame building” on East 3rd Street near First Avenue. Dedicated by Coadjutor Bishop John McCloskey on April 8, 1844, the entire complex had taken just seven weeks to build.
John Hughes became New York’s first archbishop on July 19, 1850. That same year plans were laid for a “more substantial building” for Most Holy Redeemer, as described by The Evening World. Hughes’s determination to make New Yorkers realize that Catholics were here to stay would soon be reflected in his plans for the magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral north of the established city—intended to outshine any Protestant church in New York. It may have been that same fervor which resulted in the impressive new Church of The Most Holy Redeemer.
On October 29, 1850 the New-York Daily Tribune published a seemingly disinterested report saying “We notice the parish attached to the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer (Roman Catholic) in Third-street, are breaking ground for the erection of their new church, on the lots immediately adjoining the temporary edifice in which they have hitherto worshipped, and which has long been insufficient in size for the people who worship there. The new church is to be on a grand scale, and is to be completed in proportion as there are funds to advance it with.”
|original source unknown, sketch via Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation|
Construction was completed within two years and the church was dedicated on November 28, 1852. The architect, vaguely listed as “Mr. Walsh” or simply “Walsh,” created a limestone-faced Baroque Romanesque structure of cathedral-like proportions. The highly-ornate façade featured a soaring 250-foot high multi-level clock-and-bell tower which culminated in a hexagonal lantern supporting a globe and cross.
The Evening World described the church as “the most imposing edifice of its kind in this country” and “a magnificent monument of ecclesiastical architecture. Its style of architecture is the Graeco-Roman or Byzantine…The interior decorations are elaborate and artistic.” The New York Herald announced the cost of the structure at $65,600—over $2 million in 2016 dollars.
|The original interior featured colorful stenciling. lithograph by Packard and Butler, from the collection of the Favey Library, Villanova University|
The parish was almost entirely composed of German immigrants. By now the Lower East Side boasted the highest population of German-speaking residents in the world, other than Berlin and Vienna. In reporting on the first Christmas service here, the New York Herald said “a large and most respectable congregation assembled…There was a sermon, in the German language, which seemed to produce a deep effect upon the congregation.”
An impressive church building could not dispel anti-Catholic feelings, however. The same newspaper reported on June 5, 1856 “the Catholics in this city, of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, had a procession on the occasion of the feast of Corpus Christi, in which young girls and maidens, all in white, were followed by ‘Captain Smith’s company of Independent Rifles,’ bearing the stars and stripes.” The paper was offended by the inclusion of the American flag. The article announced that the rifle company “had the audacity to carry the American flag as part of the Popish paraphernalia of the celebration. The flag is pronounced sheer hypocrisy—a sort of thing that would be torn to pieces if unfurled while the Host were passing in Rome.”
Discrimination did not come only from the English-speaking population. Catholics were a minority among the German community—only about one in four was Catholic. In January 1873 a new German play was staged in the Stadt Theatre on the Bowery. Called Secrets of New-York, or the Jesuits in America, The New York Times reported it “was written in opposition to the Jesuits and their influence in this country, and is said to abound in attacks upon the order and its principles.”
The three main characters were Father Josephus, Father Hyacinthe, and Father Ignatus. The Times noted “the object of the play was to hold these characters up to the ridicule and reprobation of the audience as representative of the Jesuits in America.”
The Catholic fathers were, understandably, upset at what they termed “the obnoxious play.” The priests of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer were especially offended, since among its staff were Fathers Josephus, Hyacynth and Ignatius. The Redemptorist Fathers went to Captain Ward of the 10th Precinct and “protested most emphatically” against the play. Not only was it “intended to cast ridicule upon them and their faith,” said The Times, but it was being staged on Sunday.
At 8:00 on the night of January 19 3,000 people filed into the Stadt Theatre. The Times said it was “a very respectable audience” with a great number of the patrons being ladies. After an opening concert, the audience was informed that the police had “interfered” with the performance and there would be no play.
The magnificent interiors of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer stood in distinct contrast to the miserable surrounding tenements. The riches inside—gold chalices, jewel-encrusted statues and such—were a great temptation to indigent neighbors. One German, Peter Scholl, pleaded guilty to burglarizing the church on June 21, 1882. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. But Scholl was only one of the first such criminals.
Of the many funerals held in the church, the most heart-wrenching was the group funeral for 14 little girls on February 22, 1883. On February 14 a small fire had broken out in a closet in the school of the Most Holy Redeemer. Although it was small and did little damage, panic among the children resulted in a stampede and the collapse of a stairway banister. The 14 school girls were crushed to death.
The church was filled to capacity and “outside thousands of people clamored for admittance,” according to The New York Times. Not only was 3rd Street thronged, but so were Avenue A and First Avenue. The newspaper detailed the grief each of the 14 families saying, for instance, “Mrs. Uster, the poor widow whose pretty little daughter Mamie was one of the victims, was so overcome as the body of her child was carried into the church that her outbursts of grief became violent and she bewailed her loss in pitiful sobs and cries.”
The interior of the church was draped in mourning. “The heavy pillars under the dome of the vaulted roof were twined with white and black crepe, and long festoons of the same mourning emblem were looped from the dome to the pillars of the sanctuary. Upon the altar…20 tall candles burned dimly in high, brazen candlesticks.”
The destitute conditions of some congregants were evidenced in the burials of some of the girls. One impoverished widow, the mother of 10-year old Barbara Bechel, realized when the hearse reached the “poor ground” that her daughter was to be buried in an unmarked grave. The potters’ field did not allow tombstones.
“She then made a most piteous and tearful protest, and begged the man in charge of the grave-diggers to make them take up the coffin and let her take it home until she could find some other place to bury her child.” Mrs. Bechel was told she would have to pay $5 to bring the coffin up and store it in a cemetery vault for two days.
The burial continued, but just before the common grave was fully covered with soil, “the little brother of the dead child brought from the carriage a tiny marble slab, which he begged the grave-digger, with tears streaming down his face, to bury next to his sister’s coffin.” The girl would not have a headstone, but she would not be totally forgotten. The little stone read “Barbara Bechel, aged 10. Died Feb. 20.” The Times said it “had been purchased by the poor mother, at the cost of what privation none can tell, as a headstone for her little daughter, whose grave after all remains unmarked.”
In 1884 the Rev. Father Andrew Ziegler was appointed pastor. Among his first priorities was the redecorating of the 32-year old sanctuary. The Evening World reported in 1888 “the interior of the fine building has been entirely refitted and redecorated at an expense of $10,000. This included the paving of the sanctuary and the aisles with white marble and a new communion table, also of marble, handsomely carved.”
The church received a interesting gift in 1892 when the bones of Saint Datian were donated from a private chapel in Italy. A wax effigy of the saint is still visible in a side chapel.
On October 27, 1897 Fritz Meyer, who was known on the street as Dutch Pete, sneaked into the church and hid until everyone had left and the doors were locked. He had brought with him a 32-calibre revolver and a 15-inch long steel drill. Was he did not suspect was that the church had installed a modern electric burglar alarm. When he started breaking into the poor boxes, the alarm rang in the rectory.
Policemen Frederick Smith and Conkling responded. They searched the dark church with Rev. Aloysius Englehardt from the rectory. When Officer Smith trapped Meyer in a hallway, the crook fired twice. “One bullet struck Smith in the mouth, passing directly through its roof to the base of the brain. He fell with a crash,” reported The Times.
Meyer escaped by smashing through a window, but he was captured by civilians in the street. When the crowd outside heard that the popular “Schmitty de cop” was dead, the call of “Hang him!” spread. “There was an angry, inarticulate howl and a surge in the crowd, and in another moment the four officers were fighting for their prisoner’s life.”
Although Frederick Smith was Lutheran, Rev. Englehardt had administered the sacrament of extreme unction on the dying policeman. In a rare exception to religious protocol, his funeral was held in the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer on October 30. Nathan Franko’s orchestra played throughout the service.
On November 18, 1897 Fritz Meyer was sentenced to death for the murder.
Within months of his coronation, Pope Pius X ordered that Gregorian chant would replace the classical and baroque music long favored in Catholic churches. When the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer celebrated its 60th anniversary mass on April 24, 1904, The Sun reported that it was “the first complete Gregorian programme to be used in this country since the Pope issued his encyclical on the reform of music.”
On June 4, 1908 an unemployed and homeless French ironworker, Rene Baci, hid in the church, just as Fritz Meyer had done 11 years earlier. And like Meyer, he was unaware of the burglar alarms. But this crook was not interested in the change in the poor boxes. He was focused on what The Evening World described as “a crown, encrusted with diamonds, and the bejeweled clothes on a statue of the Saviour, valued in all at $31,000.”
Police Captain Shaw and two detectives Gilligan and Tucker, had a hard time subduing Baci. The newspaper said they “had to battle for their lives before they overcame a giant robber.” When he was questioned at the police station, Baci had a simple explanation for the attempted crime.
“I am out of work and have no money. That church has more money than I have, and I need it.”
|A side chapel sits below an exquisite stained glass dome.|
Baci’s predicament was common in the neighborhood. Just three months later, on the afternoon of September 5, 1908, another homeless man, Richard O’Brien, entered the church before 1:00. He entered a pew near the rear where he knelt in prayer. When he seated himself again, he took a small bottle from his pocket and drank from it. Minutes later he collapsed.
The worshipers nearby assumed he had committed suicide. Father Piedel carried the unconscious man to an anteroom and police were summoned. A doctor from Bellevue Hospital arrived as well. The bottle was found to contain harmless vanilla extract and O’Brien was diagnosed as suffering from starvation.
In 1913 architect Paul Schultz was commissioned to modernize the church. Much of the ornamentation was stripped from the façade and the tower was drastically reduced in size. Completed in September that year, the renovations cost $50,000. The Catholic Church in the United States of America noted that the congregation was estimated at about 2,000, “and shows a decrease.”
Throughout the 20th century the demographics of the neighborhood changed drastically. The German population moved north to Yorkville in the first decades and by the second half of the century Spanish-speaking Catholics formed the majority of the congregation. Today the church is popularly known as Iglesia Santisimo Rendentor-Natividad.
photographs by the author