Friday, March 5, 2010

The Church of Saint Jean Baptiste

Early postcard view of the Church of Saint Jean Baptiste - author's collection
Among my list of architectural treasures that "don't belong here" is The Church of Saint Jean Baptiste on Lexington Avenue at 75th Street.  Built in the Italian Rennaissance style, it looks as though it were snatched off a corner in Rome and deposited, intact, in Manhattan.

I love Saint Jean Baptiste not only for it's spectacular architecture and interior; but because the name gives me a chance to use my very best Maurice Chevalier French.  And I love the story of how the building came to be.

The parish of Saint Jean Baptiste was founded in 1882 to serve the Yorkville neighborhood's burgeoning population of French Canadians.  They built a medium-sized, Gothic church on 76th Street and offered masses in both French and English.  Lured into the congregation by the unpretentiousness of the church as opposed to the more showy Fifth Avenue houses of worship was multi-millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan.

Shortly after the turn-of-the-century, Ryan arrived late for mass and was disgruntled to find standing room only.  Afterwards, unaccustomed to standing and having no intentions to do it again, he approached the priest, asking how much a new church would cost.

The priest threw out a figure from the top of his head.  "$300,000.00," he said.

"Build it," answered Ryan.

By the time the new church was completed in 1914, that figure doubled; but what Ryan paid for was stunning by any estimations.  Designed by Nicholas Serracino, its limestone exterior is nothing short of monumental.  A series of broad steps rise from Lexington Avenue to a pillared porch above which are two colonnaded bell towers.  Below the towers are baroque trumpeting angels and topping it all a 172-foot dome completes the elegant Italian feeling.

Ryan would never again have to stand during mass.  His new church accomodated 1200 worshippers.

photo by Andrew Cusack

The sanctuary of Saint Jean Baptiste is nothing short of astounding.  Colored marble, polychromed panels, a mosaic encrusted half-domed nave, museum-quality carved's all here.   The space is lofty and ethereal and meets my criteria for a good church interior:  a place of peace and awe.

photo by Jim In Times Square
There are no more French masses in Saint Jean Baptiste.  The French community dissipated decades ago.  But their little chunk of Rome which came to be because a millionaire was loathe to stand remains.  And it remains one of my favorite spots in New York.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. I had no idea this was there. It does look Roman. Bravo!

  2. Tom, Great blog. I only discovered it yesterday, and I'm slowly working my way through it. So far, this post is as far as I've got.

    Pity I didn't know about the blog before my two month stay in NYC last year. My wanderings would have been more informed and interesting.

    When is the book coming out?

  3. Glad you're enjoying it, Jim! Unfortunately publishers run as fast as they can from books based on blogs -- they see no reason why anyone would buy what they can get for free! Thanks again!

  4. Tom, That's why they invented eBooks! Seriously. With the advent of eReaders, you don't need physical books, and you could do most of the layout and design yourself. There are few overheads, no stock to keep track of, and best of all, you get to keep most of the income.

    Look into it. Buy one or two selfpublished eBooks and check out what others are doing in this area. If they can do it, why not you?