Friday, February 18, 2011

The 1801 Catholic Church of the Transfiguration -- 25 Mott Street

The neighborhood around Mott Street in 1800 was had little to offer. The 48-acre Collect Pond, once a bucolic picnic spot was now a dumping ground for the waste from nearby tanneries, breweries and slaughterhouses; creating in effect an open, rancid sewer.

Yet it was here that a group of English Lutherans opted to build their new church. The group had broken away from its downtown congregation which conducted services only in German. Costing $15,000 and completed in 1801, the English Lutheran Church Zion was a Georgian-Gothic field stone structure with handsome stone framing around the window and door openings. Within six years the congregation had broken away from the Lutheran church entirely, converting to Episcopalian.

On August 31, 1815 a catastrophic fire swept through the area, destroying 35 homes and essentially gutting the church. The attempts to rebuild made by the rector, Rev. Ralph Willston, were so financially crippling that he was forced to resign in 1817 and the property was sold under foreclosure at public auction at the Tontine Coffee House on Wall Street.

Peter Lorillard purchased the building and reassured the concerned parishioners that he “would retain the property until some friends of the church would stipulate to finish rebuilding, and then restore it to its former ecclesiastical organization.” Six congregants stepped up with sizable donations, aided by a $10,000 loan from Trinity Church.

The renovated structure was completed in 1818, dedicated by Bishop Hobart on November 16.

The neighborhood, however, remained rough. By the 1840s the Five Points section was one of poverty and crime. Finally, in 1853, the Zion Protestant Episcopal Church gave up and relocated further uptown, having decided that “the permanent resuscitation of the parish in that locality was a hopeless undertaking.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of New York purchased the building for the Parish of the Transfiguration. The Cuban-born founder of the parish, Father Felix Varela, died that same year, after which the church was led by a succession of Irish, then Italian, pastors throughout the 19th Century who worked with the poor Irish residents of the area.

The parish commissioned Henry Engelbert , who had just rebuilt the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral after a devastating fire, to design a bell tower in 1868. On February 13, 1871 the blessing of the 1,500-pound bell for the new tower was conducted by Archbishop McClosky. The bell was swung on a derrick in front of the altar and “notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather,” according to The Times, “the edifice was filled to repletion, although admission was only to be secured by tickets at fifty cents each.”

The imposing ceremony was “quite lengthy.”

In 1882 another consecration was held, this time for the new altar. “The general appearance of the altar is similar to the one in St. Ann’s Church, in East Twelfth-street,” reported The Times. “It is of Carrara marble, on a base which is reached by three clouded marble steps. On the front and centre of the altar is a niche in which is a marble recumbent figure of the Savior of the tomb. It is flanked on either side by scenes in the life of the Savior elaborately wrought in the marble. The canopy over the tabernacle is supported by four columns of mottled red Vermont marble. Its roof terminates in a foliated pinnacle, at the summit of which is a crucifix, the figure of the Savior being wrong in gold on a marble cross.”

By the 1890s more and more Italian immigrants were settling in the Five Points area. The Irish leaders of the parish refused to allow them to worship in the main sanctuary; forcing them to hold services in the basement. Finally in 1902 when Rev. Ernest Coppo became pastor, the Italians were allowed upstairs.

In the meantime, however, the Chinese were now infiltrating the neighborhood in large numbers. In response, the Rev. Dr. McLoughlin of Transfiguration spoke before the Board of Local Improvements of the Tenth District in March 1899. Explaining that he was the guardian of over 5,000 souls, “mainly English-speaking and Italians,” he rallied for the removal of “the Orientals” to another quarter.

“I am kept awake night after night in the summertime by the noise of these Mongolians, by their vile music, by the clatter of their tongues, by their dominoes, their unauthorized midnight processions, and by the shrill laughter of their white women. Hence I know fully whereof I speak when I pronounce Pell and Doyers Streets cesspools of immorality vile enough to bring a curse upon the entire community.”
photo by Alice Lum
McLoughlin’s intolerant rants did not produce his desired outcome and not only did the Chinese stay in the neighbor, within a few years the Salesian Society took over the staffing of Transfiguration. An Italian issionary society, the Salesians immediately sought ways to include the Chinese into the parish. Before long a Chinese-speaking pastor who had done missionary work in China was brought in to help.

By the 1940s the Maryknoll Fathers, respected for their missionary work in China, managed the church and a Chinese school was established.

photo by americasroof
Today the neighborhood around the Church of the Transfiguration is greatly changed. It is a multi-cultural district with a rich blend of ethnic and racial heritage and tradition. In designating the building a landmark, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission called it not only “a fine example of Georgian-Gothic architecture” but “one of the finest ecclesiastical buildings of its time.”


  1. April 24th 1802 my 5x Great Grandparents were married here: Willem Girodet [William Gerodet, Gerrodette] and Jemima Brower. William a French immigrant, Jemima descended from the Brouwer family that were among the early settlers of New Amsterdam, as well as from Sarah Rapelje, the first Christian child born in the New Netherlands.

  2. Along Transfiguration Church's south side runs little Mosco Street, which is a remnant of Five Points and one of NYC's most interesting side streets.

  3. When I was a child living on Mott Street in Little Italy and attending Transfiguration School in Chinatown (1944-1949), what is now Mosco Street was called Park Street.

  4. As children of Chinese immigrants, I reflect positively on Transfiguration Church and outreach to the Chinese. I attended Transfiguration kindergarten in 1957 at a storefront on Mulberry. The storefront is still there to the left of the Mulberry Hotel.