Thursday, April 21, 2011

The 1904 Church of the Most Precious Blood

As the first half of the 19th Century drew to a close, Italian immigrants seeking new opportunities in America began settling in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Gradually, tens of thousands would come together forming what would be known as Little Italy.

Those new opportunities, however, proved more difficult to seize and families were crammed into dismal and often unsanitary tenement houses. Italian immigrants, shunned by established New Yorkers, were not permitted to worship in church sanctuaries, but were relegated to make-shift areas in the basements.

In response, the Vatican issued a decree in 1888 to establish a parish for the needs of Italians. A group of Scalabrini Fathers were given the task of founding the Most Precious Blood National Parish.

Three years later the Fathers, of the St. Charles Borromeo Society, had purchased land at 113 Baxter Street and commenced construction of the church. Architects William Schickel & Company were given the commission for the design. Bavarian-born William Schickel worked in partnership with Isaac E. Ditmars and Hugo Kafka and, beginning with the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in 1879, was responsible for many buildings for the New York Diocese. Shickel’s German background was reflected in the facades of many of these structures.

By the time the basement level was somewhat completed, however, the Fathers realized they were in over their heads.

With a debt on the property of about $100,000, the Archbishop approached the Provincial Minister of the Franciscans in 1894 .  The friars took over the parish and the construction.

In the meantime, the basement level was roofed over and services were held below ground while the necessary funds were amassed. Realizing that Saint Januarius (or San Gennaro) was important to the parishioners, many of whom were from Naples, the friars supplied the church with a relic of the saint’s 1,700-year-old dried blood.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood of the parish was crime-ridden and dangerous. The Five Points area, just south of Baxter Street, was notorious for “disorderly houses,” crime and gang activities. James D. McCabe, Jr., in his 1882 "New York by Gaslight" noted "Baxter street is another scene of misery, and, alas, of crime...It is a terrible neighborhood, and at night even the police venture into it with caution. Drunken rows, fights, and stabbing affrays are of nightly occurrence."

In July of 1898 Father Buonaventura Piscopo had had enough. The priest visited the landlords who rented rooms to “disorderly ladies” and threatened to make their names public if they did not stop the practice. The landlords knew that respectable tenants would then leave.

Italian immigrants crowd Baxter Street in 1893 during the time when parishioners worshipped in the basement of the unfinished church -- photo from author's collection
“Not only that,” the priest promised the press, “but I shall prosecute them in the courts, which I find I can do, and I have already secured a lawyer for that purpose.”

At the time the Church of the Most Precious Blood was baptizing around 2,000 Italian babies every year and there were about ten weddings every Sunday. With his growing flock, Father Piscopo was serious about stamping out the immoral atmosphere in his parish.

Almost immediately the Reverand Father received an anonymous letter warning that if he did not stop his crusade he “would meet his fate from the assassin’s knife when answering a call to some dying member of his parish on a dark night.”

The police, however, urged the priest to fight vice from the pulpit rather than on the street. While Father Piscopo raged against the “many immoral people among the Italians of the district,” Captain Albertson of the Mulberry Street Precinct felt differently. Crime and prostitution were not a problem here, he said. “The trouble we have to contend with among the Italians is that they are always killing one another.”

Indeed, that was a problem. The day before Father Piscopo revealed his death threat from the pulpit, Angelo Gabrieto had gone to the home of his former companion, Carmella Lamaa, who was now living with Antonio Corruso. After harsh words, Carmella urged her new boyfriend to attack Gabrieto with a hatchet. Gabrieto produced a knife. Both men died.

Finally, although the debt had been reduced only to $65,000, construction of the upper church began. On July 7, 1901 Archbishop Corrigan laid the cornerstone which contained U.S. and Italian coins, the names of the Archbishop, other clergymen and President William McKinley, and other documents.

photo by Alice Lum
Three years later the church was completed. The Apostolic Delegate from the Vatican, Monsignor Falconio was present at its dedication on April 17, 1904 along with visiting clergy, civic and religious societies and the Italian Rifle Guards. In 1909 Ray Stannard Baker would write about it in The American Magazine. “It is a large new church, with a lively able priest at the head of it. It is attended exclusively by Italians—the poorest people in the neighborhood, and yet that church as been built complete in fifteen years out of the pennies of poor people: and it is supported to-day by their offerings.”

photo by Church of the Most Precious Blood
Temperament of the neighborhood, unfortunately, was unchanged by the impressive new structure. One month after the dedication, as Father Bernardino Politz emerged from the confessional early in the evening, he was approached by 40-year old Giacomo Gerolmini who explained his niece, Camilla, had married Cavallero Ruggiero in a civil service a few days before. He asked the priest to arrange a church ceremony. The groom was present along with several of his family members.

Suddenly Ruggiero yelled out “That man is not the girl’s uncle as he says he is!”

When Gerolmini hollered back “What do you mean?” the 22-year old Ruggiero answered “I mean that I have been deceived and that this girl is not your niece!”

With that the uncle pulled out a pistol and shot the young groom in front of the altar, emptying the church of worshippers. Ruggiero recovered and the pair was later married in the church ceremony.

By the late 20th Century the building was suffering from water leakage and general disrepair. A complete two-year renovation was initiated in 1995. Frescos and oil paintings inside were restored, the building cleaned and the exterior cleaned and repaired.

The restored, cleaned facade gleams again -- photo by Alice Lum
Today the Little Italy neighborhood has shrunken as, over the decades, second and third generation Italian Americans have moved away. Chinatown slowly encroaches on its borders, yet Italian restaurants, stores and social clubs still abound. Here every summer the Church of the Most Precious Blood sponsors the Feast of San Gennaro. Originally a solemn holy day to remember the parish’s Patron Saint, it is now a week-long street festival, reportedly the largest religious festival in the country.

1 comment:

  1. So many of the priests involved with important aspects of Most Precious Blood Church's history were mentioned, and I was disappointed to see that Father Fabian N. Grifone, O.F.M. was not mentioned at all. He was the pastor responsible for the 1995 renovation mentioned in the article; he was our pastor for 23 years and only recently retired in 2014. He most definitely deserves a lot of the credit for our church looking as beautiful as it does today. Those of us who are lifelong parishioners and lived through this 'transformation' are forever grateful for what Fr. Fabian did for our parish during his stay here.