|Photo Harlem Preservation Foundation|
Here, on March 17, 1889 St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church was established by Archbishop Corrigan. The Archbishop appointed Rev. John J. U. Keogan to organize the new congregation. The priest soon hired the 29-year old architect Thomas Henry Poole to design the parish’s first structure, a small one-story church erected that same year which was, apparently, never intended to be a permanent home.
In 1904 Father John J. Keogan was still pastor and he called upon Poole again to design a much larger, much more impressive church for the growing congregation. Land was purchased on 118th Street near 8th and St. Nicholas Avenues. What came together on Poole's drafting board was astonishing, unique, and magnificent.
Dedicated on May 26, 1907, the church was without parallel. Freely melding styles like English Perpendicular Gothic, Moorish and Venetian Gothic, the architect slathered the façade with ornamentation. A spiky screen ran along the upper face of the building like a tiara, stealing attention from the colossal Gothic stained glass windows. A projecting porch with paired columns and Venetian arches spanned the width of the structure. It would be called by the AIA Guide to New York City a century later “berserk eclecticism” which is “unnameable but wonderful.”
|A lacy fan-vaulted spans the organ loft -- photo nycago.com|
|The ornately carved High Altar -- photo nycago.co|
The magnificent structure was the scene of weddings and funerals, many of them socially noteworthy. Hundreds of mourners crowded into the church in 1908 for the funeral of Justice John Henry McCarthy.
In 1920 Maurice G. St. Germain was stationed in Havre, France, working for the Guaranty Trust Company, when he met Loretta Harvey of 281 West 118th Street who was touring Europe. Two years later as he crossed the ocean on the Cunard steamship Mauretania, he sent her a radiogram asking her to marry him. A week later, on August 16, 1922 they were married at St. Thomas the Apostle.
The extension of the subway lines into Harlem, among other factors, changed the face of Harlem and by mid-century the population of the neighborhood was a rich mixture of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately, there was also poverty and crime in the changing district. On February 15, 1955 14-year old James Mason entered a recreation center at 115th Street and 5th Avenue with two friends. The boy was shot and killed.
In the wake of the heartbreaking event the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle paid for all burial expenses and Rev. John Stewart offered a requiem mass for the boy.
Harry Belafonte’s family were members here, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was baptized here and the first black Borough President of Manhattan, Hulan E. Jack was buried from St. Thomas.
But time and the Catholic Church have little regard for historic structures. As the 20th Century wound to a close the congregation of St. Thomas the Apostle had dwindled to about 250 parishioners and the structure itself was in need of repair. In 2000 structural repairs were estimated at around $1 million, the pipe organ no longer functioned (another half million dollars in repairs), and the roof continually leaked.
In 2003, with no advance notice, the church was closed. By now the Archdiocese estimated restoration at $5 million and announced plans to demolish the building to make way for a senior housing project. Despite numerous pleas, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to designate the one-of-a-kind structure.
Former parishioners waged a lawsuit against the Archdiocese in 2004 as, in August, it began dismantling the intricate terra cotta spikes of the upper façade. The New York Landmarks Conservancy intervened and helped to temporarily suspend demolition.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 2005. The son of the artist responsible for the stained glass windows wrote from Germany, pleading to keep the windows intact. Instead, they were removed and shipped to the newly-constructed Church of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Lagrangeville, upstate New York.
|The Church of St. Thomas the Apostle as it appeared in 2008 -- photo michaelminn.net|