Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Church of St. Ignatius Loyola -- 980 Park Avenue

photo by americasroof

In 1852 the simple wooden church of St. Lawrence O’Toole was erected a year after the founding of the parish.  Two years later the pastor, Reverend Eugene O’Reilly, oversaw the construction of a more permanent brick Romanesque-style church on the same site at the corner of Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue) and 84th Street.  Although the structure was unassuming, its cost caused long-lasting financial problems for the church.  In 1866, the administration of the parish was given to the Society of Jesus–the Jesuits.  The number of Masses was increased and the priests turned over their salaries to the church, relieving the financial stress.

By 1881 the Yorkville neighborhood was developing rapidly and the membership increasing.  Father David Merrick started work in the parish on June 21 and immediately considered enlarging church.  In order to do so the existing pastoral residence had to be razed and rebuilt to the south to free up additional land to the west.  The new residence was completed in 1882. 

The need for a new church was emphasized on Sunday November 19 when a large section of the ceiling fell into the sanctuary during mass.  Fundraising lasted two years and, when the treasury amounted to $41,000, excavation of the new foundation began.  On June 27, 1886, the basement became a church when it was furnished with pews and dedicated. The church above was to be a fine Gothic Revival structure with buttresses and lancet windows.

Except it was never built.

Construction ground to a halt as the Jesuits rethought the project.  A petition was sent to the Vatican asking to rededicate the church to St. Ignatius.  Rome agreed in part.  The patron of the upper church, when completed, would be St. Ignatius.  The lower church where Masses were now being held would remain dedicated to St. Lawrence O’Toole.

With its new patron established, the Jesuits hired architects Schickel & Ditmers to design the church.  It was based on Rome’s 16th Century Baroque church of Il Gesu by Giacomo da Vignola where the saint is buried. The limestone façade began rising in 1895 as a dignified, classical adaptation of 17th Century Italian church architecture.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The unfinished church, costing to date $250,000, was dedicated three years later on December 11, 1898.  Both refined and austere, the façade was embellished with pilasters surmounting pilasters, a Palladian window with blind side openings above a entrance topped by a closed pediment.  Two unfinished towers at the corners were designed to support steeples consisting of four tiers rising 210 feet.

photo via St. Ignatius

The Church of St. Ignatius Loyola was completed in 1900.  Three bronze doors opened onto an interior that blazed in opulence as compared with the stoic exterior.  Sumptuous decoration was executed in marble and mosaics, pink granite columns, and rich inlaid stone.  Magnificent marble sculptures and splendid stained glass windows reflected the Jesuit philosophy of honoring God through an imposing place of worship.

photo via St. Ignatius

Tensions grew when the Second Vatican Council ordered physical changes in Roman Catholic churches, including the removal of the monstrance to the side, the elimination of the communion rail and repositioning the altar closer to the congregants.  When the Rev. Walter F. Modrys began the renovations in 2002, Edward Cardinal Egan stepped in and forbade the alteration of the historic and artistic interior.

The New York Times referred to the conflict as a “struggle between the need to maintain the church as a living institution that serves today’s parishioners and the integrity of a beautiful, historic building.”

In 1993 the church installed a London-built Mander pipe organ–one of the largest organs ever built in Great Britain. Composed of nearly 5000 pipes, the instrument weighs over 20 tons and sits in a spectacular 44-foot tall French oak organ case.

The massive Mander organ -- photo via St. Ignatius

A year later the magnificent organ supplied the music for the funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  Then, in 2001, after the popular singer Aaliyah was tragically killed, hundreds of mourners waited outside the church during her funeral awaiting a glimpse of her silver casket.

The staid Italian Church of St. Ignatius Loyola stands firmly on the stone Gothic Revival foundation with its stumps of buttresses--a reminder of the earlier history of the parish and a church that was never built.

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