Friday, October 26, 2012

The 1903 Church of St. Veronica -- No. 153 Christopher Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1796, about three decades before the rural village of Greenwich would explode in a flurry of development, the imposing Newgate State Prison was opened at the foot of Christopher Street.  The institution would be abandoned by 1829 and slowly demolished; but the area would little improve.

Further away, respectable Federal-style brick rose along the twisting streets of the Village and on 6th Avenue the elegant Greek Revival St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church was erected in 1834 to serve the expanding community north of the city.   But as the century progressed, the neighborhood along the riverfront filled with less comfortable residents.

Irish immigrant laborers were drawn to the area by the low-paying but readily available jobs on the docks and in surrounding businesses.   In 1845 Nash, Beadleston & Co. opened a brewery in part of the old prison, a coal yard appeared on nearby Charles Street along with an iron works, a soap plant and a lime shed.    In stark contrast to the prim homes of the middle class nearer to St. Joseph’s, these families settled in cheap tenement houses.

In the 1880s, as the population continued to increase, the neighborhood was at best seedy and, at worst, dangerous.  At the foot of Christopher Street was Mulqueen’s tavern, opened in 1883 where dockworkers and sailors gathered for stout and malt liquors.  The New York Police Department would later describe the area as “the resort of outcasts, drunkards, dissolute people, and a dangerous class of depredators and petty highwaymen.”

The situation drew the attention of Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan.  St. Joseph’s Church was already overcrowded and the riverfront area was teeming with poor Irish workers.  In January 1887 he created the parish of St. Veronica’s to serve the “6,000 souls” estimated to live there, covering the area bounded by West Houston, Bank and Hudson Streets.

Father John F. Fitzharris, who had been first assistant pastor at the refined St. Joseph’s, was reassigned to lead this new flock in the much less refined neighborhood.   Four months later, on Palm Sunday April 3, the first services were held in what The New York Times called “a temporary chapel in Washington-street.”  The newspaper noted that the “chapel was crowded at all the services.”

The “temporary chapel” was a warehouse-stable building.  Father Fitzharris faced a significant financial challenge in establishing his parish.  He started out with $626 collected from among the St. Joseph’s worshipers on March 27.  Adding to the funds would be an uphill journey.

The old warehouse and stable was costing Father Fitzharris $2,000 per year and he spent $6,000 to convert it into what resembled a church.  The priest elicited donations not only from the neighboring churches—St. Bernard’s, St. Joseph’s and St. Francis Xavier’s; but from as far away as St. Peter’s Church downtown on Barclay Street.

The unrelenting priest collected enough that a year later he was able to purchase property on Christopher Street, between Washington and Greenwich Streets for $69,500.   The cornerstone would not be laid until March 16, 1890, however.   With the impoverished parishioners giving what they could to the building fund, it would be a slow process.   At a time when churches and other substantial buildings were being erected within a year or possibly 18 months, it would be another 13 years before the church was completed.

The congregation worshiped in the basement throughout this time as construction plodded along above their heads, sometimes halting for a year or more while funds were gathered.  The architect chosen for the project was John J. Deery whose home office was in Philadelphia, but who divided his time between there and New York.  Deery had started out in 1875 working under Edwin F. Durang who almost exclusively designed Catholic church projects.   By now Deery worked on his own and, like his mentor, concentrated on ecclesiastical projects—although he would also design the baseball fields for the Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago teams.

Deery’s design for St. Veronica’s would result in a somewhat bulky Victorian Gothic structure of brick and limestone.   What it lacked in ethereal grace it made up for in stocky solidity.  

photo by Alice Lum

Four years after starting his project, Father Fitzharris died, never to see his completed church.  His successor Father Daniel J. McCormick would not live to see the structure either; dying in January 1903.  Finally, on June 7 of that year, sixteen years after the parish was founded, the Church of St. Veronica’s was opened.  The parishioners had good reason to be proud.   Despite having little money, they had raised enough to build a substantial church building.

Much of the money had come from two parish fairs staged by the women—events that often lasted a week or more and included carnival-like festivities like games of change, refreshments, music and entertainments and home-made gifts to purchase.   At one, held in 1880, a featured prize was a full set of bow and arrows and a tomahawk said have once belonged to Rain-in-the-Face, a Native American from the Camp of Sitting Bull.  The two fairs alone had raised over $33,000.

Tenement buildings crowd in against the church building in the early 20th century -- NYPL Collection

The priests of St. Veronica’s would deal with much in the impoverished and mostly illiterate parish.  In 1908 the Greenwich House Papers reported that nearly 50 percent of the fathers of St. Veronica’s students were unemployed.    Alcohol and violence often resulted in tragedy.

57-year old Frank Van Heck lived at No. 76 Morton Street and often visited neighborhood saloons playing his accordion.  On the evening of July 7, 1901, however, he visited friends in the building--Peter Gilleyn and his wife, Mary.  There were also two men there whom Van Heck did not know.  “They were all drinking and having a lively time in Gilleyn’s apartment,” reported The New York Tribune the following day.  Then things turned ugly.

Gilleyn asked Van Heck to play his accordion.  He refused.   The host said “Well, if you don’t do it right quick, I’ll make you.”  To prove his point he produced a club and knocked Van Heck down. Within seconds there was a melee.  The two strangers wrenched the club from Gilleyn while his wife grabbed a pair of scissors and joined in the skirmish. 

When Van Heck saw Gilleyn heading for him with an axe, he bolted out the third floor window.  Father Horrigan of St. Veronica’s rushed to the scene where the man who refused to play the accordion lying on the sidewalk with a broken skull and jaw.   While the two strangers fled, police took Peter and Mary Gilleyn into custody.  Father Horrigan administered last rites on the pavement.

Irish priest John J. Brady was assistant rector of St. Veronica’s in 1916 as the United States’ involvement in World War I seemed imminent.   He left his position to join the Navy, taking a berth on the battleship Arkansas.  Almost immediately after the U.S. entered the war he asked for a transfer to the Marine Corps.   He became the first Catholic chaplain to land with the first American troops in France.

The feisty priest did not wait behind the lines for the injured to be brought back.   He would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for manifesting “utmost disregard for personal safety during the attack of June 6, 1918, in the Bois de Belleau, exposing himself fearlessly throughout the attack, passing up and down the front lines, cheering the men and caring for those who were wounded.”

Fourteen days later he was at it again.  On July 18 at Chateau Thierry he made “two complete tours of the front lines under severe fire and administered to the men under unusually trying circumstances.  He continued to expose himself to mortal danger to carry cigarettes to the men in the line who had no other opportunity to get them.”

Father Brady, a true man of the cloth, did not restrict his attentions to the Allies.  “Chaplain Brady knew the Germans in opposite trenches would need last rites soon,” reported The Sun.  “He assisted in carrying wounded to first aid stations and gave the last rites to the desperately hurt not only of his own command but to dying Germans on the field as well.  It is said that he gave consolation to thirty Germans, but as a patriotic Yankee he drew the line at carrying them off the field.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1918, Brady was riding in a jeep with three French soldiers when a shell hit the car.  Everyone except the priest was killed.  In a letter to his mother, Father Brady said that “the blessed Irish Saint” must have been with him.

For some reason the red brick has been painted red and the white limestone has been painted white.  photo by Alice Lum

On the morning of September 19, 1926, the new Bishop John Mitty celebrated his first pontifical mass.  He did so in the Church of St. Veronica’s.  Mitty had attended church here as a boy and then, having become a priest, celebrated his first mass here.  He felt it appropriate to begin his elevation in the friendly surroundings of his old church.

Among the messages of congratulation was one from Gene Tunney, challenger for the world’s heavyweight boxing title.  “The message expressed Tunney’s regret at not being able to attend the services,” reported The New York Times.   The Irish fighter was a member of the congregation and had graduated from its school in 1911.  The parish was proud of its newly-famous member, although the pastor, Rev. Patrick H. Drain, had to tip-toe around the prize-fighting issue.

“No, the Catholic Church is not opposed to prizefights as long as they are conducted in a legitimate way,” he told a reporter.  “Pugilism in the past was conducted in a ‘rough-neck’way, but now it is becoming elevated by Gene Tunney.  He is a man of high moral character.  He is a good Catholic.  He often comes to mass here on Sunday when he is in town.  He likes to be known as a ‘Greenwich Villager.’”

Tunney’s prizefighting was also a potential source of revenue.  There was still a substantial debt owed on the church building in 1926 and, therefore, it had never been consecrated in its 23 years of existence.   Father Drain was determined to erase the $279,000 mortgage and in his fund-raising sent a letter to Tunney asking if he would care to help the parish.

Just before Tunney’s reply came late in September 1927, the money had all been raised.    When Father Drain opened the envelope from the prize fighter, he found a check for $1,000 “to help the church in any way you see fit.”  With the mortgage paid, the priest decided that “what would help the most just now was to paint the rectory inside and outside,” said The Times.

With a new paint job supplied by Gene Tunney, the Church of St. Veronica’s was finally consecrated by Cardinal Hayes on November 27, 1927.   The cardinal reflected on the 12-year effort to erase the debt saying “I want to say publicly that this is an accomplishment which will go into the records of this archdiocese and that it will be recorded in letters of gold.”

In April 1930 a memorial tablet was unveiled in honor of the deceased war veterans of the parish.  It was a gesture that would hauntingly foreshadow another memorial decades later.


By the 1970's the neighborhood that had once been home to poor, hard-working Irish immigrants was the center of New York’s gay culture.   Christopher Street was synonymous nation-wide with the Gay Rights movement and bars and shops catering to homosexuals lined the street from 6th Avenue to the Hudson River.    The congregation of St. Veronica’s was now a broad mixture of ages, races and sexual orientation.   Gay groups met in the basement of the church.

But the AIDS epidemic would change the complexion of Greenwich Village forever.

As more and more men became ill and died, the light-hearted atmosphere of Christopher Street plunged into despair and fear.    By the mid 1980's hundreds of Village residents were dying every year and the Catholic Church was viewed by many as an enemy.   Cardinal John O’Connor declared that there would be no talk of condoms in his “jurisdiction,” although it was widely known that the use of condoms would prevent the spread of AIDS.  At the same time he ousted the gay group Dignity from a Manhattan church where it held its weekly masses.

O’Connor was confused when he gave AIDS patients “the smile I am told does wonders on television,” only to be turned away.   But when it appeared that the cardinal was blind to the needs of one part of his flock who felt shunned by their church he did a remarkable thing.

O’Connor reached out to Mother Teresa for help.   The nun sent a staff of her Missionaries of Charity to New York to establish the Gift of Love Hospice in their converted rectory of St. Veronica’s.   The nuns, in their iconic blue-and-white habits, became a comforting and familiar presence along Christopher Street.   The small house could shelter only 15 AIDS victims, but the nuns worked tirelessly caring for the dying men.

In June 1993 the AIDS Memorial in the Village was installed in the balcony of St. Veronica’s church.   It consisted of brass plaques with the names of Villagers who had succumbed to AIDS.   There are over 1,000 of them.  Every year during Gay Pride week, St. Veronica’s holds an interfaith service to remember the victims of the devastating epidemic.

photo by Alice Lum

The Archdiocese of New York converted the church to a chapel of Our Lady of Guadelupe/St. Bernard’s Church on West 14th Street in March of 2006.   Now formally titled the Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, no one calls it that.   To New Yorkers and, particularly, Greenwich Villagers, it will always be St. Veronica’s.

No comments:

Post a Comment