Wednesday, January 15, 2014

St. John the Baptist Church -- No. 207 West 30th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Until 1840—before waves of German immigrants would cluster within the Lower East Side neighborhood that earned the nickname Little Germany—there was only one German language Roman Catholic church in Manhattan.  But a growing population of Catholic Germans on what was then deemed the upper west side (today’s Penn Station area) necessitated a second German Catholic Church.

On September 20, 1840 the small wooden St. John the Baptist Church at 125 West 30th Street was dedicated with Rev. Zachary Kunze as its first pastor.  The parish would have a rocky start.  A church historian would later deem the trustees “overbearing” and volatile disagreements between them and Rev. Kunze came to a head four years later.

According to The Catholic Church in the United States of America in 1914, “In 1844 dissensions arising from the trustee system caused lack of prosperity as well as of harmony, and forced Father Kunze to resign, as part of his congregation following him to the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, which he founded.”  St. John the Baptist Church was put under interdiction for a year until Rev. J. A. Jakop was installed as pastor. 

The change in leadership did not solve the problem and a short year later, in June 1846, the church was closed again.  Then, six months later on January 10, 1847 the church burned to the ground.  A new brick church was constructed and Father Joseph Lutz was appointed pastor.  The stubborn German members and trustees continued being difficult and just four months after his appointment, Father Lutz wrote in the parish books, “On account of the obstinacy of the parishioners this church was closed and the administration of the Sacraments prohibited." His Grace, November 24, 1851.”

A few months later Bishop Hughes tried again, appointing Rev. P. J. Matschejewski as pastor.  He lasted two weeks.

An uneasy period of stability came with the arrival of Rev. Augustine Dantner, who stayed from 1852 until his retirement in 1869.  The archbishop then closed the church for a few months, turning it over to the control of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin led by Father Bonaventure Frey.

With the church in the hands of the Capuchins, the infighting and dissention came to an end.  Almost immediately after Father Frey took the pulpit, he laid plans for a new church building nearby at 207 West 30th Street.

Twenty-five years earlier architect Napoleon LeBrun had designed the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.  In 1864 he moved his family and business to New York City where he would be responsible for a wealth of memorable churches and civic buildings.  He now received the commission to design the new St. John the Baptist Church.

On June 11, 1871 Father Bonaventure Frey laid the cornerstone of the new church with what The New York Times called “the most imposing ceremonies.The newspaper predicted it would be “one of the most beautiful churches in the City…The style of architecture will be pure French Gothic.”

The impressive dimensions of the church stretched 182 feet long and 63 feet wide.  Inside, the nave soared 60 feet upwards.  LeBrun chose varying shades of brownstone for the façade which The New York Times said “is designed to be elaborately decorated with fine carved work.”
photo by Alice Lum

The deep Gothic arch of the entrance porch pointed upwards, leading the eye up the dramatic mass of the steeple, rising like a crescendo to the tip 225 from the sidewalk. 

The New York Times predicted that the interiors would "be very imposing on account of the lofty proportions of the nave and clerestory," adding, "[The] post choir will be the chapel for the community, who will here assemble for their devotions, and will be fitted up with superbly carved stalls, after the manner of the old conventual establishments in Europe…The ceiling will be groined and painted blue with gold stars.  The clerestory walls will be supported upon clustered columns, and will be almost entirely filled with fine stained-glass windows.”

photo by Alice Lum

Walnut, chestnut and ash were used throughout the church, which the newspaper said “will be furnished in first-class style.”  The new church would accommodate 1,300 worshipers.  By the time of the dedication on June 23, 1872, $75,000 had been raised towards the total construction cost of $175,000—about 3 million in 2014 dollars.

Following the dedication The New York Times gave its readers a more detailed description of the interiors:
The three altars are made of white polished marble, the arches filled with a background of dark-veined marble, which contrasts favorably with the delicate carving of the lilies and other flowers faintly traced upon the white.  The altar railing is of walnut, with alternate panels of curled maple; the pulpit of carved black-walnut, the canopy being finished with a dove in the centre of a halo cut in white maple.  The floors and pews are of black-walnut and oak, the floor of the sanctuary and the altar-steps are covered with a carpet of rich Persian pattern.
photo by Alice Lum

Nearly two decades later the church was still attempting to pay off the construction debt.  Nevertheless a magnificent display attended the celebration of the golden anniversary of the parish on January 18, 1891.  “Two Archbishops, one Bishop, three Monsignors, one mitred abbot, several Capuchin Fathers, and many secular priests took part yesterday in the celebration of the golden jubilee of the establishment of the Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, in Thirtieth street, near Seventh Avenue,” reported The Sun the following day.

A procession “headed by a band and the uniformed rifle company of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer” marched around the block and into the church.  Inside, music was supplied by an orchestra and the organ while “a long procession of acolytes, priests, and prelates entered the sanctuary.”

After a half century of existence, St. John the Baptist remained a German-language church.  “Archbishop Katzer delivered a sermon in German,” said The Sun. 

As was often the case with public events at the time, a patriotic theme was evident.  “In the decoration of the church American flags were freely used.  From points on the tower and spire dozens of them floated, and they were grouped around the capitals of every pillar. They occupied prominent places even within the sanctuary.  Two of them waved above Archbishop Corrigan’s throne.”

That the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer had a “uniformed rifle company” to join in the procession may seem peculiar to modern readers; however rifles and churches were sometimes odd bedfellows in the 19th century.  And so on October 14, 1895 with the women of St. John the Baptist Church opened their fair in the church hall, The Sun reported that “In the basement is a rifle range and prizes will be given to those who make the highest scores by the time the fair closes.”

The women were disappointed when Mayor Strong, who was supposed to open the fair, failed to show up.  Instead, he sent his private secretary, Job Hedges to do the honors.  Hedges diplomatically explained the Mayor’s absence to the assemblage.
“Mr. Hedges told his bearers that it was usual for the Mayor to attend only gatherings of men, and that he (Job) was usually assigned to look after the ladies,” said The Sun.  The newspaper added that “At the conclusion of his remarks a bevy of young women stormed him with appeals to take chances in various schemes.  He took a few chances in a tea set in the name of the Mayor.”

Despite the women’s efforts, the debt of the church was barely reduced.
photo by Alice Lum

In 1905 an aspiring artist lived a block away in a furnished room at 320 West 30th Street.  Evelyn Cashman had been an actress until about three years earlier, when she devoted herself to her art and signing her watercolors Evelyn Temple.  She sold her works to small local art dealers, and also designed covers for sheet music.

The 35-year old Evelyn was married to actor Harry Cashman who was traveling with the Frawley stock company in San Francisco that February.  Although Evelyn, whom The Sun said “was of dark complexion and looked like a French woman,” was not a Roman Catholic, the newspaper reported that “she had leanings toward that faith,” and she frequently stopped into St. John the Baptist to pray.

On the morning of February 3, 1905, Evelyn Cashman entered the church just as the 8:00 mass was ending.  She slipped into the last pew, knelt and began to pray.  As the congregation filed out, Evelyn’s head fell forward over the back of the pew in front of her. 

One of the last worshipers to leave the church stopped to see if anything were the matter.  She found the kneeling Evelyn dead.  A responding ambulance surgeon diagnosed the tragedy as “probably caused by heart disease.”

An even more bazaar incident befell Hannah Moran on November 10, 1913.  Every morning at 7:00 the 50-year old seamstress knelt for her morning devotions in the church.  This morning, when her prayers were completed, she realized she could not rise.  Stricken with paralysis, “Her hope, then, was in prayer, and she continued with bowed head hour after hour,” said The New York Times.

Oddly enough, while other worshipers came and went, thinking nothing was unusual in the kneeling woman, Hannah continued to pray rather than to ask for assistance.  After 14 hours, someone finally noticed.

“It was not until 9 o’clock last evening,” reported The New York Times, “at the close of a service held in the church, that several women noticed how weak Miss Moran was, and, going over to her, found her faint for want of food.”

After food was brought to her from the rectory, an ambulance took Hannah Moran to her home at 361 West 30th Street, just steps away from where Evelyn Cashman had lived.  The doctor reported that “It is believed that she will be able to walk again.”

The light-flooded interior of the church in 1914.  "The Catholic Church in the United States" (copyright expired)
As unnerving as the two incidents were, they were nothing compared to the terror thrust upon the congregation by Gorilla Tom Cooney on December 30, 1906.  The thug, a member of the Razor Alley Gang, left his home at 304 West 37th Street that Sunday morning intent on killing another gang member, Bill Coyne, described by The Sun as “one of the strong arm men of the Razor Alley outfit.”

Conney went to the Tiger, “a ginmill that is patronized largely by the Razor Alley gang,” and found Coyne drinking beer “with two or three husky grafters,” said the newspaper.  Conney told Coyne “I’m a’goin’ to kill you, Bill” and shot at his target, hitting him in the leg.  Coyne played dead and Conney, thinking he had killed him and realizing a crowd was rushing towards the bar, fled towards Eighth Avenue.

“Gorilla” Cooney commandeered a street car as Policeman John O’Dea (“a young, clean cut cop with a first rate record on the force,” according to The Sun), closed in on him on foot.  Cooney held a pistol to the head of the conductor and ordered him to run the car at full speed.

When the street car was not going fast enough for Cooney, he fired a shot that whizzed past the conductor’s ear.  David Shaw, the motorman, was now so unnerved that he cut the power to the controller box and threw the brake.  Cooney shot at the conductor one more time, again missing, and leaped off the car running along 30th Street just as services at St. John the Baptist Church were over.

Officer O’Dea and Gorilla peppered their foot chase with gunfire.  “The congregation of the Church of St. John the Baptist at 209 West Thirtieth-street was pouring out of the church doors and there was a good sized crowd on the sidewalk when Cooney burst into it, yelling like a madman. 
The company on the sidewalk scattered in a hurry, women screaming and men remembering something they had left behind in the church.”

Two parishioners, however, held their ground.  Frank Flanagan and John Costello both tried to detain the fleeing gangster.  “Cooney smashed Flanagan on the head with the butt of his gun, knocking him down, and as Costello grabbed at him Cooney hit him a crashing blow in the jaw with his fist.  Costello dropped, half senseless.”

The delay caused by the two valiant churchgoers was enough for O’Dea to catch up with the criminal.  And although the officer was nearly beaten senseless, Detective Sullivan arrived in time to take control of the situation.

It would appear that Gorilla learned that beating a patrolman in 1906 was a bad idea.  “There wasn’t much left of Cooney when the sergeant took his pedigree,” noted The Sun.

Crime of a less-violent nature visited St. John the Baptist in 1918 when Brother Anselm suspected someone was rifling the poor box.  Armed with a police whistle, Brother Anselm laid in wait for the thief in a confessional.  Peering out at the poor box, he watched as Otto Feriendo, a bartender, entered the church and attempted to rummage though the box.

The friar blew loudly on his police whistle and the bartender was quickly apprehended. The New-York Tribune reported that “Feriendo was sentenced to sixty days in the workhouse.”

By now the church had a membership of 1500 with a debt of about $44,000.  The neighborhood, once on the northern fringe of the city and inhabited by German immigrants, had become a bustling commercial area.  McMim, Mead & White’s massive Roman-inspired Pennsylvania Station had been completed at the rear of the church in 1910.  Business buildings quickly rose all around the area.
photo by Alice Lum

The beautiful Gothic church continued serving its parishioners throughout the 20th century, as it was engulfed and eventually hidden by its soaring neighbors.  On January 10, 1997 a three-alarm fire broke out in a confessional that destroyed the organ and choir gallery with its “rich tracery arcade,” as described by The Times in 1871.  Although the damaged was repaired, the vintage pipe organ was replaced with an electric organ.

As the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 approached, a restoration of the tower was initiated with funds donated by Antonio D’Urso and his wife, Giovanna Parpo.  Sitting in the shadows of the tall office buildings around it, St. John the Baptist is easily overlooked.  The AIA Guide to New York City said of it “Lost in the Fur District is this exquisite single-spired brownstone church, a Roman Catholic midtown Trinity.  The interior, of white marble, radiates light.  Worth a special visit.”

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