Thursday, December 4, 2014

Church of St. Benedict the Moor -- No. 344 West 53rd St

In 1868 the Second Church of the Evangelical Association of North America commissioned architects R. C. McLane & Sons to design its new church at No. 344 West 53rd Street.  The site, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues was far from the refined residential neighborhoods.  The West Side area rapidly developed in the first years following the Civil War as warehouses, slaughterhouses, factories and docks drew immigrant workers.  Quickly it would earn the moniker Hell’s Kitchen as ramshackle wooden buildings became havens of crime and street gangs terrorized railroads, businesses and residents alike.

Despite the gritty surroundings, R. C. McLane & Sons produced a highly-attractive red brick church, completed in 1869.  A modest, Victorian version of a Greek temple, it was capable of holding 350 worshipers.  The classic triangular pediment housed a circular window, and was outlined by a modillioned cornice.  The architects added depth and visual interest by the use of brick in corbels and details like the thin pilasters that flanked the tall arched openings.

The rather ungainly-named church was most often referred to simply as the Second Evangelical Church or, sometimes, the Second German Evangelical Church; a significant hint at the congregation’s makeup.  It was by the latter name that The Sun referred to it on the day after Christmas, 1883.

The evening before Sunday school teachers and children enjoyed a Christmas festival in the church.   The building was filled; the newspaper estimating that 250 of the peoples were children.  Around 9:00 someone entered and found the sexton, Otto Wolfram.  He whispered that the home of trustee Jacob Hofer was on fire.  The information passed from Wolfram to the pastor, Rev. J. F. Grob; who went to Hofer who was sitting in the choir.

“Mr. Grob told Mr. Hofer that he was wanted at home, without telling him about the fire,” reported the newspaper.  “But a woman had heard something about a fire, and shouted ‘Fire!’ and another woman ran for her children, thinking that the church was on fire.”

Panic followed as hysterical women screamed and searched for their children.  A mob rushed the entrance doors.  The pastor tried to calm the crowd.

“Sit down; there is no danger.  The fire is not here,” he shouted.  But the clamor of the women drowned out his voice.  Like an athlete jumping hurdles he used the pews to reach the doors.  He ordered the sexton, a policeman who had showed up, and some more rational members of the church to allow no one out.

The Sun said “They stopped the rush.  Some of the congregation tried to jump from the gallery.  The congregation were kept in the church until quiet was restored.”  Thanks to the minister’s actions, no one was hurt in the stampede.

A year before the Christmas night panic, Catholic priest Rev. John E. Burke had purchased the old Third Universal Society church in Greenwich Village for $38,000 and then spent an additional $1,500 in remodeling and repairing the building.  A year later, on November 18, 1883, it was dedicated as the Church of St. Benedict the Moor, founded, as reported in The World “for the benefit of the colored Catholics of New York.”

The church sat at Bleecker and Downing Streets in what was widely known as “Little Africa,” the center of Manhattan’s black population.  Many of the original residents of nearby Minetta Street had fled from the South in the 1860s.  Emancipated slaves followed, swelling the numbers.  The Church of St. Benedict the Moor, named for the 16th century African-born Franciscan friar, was the first black Catholic church in the city.  The paths of Second Evangelical and St. Benedict the Moor would cross before the century ended.

But before then, the Second Evangelical Church earned extra money by leasing a room to the Board of Education.  The minutes of the Committee of Buildings of Monday, November 30, 1896, noted “Matter of leasing a back room on the first floor in the Baptist Church, Nos. 342 and 344 West Fifty-third street, was taken up and considered, the trustees having agreed to lease the room for $200 per annum, with light, heat and services of a janitor.”

The room served as an annex to Primary School No. 50.  The arrangement lasted until Second Evangelical Church moved out in 1898.

In reporting o the celebrations of the Feast of St. Benedict the Moor on November 22, 1897, the New-York Tribune casually mentioned “The church will soon move uptown, on the West Side, being no longer convenient to the colored population of the city.  No site has as yet been selected, but several are under consideration.”

A month later the newspaper was a bit franker in its explanation of the move.  “The movement of the race from the district long occupied by it in the neighborhood of Bleecker and Thompson sts. is due to the desire of the negroes, who are largely employed as servants by well-to-do families, to live near the homes of their employers.  The landlords generally welcome them as tenants, as they are willing to pay higher rents.”

Indeed, the population of the tenement area around the Second Evangelist Church was now mostly black; while the Bleecker and Thompson Street section had filled with Italian and Irish immigrants.  On February 20, 1898 The Sun ran the headline “New Church for Negroes” and explained that the Rev. John E. Burke had purchased the 53rd Street church “heretofore occupied by the Second Church of the Evangelical Association of North America.”

Burke had paid $30,000 for the property, over $800,000 today.  The Bleecker Street building had been purchased by an Italian congregation and renamed the Church of the Madonna of Pompeii, partially offsetting the cost of the 53rd Street church.  A fair was held in Lyric Hall to raise funds for remodeling and redecorating.

The Sun noted “The new church will be, as the old one was, a headquarters for missionary work among the colored people, and not a parish church.”  A few months later the newspaper noted that the 53rd Street location was “a section of the city where the white native-born population has been predominant,” but “they moved uptown, giving way to the negroes.”  The Sun concluded, perhaps trying to dilute its rather racist report, saying “Some day, though, New York’s distinction as the most cosmopolitan city of the globe will disappear through the general amalgamation of all her foreign stock.”

The Church of St. Benedict the Moor officially opened the renovated church on May 1, 1898.  Because it was the only Catholic church that openly accepted black parishioners, Burke’s parish engulfed the entire city.  The 42-year old priest, who was assisted by another Irishman, Rev. Thomas M. O’Keefe, was ardent in his vocation.  The Evening World described him as “a zealous and indefatigable worker, and has won the esteem and love of all his parishioners.”

His work among the black community resulted in related projects, such as the Home for Colored Children, established on December 8, 1886.  Four years after moving into the 53rd Street church, Burke purchased the abutting tenement buildings at Nos. 338 and 340.  Recognizing the financial plight of so many of his parishioners, the church offered these apartments at rents based on need.  Burke apparently also lived in an apartment here, as there was no rectory.

The year 1903 was the 25th anniversary of Rev. John E. Burke’s ordination.  The mostly poor congregation presented him with a heart-felt and selfless gift.  Church members brought together their few, cherished objects of value to be used in the making of a solid gold chalice.  The New-York Tribune said “Old wedding rings, worn thin with forty or fifty years of married life; eyeglasses, watch chains, watch cases—every sort of ornament went into the smelter’s pot.

“The small-diamond cross, with a sapphire at the centre, which decorates the base, was made from a pair of old fashioned earrings.  Above it is a tiny pearl star, with an emerald at the heart of it—that was somebody’s stickpin.  Below the first series of tiny Gothic columns on the standard that supports the cup are six rounded points, each set with an amethyst cabochon, originally on in a set of buttons for a man’s waistcoat."

The congregants had obviously hired a high-end jeweler to fashion the piece.  “Around the base of the standard are vignettes of the cross, the Sacred Heart, the grape and the wheat (for the wine and bread of the sacrament).  A big oval amethyst occupies the space of the fifth vignette.  That was given by a rich white woman who wanted to help after the chalice was completed.”

While the pastors of the wealthy Catholic churches routinely spent their summers abroad or in fashionable resorts while their churches closed for the season; the Rev. John E. Burke toiled on.  Now, for the 25th anniversary of his ordination, he planned a trip to Europe—his first “vacation.”

Of course, it was not all relaxation.  In August he had an audience with Pope Pius X, who offered a special blessing “for the colored people of New York.”  It was telegraphed to New York by Rev. Burke and read from the pulpit on August 30.  If congregants were on the edge of their seats awaiting a long and personal note from the Pope, they were perhaps a bit disappointed.

“Our Holy Father, Pope Pius X., sends his affectionate blessing to the people of St. Benedict the Moor.  The Holy Father expresses a deep interest in your welfare.”

Immediately upon Burke's departure, his loving congregation had jumped into action.  On December 18, 1903 the New-York Tribune reported on a lecture by the Rev. John P. Chidwick (who had been chaplain aboard the U.S.S. Maine when it was blown up) in Carnegie Hall.  The proceeds of the lecture on “Catholicity in the Far East” “will go toward the building of a rectory for the Rev. John E. Burke,” said the newspaper.  “The building of the rectory is intended by his congregation as a surprise for him on his return.”

Burke’s “vacation” would include another audience with the Pope and a visit to the Holy Land.  Then, on the afternoon of January 8, 1904 he returned to New York on the steamer Celtic.  Waiting for him on the pier was a delegation of priests and friends who presented him with the proceeds of the series of lectures in his absence—about $2,000.

The principal method for churches to raise funds in the 19th and early 20th centuries was through church fairs.  In April 1905 one such fair was held in the hall below St. Benedict the Moor.  Numerous booths offered hand-made objects, refreshments and other items.  A “wonderful doll” had been donated to be raffled off.

The New-York Tribune, on April 28, 1905 celebrated the whites and blacks working together at the fair.  “If any one doubts that colored and white people can work side by side in harmony, at least in the cause of religion, he has but to visit the Easter Fair” at St. Benedict the Moor.  What the journalist neglected to point out was that the white women helping out worked only in booths with other white women.  But, for 1905, it was a start.

Edwardian racism tried hard to disguise itself.  The New York Charities Directory of 1916 described the church as “St. Benedict the Moor (colored), 323-344 West 53rd St.  The Church is given over entirely to serve the colored Catholics of New York City.  These people are free to attend any Catholic Church they find the most convenient, but St. Benedict’s is specially their own.”

In 1917 42-year old widow Helen Gruber came to Rev. Thomas M. O’Keefe seeking housing.  She was given three rooms at No. 340 West 53rd Street.  For three years she paid “a small rent,” according to the New York Times later, but then stopped.  Recognizing her indigence, the church allowed her to live on in a single room rent-free.

In May 1925 the 73-year old John Burke, now a Monsignor, died.  The following Sunday evening funeral services were held at St. Benedict the Moor followed by a requiem mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral Monday morning.

Thomas M. O’Keefe was raised to monsignor and took over as pastor of St. Benedict.  Around this time Helen Gruber had begun acting strangely.  The Times reported on October 6, 1925 that “Her habits had been so eccentric…that she was thought to be of unsound mind.  Three months ago her room was forcibly entered because she had not been seen for so long.”

Helen Gruber’s eccentric habits came to a head on the morning of October 5, 1925.  Rev. John F. Curran was celebrating the 7:30 mass for about 50 parishioners when Mgr. O’Keefe entered the basement to prepare for the 8:00 mass.  As he dressed, he was unaware that Helen Gruber was hiding near the door.  He heard a woman’s voice call “Is that you, Father O’Keefe?”

He replied that it was and the voice said “I’m going to kill you.” 

As O’Keefe turned, he saw Helen Gruber brandishing a handgun.  Before he could react she shot and the bullet passed through his coat.  She shot again, missing the priest entirely as he rushed through the door onto the street.  Helen attempted to follow him, but she tripped and fell, firing yet another shot at the fleeing priest from the ground.

As the panicked Thomas O’Keefe rushed out, he startled Thomas Ward who was standing near the door.  “As Mrs. Gruber appeared, the pistol still in her hand, Ward grabbed and disarmed her.”  Police arrested her on charges of felonious assault and for violating the Sullivan Act, the 1911 gun control law requiring owners to have a permit.

In September 1929 Mgr. O’Keefe was transferred to the pastorate of the Church of St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem.  Despite the New York Charities assertion that black Catholics were free to attend any Catholic Church; one Brooklyn priest made it clear that was not the case.  About the time of O’Keefe’s transfer John L. Belford, pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity, made the shocking announcement in the parish newsletter, The Nativity Mentor, that “if negroes became numerous in his church they would be excluded.”

In October word of the unchristian sentiments of Mgr. Belford reached Cardinal Hayes, who was about to sail for Rome.  He gave to Thomas O’Keefe the responsibility of writing a letter to Belford, explaining the Catholic Church’s stance on race.  The letter, pre-approved by the Cardinal, included the points:

“His [Mgr. Beldord’s] publication in this case does not represent the attitude nor the spirit of the Catholic Church.  It is the very opposite not only of that attitude and spirit but of the very doctrine of the Catholic Church.”

A 1929 photograph by P. L. Sperr from atop the elevated train tracks shows one of the church's tenement buildings next door.  photo from

The Depression years brought with them government attempts to create work for the throngs of unemployed.  Artists were hired by the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee and put to work creating mostly public works of art.  The Church of St. Benedict the Moor was the beneficiary of one such project for its 50th anniversary in 1933.  Fourteen painters and interior decorators created interior murals for the church.

The artwork was done by the golden jubilee mass on November 26, 1933.  The New York Times reported “The drab neighborhood under the elevated line on West Fifty-third Street witness a colorful scene as high dignitaries of the church, dressed in vestments of gold, white and crimson, marched from the rectory, opposite the West Side jail, to the newly decorated church at 4342 West Fifty-third Street.”

Even The Times could not resist using the word “Negro” repeatedly in a single sentence.  “Negro school children lined the sidewalks and waved American flags, and plume-hatted Negro members of St. Benedict's Commandery of the Knights of St. John stood at attention at the church steps as the Cardinal, attended by two small Negro pages, entered the church amidst a throng of kneeling parishioners.”

One moving aspect of the service was the presence of Amelia Ferguson “a Negro member of the church,” who sang “Come Holy Ghost.”  She had sung the same hymn 50 years earlier when the first church opened at Bleecker and Downing Streets.

In January 1959 the pastor, Rev. George Coll, was frustrated with the inaction of the city against the landlords who forced his parishioners to live in inhuman conditions.  Despite his entreaties to the Fire Department, Health Department and Buildings Department; inspectors came and went with no action.

Finally he invited reporters to take a tour of the insufferable conditions of the tenements along West 53rd Street.  “Dozens of inspectors have been here,” he said, “and still these people are freezing.  They have no water in the toilets, the pipes are leaking, the plaster is falling.  The tenants don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what to do.”

The priest predicted “I believe the building will collapse within a week unless something is done immediately.”

While the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood along West 53rd Street was still dreadfully impoverished, its racial demographics were changing.  Black residents had moved to Harlem and the area around St. Benedict the Moor was heavily Hispanic.  In 1954 the church was reassigned to the Spanish order of Franciscans.

In 1967 the Spanish friars constructed a rectory that reflected the Spanish missionary roots.

The order still runs the church, now called the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church and mass is celebrated only in Spanish.  The block has been greatly gentrified and modern, luxury apartments have replaced many of the old tenement houses decried by George Coll half a century ago.

Through it all the handsome post-Civil War church survives in remarkable condition inside and out.  Despite its architectural integrity and its important place in black history, it has never achieved landmark status.

photographs by the author

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