Monday, May 22, 2017

The Lost Church of St. Gabriel - 310 East 37th Street

photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1859 the Kips Bay district around East 37th Street was anything but enchanting.  Hard-working immigrants, mostly Irish, moved into the sparsely developed area.  That year Archbishop John Hughes established a new parish, the Church of St. Gabriel, and assigned an Irish-born priest, Rev. William H. Clowry, to head and organize it.

Nearly half a century later, in 1902, the United States Catholic Historical Society recalled in its Historical Records and Studies, 'it was mainly a parish of wooden shanties."  Aside from about five brick houses on 37th Street, east of Second Avenue, "there were only empty lots, a stoneyard, and the future site, at First Avenue, of the car barns, stables and repair shops of the old Belt-Line surface car service."

The writer was specific regarding two addresses.  "East of No. 305, on the north side of Thirty-seventh Street, stood the big shanty of the good Catholic, Billy Jones; east of that and farther back from the street, stood the humble shanty of another good Catholic, Mrs. Ward, afterwards Mrs. Brady, or vice versa."

A wealthy Catholic, Henry J. Anderson, donated eight building lots on East 37th Street, between First and Second Avenue for St. Gabriel's.  The generous gift was valued at $25,000, more than three-quarters of a million dollars today.

Rev. Clowry recognized that the impoverished immigrant children needed education perhaps more than religious training, and set out first to establish a school.  The the first schoolhouse--for girls--was completed before the end of 1859.  Historical Records and Studies was astounded, in retrospect, at its immediate success.  "The number of girls in attendance was eight hundred.  Eight hundred!...Think of the neighborhood as it was in those days, and then say if this was not a magnificent act of faith."

The following summer the boys' school was opened.  Corralling those street toughs into a classroom was most likely an arduous struggle.  The Historical Records and Studies remarked that a nearby field was where "bellicose boys arbitrated their differences by means of fisticuffs, while directly opposite and east of where the church now stands was the stone-yard battlefield, which beheld some bloody struggles between the Thirty-sixth Streeters and the Thirty-eighth and Thirty-ninth Streeters."

Two Brothers of the Christian Schools were assigned as teachers in the boys' school; but records were unclear as to the number of pupils.  Although one church historian felt that the success of the girls' school might have prompted parents to send their sons; he recognized that boys went off to work at an early age rather than attend classes.

The first floor of the boys' school doubled as a chapel.  The 1,500-member congregation worshiped here for five years; unable to start construction on a permanent church because of the Civil War.  The cornerstone was finally laid in 1864.  The church had commissioned architect Henry Engelbert to design the structure.  Engelbert was a favorite of the Catholic Church at the time and, in fact, would be called in to handle the restorations of Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street following a devastating fire.

Engelbert turned to "the Gothic architecture of the thirteenth century."   He faced the front in brownstone, while the sides were of red brick.  The congregation, accustomed to living in the barest of conditions, would have been awed at their new place of worship.

The Catholic Churches of New York City, 1878, (copyright expired)

Completed in 1865 the church was 68 feet wide and stretched back 138 feet.  A tower and spire rose 168 feet above the unpaved road.  The interiors were meant to inspire both reverence and wonder. 

Eighteen slender clustered columns upheld the fan-groined ceiling.  The church could accommodate 2,000 persons.  "The chancel is finished in the richest style of ornamentation," said The Catholic Churches of New York City, "and possesses a new feature in the shape of two arches--the interior one twenty feet wide, and the exterior one thirty, so that the large altar can be seen from every part of the church."

The double arch of the chancel was an innovation.  Note the overlaid Gothic tracery on the ceiling of the arch.  The marble memorial alter was installed in 1885. The Catholic Church in the United States of America, 1914 (copyright expired)

The chancel featured a large painting of the Annunciation, by Italian artist Giuseppe Mazolini.  It was a copy of Baroque artist Guido Reni's original in the Quirinal Chapel in Rome.  Two side altars, "elaborately finished," were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and to St. Joseph.

A faithful copy of The Annunciation to Mary adorned the altar area.  the Museum of the Louvre

The dedication of the $80,000 church was held on November 12, 1865.  Not only was Archbishop John McCloskey on hand, but a "long line of clergymen" that included the Bishop Lynch of Charleston.  The crowd was so large that not everyone could get in; others could not afford the $1 entrance fee for the service.  Nevertheless, The New York Times said "not a seat could be found, while the aisles were crowded almost to suffocation."

Rev. Clowry's emphasis on education continued, prompting The New York Herald to remark on July 11, 1879 that since his founding of the parish he had devoted "all his energies to the education of the children of his parish, and with such success that the schools under the charge of the Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers are in a most flourishing condition, teaching over sixteen hundred pupils."

By the time of the article the church membership had swollen to 12,000, at least on paper.  A collection was begun in 1879 among the members as the 13th anniversary of Clowry's ordination approached.  On July 10 a "very handsome testimonial" was given to the priest that included the presentation of a check for $1,204.50.

Rev. Clowry died around midnight on June 11, 1884.  His impressive funeral service was held in the Church of St. Gabriel on June 14.  Assisting were several priests, seven monsignors, two bishops and Archbishop Michael Corrigan.  Immediately afterward, his body was interred in a grave between the church the the rectory.

The organ loft sat above the main entrance.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

Monsignor John M. Farley was among those celebrating the funeral mass.  He was Secretary to Cardinal McCloskey, a particularly elevated position in the Catholic Church.  The following week he was replaced and assigned as pastor of St. Gabriel's.  While some may have viewed the change as a demotion of sorts, it in no way diminished his station in the Church and he was elevated to papal chamberlain that same year.

The much-devoted followers of the late priest quickly laid plans for a memorial to him.  On July 6, 1884 The New York Times noted "It is stated that in place of the erection of a monument over his grave, between the church and rectory, many of the congregation would much prefer to contribute for a memorial altar of marble to replace the present high altar in the church."

That new altar was dedicated in November 1885.  Replacing an altar was no simple task because of the sacred aspects of both pieces.  On Friday the 27th The Times reported "The ceremony was begun Wednesday evening by the exposition and veneration of the relics, the recitation of the divine office, and by the vigil which was kept up all night by the members of the Young Men's Sodality.  The mystical function was continued at 8 o'clock yesterday by the 10 A. M. Archbishop Corrigan celebrated a solemn pontifical mass."  Once again the chancel was filled with bishops, monsignors, and various other priests.

The magnificent fan vaulting can be seen in this view of the gallery.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Church of St. Gabriel was, of course, repeatedly the scene of Irish funerals.  Some, however, stood out.

One was that of James Brennan, a policeman shot by gangster Henry Carlton, alias "Handsome Harry."  The Evening World ran a headline on October 30, 1888 that read "At Their Comrade's Bier--Martyred Policeman Brennan Sadly Laid at Rest."  In Victorian prose the article described (perhaps in too much detail) "the policeman who had closed a white record by death in the discharge of his duty lay calmly sleeping in his coffin.  The wounds made by two of the three bullets which Carlton sent hissing into his head were concealed by neat pieces of white court-plaster."

Ranks of policemen, four abreast, had marched ahead of the hearse.  As the casket was placed on the black catafalque before the altar, the front pews filled with blue uniforms while "the rest of the church was crowded with men and women."

General Thomas Fancis Bourke was among the best known of the fighters for Irish independence, known as the Fenian Movement.  His funeral on November 13, 1889, understandably drew considerable attention.

Calling him "the Irish agitator," The New York Times reported "A large crowd attended the funeral services, composed mainly of colaboraters [sic] in the cause so dear to the dead man and for which he gave up the best years of his life.  The floral offerings from the various societies of which he was a member were exquisite and numerous."

The church was packed with representatives from the heavily-Irish New York Police Department, politicians, the Irish Volunteers of the National Guard, several judges, and military officers.

But no funeral was so emotionally-charged or widely reported than that of 13-year old Mary Cunningham.  The girl lived in a tenement across from the church, at No. 315 East 37th Street, with her widowed mother.   The New-York Tribune described her as "a pupil at St. Gabriel's School, and was considered a good child.  She had considerable taste for music, and took lessons in the piano from a daughter of Police-Sergeant Hatton."

Around 8:30 on the morning of May 30, 1896, Mary's mother left the apartment "telling her daughter to remain in care of the house and to do certain work around the rooms," according to the Tribune.  Because it was Memorial Day, most of the other tenants were out enjoying the holiday.

Mrs. Cunningham returned at around 2:30.  She was surprised when Mary did not come out to meet her.  When she walked into a bedroom, she found Mary on the floor with her head beneath the bed.  "Pulling her into view she was horrified to discover that there was a towel tied around her neck and that her eyes were black and blue as if she had received a severe beating.  The tongue protruded from the mouth and was black and swollen."

Mrs. Cunningham ran screaming into the hallway.  By the time police arrived, she had understandably become hysterical.  Investigators noted that "The condition of the room and of the girl's clothing indicated that a struggle had taken place."  The New-York Tribune added "The police believe that an attempt was made to assault the girl, and that she was murdered because of her resistance."

While the search for Mary's murderer went on, her funeral was held in the Church of St. Gabriel on June 2.  The New York Times reported "The crowds of people left scarcely room in the street for the undertakers' assistants to carry the white casket of the strangled girl across the street from her St. Gabriel's Church, and even the roofs of the neighborhood were weighted with a great number of curious people."

The pathos of the girls' murder and the poignancy of her mother's grief (the newspaper said she "almost hysterical, kept close to the casket, wailing and weeping."  The emotional funeral drew throngs.  "So great was the crowd that pressed toward the entrance to the church that to guard life the police were obliged to use all their strength to keep the mob back."

Eight boys acted as pall bearers, each wearing a white band on his right arm.  They escorted the hearse to the 34th Street Ferry to be transported to the cemetery.

An innocent man almost paid dearly for Mary's death.  An Italian delivery boy, Joseph Ferrone, told police he witnessed Edward McCormack "bending over the body of Mary Cunningham" when he was delivering ice to the building.  It was a serious accusation.  A guilty verdict would result in McCormack's being hanged.

New Yorkers were convinced that the murderer had been found until they read the shocking report on June 26 that Ferrone admitted he made up his story to garner attention.  His attorney asked the court to be lenient.  Assistant District Attorney O'Hare was less inclined to go easy on the boy.  "The bail should be very high.  This young scamp deserves to be hanged," he told the judge.

When Judge Cowing reminded Ferrone's attorney that a man might have been executed, O'Hare chimed in.  "This is a most vicious scoundrel.  The young pirate caused a man to be kept in prison, and he was on the brink of being indicted for murder for the perjury of this boy."

Ferrone's bail was finally set at $2,500--almost $73,000 today.  The murderer of Mary Cunningham was never found.

In the meantime, John Murphy Farley's career within the Catholic Church continued to rise.  In 1891 he became Vicar General for the Archdiocese, and was raised to the rank of domestic prelate in 1892.  On November 18, 1895 he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop by Pope Leo XIII.

All the while he continued to lead St. Gabriel's congregation.  On Christmas Day 1897 The Sun reported that he had modernized the sanctuary with electric lighting.  "The confessionals are all supplied with the incandescent bulbs, beautiful effects are produced by electric bulbs in the arch of the apse, and the stations of the cross are illumined by concealed lights."  The article stressed that candles would continue to serve their religious roles--for processions, altar lights, and vigil candles, for instance.

In the fall of 1902 the Vatican announced that John Farley had been made Archbishop of New York, succeeding Michael Corrigan.   His assistant at the Church of St. Gabriel was Patrick Joseph Hayes, who would follow in his footsteps by becoming Archbishop of New York following Farley's death in 1918.

By the time of the Great Depression, the Kips Bay neighborhood around the Church of St. Gabriel was no longer the shantytown it had been in 1859.  The city embarked on a massive engineering project in October 1936--the Queens Midtown Tunnel.   Three years later the Work's Progress Administration's New York City Guide remarked "The entire block on which the church stands is scheduled to be razed to make way for an approach to the Queens Midtown Tunnel."

By the time the book was published, the last mass in the church had already been celebrated.  On January 16, 1939 The New York Times reported "With an overflow congregation of 2,500 persons in attendance" the final service had taken place.  A choir of 75 voices "composed of present and former residents of the parish" had been specially brought together for the event.  The article noted Rev. Thaddeus W. Tierney wanted this to be a "joyful rather than sad" service.  "But even as Father Tierney spoke scores of men and women throughout the church were seen weeping."

photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
The church, the school, and the neighboring tenement buildings were demolished later that year.


  1. Any info on where the remains of Rev.Clowry ended up?

    1. That detail disturbed me, too. But I haven't been able to find out where he was relocated.

  2. I lived in 303 East 37th street from 1985 to 1993. I saw pictures of the church but never new it's history. Interesting.

  3. My family were originally based around that parish. My Great Great Grandparents were married there and My Great Grandmother was baptized there, I never knew it such a rich history. I wish I could go and see it or at least get the records of these events in my family. Never mind it was very interesting to learn so much about it. Thank you

    1. You can find the marriage and baptismal records on Find My Past in the New York Roman Catholic Marriage and Baptism Collection.