Saturday, September 30, 2017

St. Bernard's Church - 330-334 West 14th Street

A lithograph by The Graphic Co. depicted the newly-completed church in a bucolic setting.  The Catholic Churches of New York City, 1892 (copyright expired)
By the 1850s residential development reached the district just north of Greenwich Village.  West 14th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenue saw the rise of handsome brick or brownstone faced mansions, including several for members of the wealthy Havemeyer family.

In 1867, just three years after his ordination, Rev. Gabriel A. Healy was tasked by Archbishop John McCloskey to form the parish of St. Bernard in the rapidly-developing area.  Early in 1868 the 27-year old priest secured improvised quarters for the fledgling congregation.  The New York Times later described the accommodations:

There was an old wagon factory in West Thirteenth Street which belonged to the Knickerbocker Ice Company.  It was a picture of dilapidation and ruin.  Father Healy looked it over and determined that he must make it answer his purpose for a time.  He accordingly purchased it and fitted up the second story as a chapel.

The first mass was celebrated there on Whitsunday, May 31, 1868.  Within a year the congregation of St. Bernard's had significantly grown and on May 1, 1869 three building lots were purchased on West 14th Street.  Bazaars and other fund-raising events soon brought in sufficient funds to begin construction.  On October 13, 1872, for instance, Rev. Henry A. Brann delivered a lecture on "The Catholic Church on the Island of Manhattan--Past, Present, and Future."  The announcement noted "Proceeds to aid in the erection of the new St. Bernard's church, West Fourteenth st."

The Irish-born architect Patrick Charles Keely received the commission.   St. Bernard's Church would be one of the nearly 600 Roman Catholic churches he would eventually design.  The architect splashed his traditional Gothic Revival design with touches of Ruskinian Gothic, then topped the towers with unexpected French-style conical spires.  Sitting on a granite base, Keely announced it would be "built of Belleville stone, trimmed with Nova Scotia stone."

Ground was broken on May 8, 1872 and a year later construction had reached two stories.  On May 11, 1873 a massive cornerstone-laying ceremony was held.   A rope was attached to the facade and stretched across 14th Street to a private house from which was hung a gigantic flag.  The New York Herald remarked "from the line depended an immense American ensign, displaying the beauteous stars and stripes."  A second rope was hung with red, white and blue pennants, the flags of Germany, France and Ireland, as well as the Papal flag.

The New York Herald estimated the crowd on 14th Street at 10,000 and The New York Times noted "even the tops of the houses in the vicinity were thronged with crowds of spectators."   Almost directly across the street, at No. 323 West 14th Street, was the home of the mayor, Frederick Havemeyer.  The Herald reported "The family of Mayor Havemeyer, as well as the residents of the other aristocratic mansions in the block, witnessed the ceremony."

The Herald was especially energetic in its description.  "The fair sex was more than usually represented, and the crowds of people who filled streets, sidewalks, stoops and windows, together with the waving flags and banners, made the scene a most picturesque one, seldom seen on this side of the Atlantic, and only occasionally to be witnessed on the banks of the Tiber, the Danube or the Mauzanozes."

A procession of hundreds of children, religious groups and clerics left the 13th Street church.  It was headed by the Society of the Holy Angels, described by the Herald as "Thirty young ladies, in the glory of maidenhood, attired in white."   Group after group proceeded into the building, followed by the procession of clergy, headed by two bishops and John McCloskey, who was now an archbishop.

Following the service, the zinc box was placed within the cornerstone.  In it were copper and gold coins and paper currency, copies of the local newspapers, and a copper plate engraved with the date, the names of President Grant, Governor Dix, Mayor Havemeyer, the archbishop and Rev. Healy.  St. Bernard's Church became the first in the United States consecrated by an American Cardinal.

The Herald mentioned that "it is expected that [the church] will be fully completed and ready for the celebration of mass by the opening week of October."  As it turned out, the dedication was not celebrated until May 30, 1875.  The New York Times later explained, the "delay having been caused by the panic of 1873."

St. Bernard's Church was 67-feet wide and stretched more than 126 feet deep.  The building cost $185,320.50, bringing the total cost including the land to over $200,000--more than $4 million today.  The Catholic Churches of New York City called it "a conspicuous monument of the piety and zeal of priest and people.  Of a true ecclesiastical style, good and inspiring, it attracts the eye of thousands passing up and down the adjacent avenue."

The church was not only the scene of worship and the fashionable weddings and funerals of notable New Yorkers; but its social hall was a center of Irish activism.  Home to Branch No. 10 of the Parnell Land League, it was where animated discussions were held, such as those following the May 1882 assassinations of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke.

There was no blame put on the Irish revolutionaries.  Instead, reported The New York Times, "The different  speakers argued that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy plotted outside of Ireland, and executed by emissaries sent thither to throw the people 'off the scene.'"

As violence, including bombings, continued in England,  James H. Casserly pushed for a diplomatic solution within St. Bernard's Church a year later.  He told members on April 22, 1883 that he "was opposed to the use of dynamite, which had done more than anything else to injure the cause of Ireland."  Nevertheless, both he and John Egan admitted that physical force should be used "when the proper time came."

But by September 6, 1885, Casserly had apparently decided the proper time had come.  The Times reported that he told supporters that night that "He excused dynamiters, Invincibles, and Fenians, on account of the nobility of their common aim, and urged it on the people as a bounden duty to subscribe their sympathy and their aid."

In the meantime, the sanctuary upstairs continued to be a vibrant (and more peaceful) element in neighborhood life.  The affluence of the congregation was evident when the assistant rector, Rev. John J. Riordan, was transferred after 10 years at St. Bernard's.   The New York Times reported on October 28, 1883 that he "has received from the people of the parish $2,000 as a slight testimonial of their devotion and respect."  That going-away gift was worth nearly $50,000 in today's dollars.

In December 1874--the first Christmas in the new church--life-sized wax figures of the nativity were put on display in the church hall.  It was no small affair, with painted backdrops and at least nine full-sized figures.  The following year Rev. Healy decided to "dispense with some of the wax figures and introduce living characters."  For this he wrote the Nativity Play or Christmas Cantata.

Modern attendees of church nativity plays fully expect amateur productions with cardboard mangers and children in homemade costumes.  This was nothing of the kind.  The two-hour production included an adult cast, complex scene changes and a original musical scores.  The play included scenes no longer included in the Christmas story representations today--like the gruesome Massacre of the Innocents.

Two of the several scenes in the Christmas play presented annually at St. Bernard's Church.  The Nativity Play or Christmas Cantata, by Rev. Gabriel A. Healy, 1885 (copyright expired)

After much prodding, in 1885 Rev. Gabriel Healy published a detailed book so other parishes could stage the popular play.

Just four days before Christmas 1890 tragedy struck.  Father McLaughlin smelled smoke at around 5:30 in the morning on December 21.  Investigating, he saw flames through the stained glass windows.  The Evening World reported "He aroused Father Healy, who ran to the corner of Ninth avenue, where he met Policeman Mooney, who turned in an alarm."

By now, said the newspaper, the church "was a mass of fire."  Before long the roof collapsed.   "The occupants of the fashionable dwelling-houses in the neighborhood had been awakened," said The Evening World, and they massed on the Ninth Avenue elevated railroad to watch the spectacle.

The spires had already collapsed when this sketch was drawn.  The Evening World, December 22, 1890 (copyright expired)

The fire raged for more than two hours.  Afterwards, reported The Times, "The altar, the organ, the galleries, and practically the entire interior of the church, with its costly paintings, stained-glass windows, and statuary are ruined."  Because they were enclosed in a fire-proof safe, the "sacred vessels, the chalices, ciboriums, ostensoriums, and the holy Eucharist were saved."

Neighbors and congregants quickly passed on the rumor of a miracle.  The Evening World reported "Of all the sacred images only a crucifix, in the centre of the church, was left standing.  It could be plainly seen from the street.  Many said that it was unscorched."

Christmas and subsequent services were held in the salesroom of the New-York Consolidated Card Company at No. 226 West 14th Street.   Already Rev. Healy was planning to rebuild.

The Sun later reported that Monsignor James H. McGean, one of Father Healy's closest friends,"heard of the fire [and] went to Fourteenth street and found Father Healy, instead of weeping over the ruins, out hunting up architects and contractors for a new church."

Less than a year after the fire, on November 8, 1891, the rebuilt church was dedicated.  The services were officiated by Archbishop Michael Corrigan.  The Times called the church "a monument of credit to the Rev. Gabriel A. Healy" and noted it "now has a congregation of 10,000 souls."  While the interiors were handsomely restored, notably absent were the tower spires.

On June 28, 1911 Rev. Healy underwent an appendicitis operation.  He was recovering well when, a week later, a heat wave took its toll on the 72-year old.  On Sunday, July 2, he began to complain of the heat.  Two days later he died in the rectory.   His doctor attributed "exhaustion caused by the heat" to his death.  He had been St. Bernard's pastor for 41 years.

St. Bernard's continued to be a visible influence in the neighborhood.  In 1916 a new parochial school was opened on West 13th Street.  The size of the congregation was evidenced in 1918 when a service flag was dedicated in honor of the 312 parish members who had served in World War I.

In the meantime, a new parish one block to the east hinted at the changing demographics of the once upscale residential neighborhood.   In 1902 the Augustinians of the Assumption founded Our Lady of Guadalupe.  It was the first Spanish-language Catholic parish in New York City and its congregants were working class immigrants.

As the 20th century progressed and the 14th Street neighborhood changed, the congregation of St. Bernard's Church diminished, while that of Our Lady of Guadalupe increased.

photo by Elis Shin via
Perhaps the first hint at the interaction of the two parishes was on January 27, 1996.  Every year in Mexico hundreds of runners form a torch relay between Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mexico City to the church of Padre Jesus in Chinantla, more than 300 miles away.  That year a miniature version began in Brooklyn at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church.  Two torchbearers ran six miles, ending up not at Our Lady of Guadalupe, as might have been expected, but at St. Bernard's Church.

The New York Times reported that Mexican immigrants then gathered "for Mass and a feast with mariachi music."  For one day a year, said the article, "Flower sellers, clerks, mechanics and janitors can forget their long hours of work."

Seven years later, on April 14 2003, the newspaper reported that "Hundreds of worshipers carrying palm fronds swaying in the breeze left Our Lady of Guadalupe church in a Palm Sunday procession yesterday.  They walked one block west along 14th Street to St. Bernard's church, where they deposited a life-size portrait of the Blessed Virgin near the altar to symbolize the marriage of the two Roman Catholic parishes."

The article explained "The parishes are merging, according to the Archdiocese of New York, for a simple reason: St. Bernard's has the space, and Our Lady has the bodies.  They both have a lot of debt."

photograph by the author

Within the next few months the merged parishes became Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Bernard's.  The interior was remodeled and the altars of the two historic churches were "literally combined."  Many of the artworks not part of the old structure were transferred to the St. Bernard building and new paintings of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Blessed Juan Diego, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe were installed.  The bright new color scheme and heavy use of gold was a stark contrast to the former somber interior.

The parish continues to be a vibrant part of the neighborhood, especially for the Spanish-speaking population.  And the building, where fiery Irishmen once debated methods to free their homeland and a massive fire threatened to erase it, remains an imposing presence on the block.


  1. I grew up attending St. Bernard's Church, with Monsignor Snee as the pastor. I am a bit saddened that it looks more like a museum now, than it does a Church.

  2. I grew up on 17 street . My family attended the school . myself included. The nuns were strict . Used to hit are hands with rulers. Wouldn't trade any memory I have of it.the kids were a different respectful breed .

  3. Was part of this St. Bernard School once used by Cardinal Hayes HS in the 1950s and into the 1960s as an annex for incoming 9th graders to Hayes?