In 1850 Pope Pius IX created the Archdiocese of New York City, elevating Irish-born Bishop John J. Hughes to archbishop. The 53-year old Hughes was as hard-edged as he was holy. Anti-Catholic sentiment was rampant in the first half of the 19th century. It was Hughes who had led the Ancient Order of Hibernians and armed parishioners against a mob determined to burn St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street in 1844. In a letter to Mayor James Harper he threatened "Should one Catholic come to harm, or should one Catholic business be molested, we shall turn this city into a second Moscow."
Now, two years later Hughes intended to show New Yorkers that the Catholic Church was here to stay. Early in February 1852 he appealed for the construction of "eight or ten new Catholic churches," including the new St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.
The first to be organized was the Church of the Holy Cross. The Rev. Joseph A. Lutz was given the job of creating the new parish. He obtained the use of a building on West 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues as a temporary chapel while funds for a permanent building were raised.
The site was all but godless. Sitting in the midst of what would become known as Hell's Kitchen within a few decades, it was surrounded by ramshackle shanties, mostly constructed of wood. The district's residents were impoverished and for the most part lawless. Charles H. Farnham, in an article in Schribner's Monthly in 1879 wrote in part, "Large rats stared at us from the beams, sewer vomited filth and the water and the air were unendurably loathesome. This is known as 'Hell's kitchen.' It may seem incredible that any freeman should choose such a place for his abode; yet where could a criminal find more congenial gloom?"
Despite its surroundings, sufficient money for a building was raised. The Evening World commented later, "Although the congregation was a poor one the new building was designed on a substantial plan and the corner-stone laid the same year." The dedication was held on December 17, 1854. Within the year Rev. Patrick McCarthy was appointed the new pastor.
At around 2:00 on the afternoon of June 18, 1867 a terrific storm blew across Manhattan. The following morning The New York Herald reported "During the prevalence of the thunder storm yesterday afternoon the steeple of the Church of the Holy Cross, on Forty-second street...was struck by lightning and very much shattered. Large particles of the brick and wood work here hurled around, but fortunately no person was injured. It will be found necessary to take down the remaining portions of the steeple without delay." Indeed, The New York Times informed pedestrians that the north side of 42nd Street was closed, "as the steeple is still in a very shakey and dangerous condition."
Repairs were initiated, but engineers soon realized that the structure had been severely compromised. "The reformation was commenced," said The New York Herald, "but it was speedily discovered that an entire reconstruction would be most advantageous, and, in the end, most economical."
Old St. Patrick's Cathedral had been devastated by a fire a year earlier and architect Henry Engelbert was brought in to reconstruct the venerable structure. Now he was commissioned to design the new Church of the Holy Cross. The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted on March 28, 1868 that construction costs for the structure were projected at $90,000.
The cornerstone of the new church was laid on on May 31, 1868. The New York Herald reported "The ceremonies were attended by an immense concourse of persons. The windows, housetops, trees and other eminences in the neighborhood were crowded."
Construction was completed the following year and the dedication took place on May 7, 1870. The Times described the architecture as "of the renaissance order, and the building is surmounted by a lofty dome, which gives it a most imposing appearance." The Evening World disagreed regarding the style, calling it "Byzantine," adding "the material of which it is built is pressed Philadelphia brick with trimmings of Belleville stone and polished bluestone."
In fact, neither was correct, at least by today's terminology. Engelbert married Romanesque Revival with Gothic Revival. The dome which The Times deemed "imposing" was nearly lost behind the triangle gable of the central section and the pyramid-topped towers on either end. The red-brick structure sat above a broad stone staircase that elevated the church from the gritty sidewalk.
Inside were "spacious galleries." The church could accommodate 1,800 worshipers. In the year since the plans had been filed the cost had risen to "not far from $100,000," according to The Times, or around $1.8 million in today's dollars. Considering their own meager conditions, the parishioners of the Church of the Holy Cross must have been awe-stricken when they first entered.
Like many Victorian priests, Rev. Patrick McCarthy shepherded his flock by invoking the fear of God. In his sermon on the first day of Lent in 1871 he urged his congregation to "consider the number and enormity of our offenses against God, the violence of our passions and the many dangers and temptations to which we are exposed." And he warned "But, alas! A carnal and effeminate life has now become so common in this country that many Catholics are but too ready to imitate the lives and example of the unprincipled and irreligious men by whom they are surrounded."
After more than two decades as pastor, McCarthy died in August 1877. His funeral on Thursday the 9th required a large police presence due to the number of mourners. The New York Herald reported that the "immense crowd" had filled 42nd Street more than an hour before the funeral and the "press around the gates became so great that the church had to be opened at nine o'clock though the funeral ceremonies were not to begin until half-past ten."
"The large building became so densely thronged in a few minutes that the assistance of the police had to be obtained to assist in thinning the numbers of the crowd who blocked up the aisles. Even after a large number of persons had been removed the heat was almost unbearable."
Even at the time of Rev. McCarthy's funeral the building had not been consecrated. Catholic tradition demanded that the entire debt ($92,000 at the time) had to be paid off beforehand. By 1885 it was apparent that the money had almost been raised and, in preparation for the consecration, substantial redecoration was initiated. On December 27 The New York Times reported "The next Catholic church to be consecrated will be the Church of the Holy Cross" and said "The work of enlarging and improving the edifice has been going on for the last four months."
A rear extension designed by architect Lawrence J. O'Connor enlarged the sanctuary by 25 feet. The article explained "on either side of the new sanctuary there are large and commodious sacristies. The sanctuary is to be semicircular in form, it will contain three altars of white Vermont marble, and the pavement will be of encaustic tile." Stained glass windows executed by Mayer & Co. of Munich, Germany were set into the dome. Other new windows included the central "Exaltation of the Cross," and four which depicting the Evangelists.
Just a week before the ceremony work was still underway. On March 13, 1886 The Record & Guide reported "The Church of the Holy Cross...is having a mural decoration prepare which simulates mosaic. The ground in flowing continuous forms is warm but delicate in color. The arch marked by a purple band expands on the walls into a boarder, and is interrupted by the colossal figures on the side of St. Peter, and on the other of St. Paul. This treatment is new and its ultimate effect when in place may be looked for with interest."
Eleven days later The Times ran the headline "FREE FROM DEBT" and announced that Archbishop Corrigan had celebrated the ceremony of the consecration of the Church of the Holy Cross at 7:00 on the night before, March 21.
The members of the congregation of Holy Cross were, for the most part, Irish-born. The parish had a branch of the Irish National League which met in the basement of the church. At a meeting here on June 13, 1886, for instance, General Martin T. McMahon and Colonel John O'Beirne spoke "on the fitness of the Irish people for self-government."
It was not surprising, therefore, that another Irish-born priest, Rev Charles McCready, took Rev. McCarthy's place. Born in Ireland in 1837, he had been assistant pastor at St. Stephen's Church under Rev. Edward McGlynn until his appointment at Holy Cross. When he arrived the church operated the Holy Cross Academy for girls under the charge of the Sisters of Charity, the St. Vincent's Industrial School, and a girl's parochial school. He enhanced the church's educational efforts by erecting the Holy Cross School, completed in 1890 which could accommodate 1,000 pupils.
In the meantime, Rev. McCready's close friend, Rev. McGlynn, was involved in serious drama. Outspoken and liberal-minded, he pronounced opinions some of which ran counter to Catholic dogma--that public schools were "quite adequate," for instance. Archbishop Corrigan ordered him to correct his behavior; but he pressed on. Finally, in January 1887 he "was driven from the pastorate of St. Stephen's Church and excommunicated as a result," as described by The Evening World.
McGlynn had been loved by his congregation and they lamented his fate. So when word got out that he was to celebrate Christmas mass in the Church of the Holy Cross in 1894, elation spread. A week earlier Rev. McGlynn had reached out to Archbishop Corrigan. The two men, once bitter antagonists, reconciled and McGlynn was given permission to say mass publicly. Rev. McCready invited his friend to do so at Holy Cross.
More than 4,000 people arrived for Christmas mass. The Evening World reported "The Holy Cross Church was not built to accommodate more than half that number, but this morning, at 4.30 o'clock, not only had every pew an occupant, but the aisles were packed, as was the gallery, and every inch of space close up to the altar rails almost was black with humanity."
According to the newspaper many of the worshipers had camped out overnight in the church to guarantee a seat, "and when they saw him come out from the sacristy, they felt like shouting, and would have done so, but for the occasion. As it was, a murmur that was half sob, half exultant cry, was plainly heard."
On October 5, 1902 Monsignor John M. Farley headed the golden jubilee ceremonies here. What might have been just another celebratory mass became anything but when, afterward, his secretary, Father Hayes, handed him a sealed packet which had arrived by special delivery from the Apostolic Delegation in Washington. He broke the seal and read the contents, showing no reaction. He went to the vestry where he knelt before a small altar and prayed for 20 minutes.
Afterward he joined the guests of the church who were enjoying dinner in the School Hall. There he revealed that the packet contained a Papal bull notifying him that he had been appointed Archbishop of New York.
When the United State entered World War I, assistant pastor Rev. Aloysius C. Dineen left Holy Cross to volunteer. On October 3 1917, he was commissioned a chaplain in the United States Army. But it was another Irish priest whose service in the war would be forever linked to the Church of the Holy Cross.
Father Francis Patrick Duffy had been Army chaplain during the Spanish-American War. In 1916, while pastor of Our Savior Catholic Church in the Bronx, he was made chaplain of the 165th National Guard Unit of the 42nd Division (formerly the 69th Infantry Regiment). Now Duffy went to war with "The Fighting 69th."
He became the most highly decorated chaplain in U.S. Army history--earning the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal from the U.S. and the Legion d'Honneur and Croix de Guerre from the French Government.
|photo from the collection of the U S. Army Chaplain Center and School|
On April 2, 1925 a case of "jewelry" that arrived in New York on the steamship Homeric was held by Customs until Rev. Duffy cleared things up. The "jewelry," he explained, was in fact 5,000 rosaries
"each blessed by the Pope, which he had brought back from Rome for the men with whom he served in France," reported The Evening World. "Every man in the regiment, regardless of faith or creed, will receive a rosary, although many of the men were Jews or Protestants." The carton was released duty-free.
Father Duffy's Church, as Holy Cross was popularly known, still sat within a rough neighborhood. By now tenements and factories surrounded it and to the east the bawdy Times Square district had developed. Duffy realized that many of his parishioners worked night shifts, in factories and theaters, making it impossible for them to attend the mandatory Sunday mass. In January 1932 he received special permission from the Vatican to hold mass at 2:15 a.m. on Sunday mornings for night workers.
|The dome and lantern are visible in this 1931 photograph. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
On April 22, 1943 McCaffrey, now a monsignor, officiated at the dedication of the Victory Chapel in the basement of the church. The Times reported "He dedicated the new chapel for the offering of special prayers for men in the service and for their use while on leave." With World War II raging, he included in his sermon a "special plea for peace with final victory."
|The Victory Chapel original source unknown|
The crucifix was found later in a Harlem pawn shop where it had been sold for $2. It was a clue that led detectives to 21-year old Vivian De Munn, who was arrested on February 12, 1945. "The woman claimed to have been living in subways for several months, after being drive from the home of an aunt, a Harlem resident, with whom she had quarreled," reported The Times.
Despite Mgr. McCaffrey's lobbying that would eventually result in the clean-up of the Times Square pornographic theaters and seedy shops, the 42nd block was still grim in 1992 when Rev. Peter Colapietro became pastor. Directly across the street now was the Port Authority Bus Terminal where homeless slept and addicts, prostitutes and alcoholics loitered.
Called by some newspapers the "saloon priest," he had been a bartender before entering the priesthood. The charismatic pastor, like his predecessors, was beloved by his congregation. His cool street smarts helped him deal with sometimes alarming situations.
The Catholic periodical Our Sunday Visitor reported in 1994 about an incident involving actor Mickey Rourke. His marriage to actress and model Carré Otis was on the rocks and he believed she had been sexually assaulted. Armed with a pistol, Rourke was on his way to shoot the suspected rapist and kill himself. He had already composed a suicide note when he walked into Holy Cross.
Rourke told Our Sunday Visitor "I didn't know this man, Father Peter. I just walked in his church...and met the right priest." He said that Fr. Colapietro "took away my gun and had me leave the note with St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes."
During mass one Sunday morning a man hurled a beer bottle towards Fr. Colapietro. It smashed on the steps leading to the altar, damaging the marble. In 2007 a $6 million restoration of the church began. During the earlier planning period, Fr. Colapietro insisted that the gouge inflicted by the beer bottle remain.
Rev. Peter Colapietro was transferred to an East Side church in 2013. Today the congregation of the Church of the Holy Cross, once nearly entirely of Irish descent, is heavily Hispanic. Masses are held in both English and Spanish. The church operates a food kitchen in the neighborhood which, as it was in 1852, still has more than its share of poor and hungry.
photographs by the author