Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Church of St. Monica - 413 East 79th Street

In the decade after the end of the Civil War the Upper East Side saw rapid development.  The opening of the Third Avenue subway line in 1878 and the Second Avenue line the following year made the district more desirable and convenient.  And as the population increased so did the need for schools, fire and police stations, and churches. 

In June 1879 (one month after he dedicated the new St. Patrick's Cathedral) Archbishop John McCloskey approved the organization of a new parish, St. Monica, at the lower hem of the Yorkville neighborhood.  Land was acquired on East 79th Street, between First and York Avenues.

On September 24, 1881 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Catholic Church "are going to build a church, to be known as St. Monica's Church."  Architects Babcock & McAvoy were preparing plans, the article noted, for a 100-foot wide structure with a seating capacity of 1,800.

"The front and basement will be constructed of bluestone, trimmed with granite, and the sides and rear of brick, with stone trimmings."  The construction costs were projected at more than $3 million in today's dollars.

The Rev. James J. Doughtery was appointed pastor of the fledgling parish.  As work began on the church, services were held initially above a 78th Street feed store, then in the chapel of the unfinished structure.   As with all new parishes, aggressive fund raising went on to attack the debt of building.  On December 5, 1883 The New York Times noted "The envelope collection in the chapel of the Church of St. Monica, in East Seventy-ninth-street, last Sunday, amounted to $1,500, which, with $7,000 as the proceeds of the late fair, makes $8,500 as the amount contributed by the people of the parish within the last six weeks for the reduction of the church debt."

("Fairs" were the most common method of raising money by churches.  Women sold home-made and donated goods, like table linens, as well as pies and cakes.)

Like most Victorian pastors, Rev. Doughtery had decided opinions about social ills.  On Sunday March 14, 1886 he initiated his series of sermons on the "Evils of Modern Societies."  The subjects of his seven discourses were Irreverence, Indifference, Irreligion, Education, Home Life, Public Life, and Triumph Over Evil.

Churches routinely hosted summer excursions to picnic grounds.  The day-long outings gave city-bound children and their parents a break from the stifling heat and daily drudgery.  On  the morning of May 29, 1900 parishioners of the Church of St. Monica gathered at the 90th Street pier in anticipation of an outing at Idlewild Park, on Long Island.  They were most likely more than a bit troubled when they saw furious activity--and a sunken vessel.

The evening before the barges Charles Spear and the Susquehanna were being towed to the pier when the Charles Spear hit a rock that gashed an large hole in her hull.  Tug boats managed to get the large craft to the pier, where it abruptly sank.  The Myers Excursion Barge Company, which owned the crafts, assured the church "The excursion need not be interfered with, as other barges are available."

Among the parishioners of St. Monica's Church in 1902 was the family of Policeman Edward Burns.  Burns, coincidentally, was the beat cop in the immediate neighborhood.  The Evening World called him "big and scrupulously conscientious over the custody of streets in the vicinity of St. Monica's Church."  He was also scrupulously conscientious about the sanctity of church property, a fact that became evident on November 13.

A few days earlier James Ross had lost his job as an ashcart driver with the City's Street Cleaning Department.  The despondent man drank until he was thrown out of a nearby saloon, and then out of a drugstore where he had just purchased rat poison.  Ross stumbled to the steps of St. Monica where he swallowed the poison.

The Evening World reported that Officer Burns "was dumfounded [sic] early to-day when he discovered the form of a poorly dressed man lying on the steps over which he and his family went to worship last Sunday."  Ross told Burns, "I have just committed suicide."

Burns was less concerned about saving Ross's life than preserving the sanctity of the church steps.  "Rather than have a suicide disgrace the stone steps leading into St. Monica's Catholic church, in Seventy-ninth street," related the newspaper, "Policeman Edward Burns today carried the writhing body of James Ross for half a block before calling an ambulance."

Calling Burns "very indignant," The Evening World quoted him as saying:

The idea of his taking the dope on the church steps.  He ought to get six months for that alone.  I am going to see that he gets his due, for I think he did it on purpose.  Just to think of trying to die in front of a church after being thrown out of a saloon and a drug store!  He must have thought the church was easy, but I nabbed him in time.

Rather astonishingly, those stone steps led to a still-uncompleted building, 20 years after construction had begun.  A temporary wooden structure had made do to date.  But on March 27, 1904 the New-York Tribune reported that "Plans have been Schickel & Ditmars, architects, for the completion of the church building of St. Monica's Roman Catholic Church, in East Seventy-ninth-st...The basement only of the building is at present finished."

The Record & Guide announced that the plans included "stone and brick, slate roofing, nickel-plated plumbing, electric wiring, organ and steam" at a cost of $70,000.  Because the structure would be placed atop the Babcock & McAvoy chapel and basement, the plans were filed under "Alterations" rather than "Projected Buildings."  The New-York Tribune reported that the building would be "of decorative Gothic design."

And indeed it would be.

The architects had designed an English Gothic structure of beige brick and stone.  Schickel & Ditmars forewent a towering steeple in favor of four stone spires sprouting Gothic crockets.  A massive central stained glass window dominated the design, overwhelming even the handsome, projecting stone entrance directly below.

A year later, on May 8, 1905, the New-York Tribune reported "With all the pomp and ceremony of the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church the cornerstone of the new Church of St. Monica, 79th-st., near 1st-ave., was laid yesterday afternoon in the presence of an immense throng.  The new church is being built around and above the edifice in which the people have been worshipping."

By now, according to the article, construction costs had double, now estimated at $150,000 (about $4.3 million today).  The Tribune predicted "It is expected to have the church completed this fall."

A hansom cab waits in front of the steps in this sketch, possible issued by the architects' office.  New-York Tribune, November 29, 1907 (copyright expired)
On November 29, 1908 the newspaper reported on the dedication of the structure.  While it called the ceremonies "elaborate," the article was more focused on the size and beauty of the building.

It said "The new church is among the largest Catholic churches in the city" and its "spacious and adorned interior make the church one of the most complete and ornate to be found in the country.  It is familiarly spoken of as the East Side Cathedral."

photograph by Wurts Brothers, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The article placed the seating capacity at 1,300 on the main floor and noted "the main alter is forty feet high and made of Carara marble, as are also the side alters and the statues."

Wurts Brothers captured the newly-completed interiors around the time of the dedication.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On the afternoon of February 14, 1911 two thieves picked the wrong church to rob.  At around 5:30 Sexton Hugh P. Connolly entered to discover Raffale Fantano and Cheli Guilio tampering with the poor box.  The New York Times reported "He rushed at them, shouting for help, and grappled with Guilio."  Father William Jordan rushed in to handle Fantano.

Father Jordan told police later "I got within five yards of my man before he saw me and when he did so I lost no time, as I did not know what weapons he carried.  I smashed him in the left eye and got him by the throat.  He is a strong fellow and he threw me, but we rolled over and he swore loudly in Italian as I pummeled him."

Pummeled him, he did.  The Times recounted "Father Jordan used up his man so completely that he needed the attention of an ambulance surgeon before he could be taken from the East Eighty-eighth Street Station to Police Headquarters."

Father Jordan and Sexton Connolly dragged the men to the police station themselves, no doubt astonishing the cops on duty there.  The crooks had managed to pull $3.35 from the poor box, and it was not their first visit.  "The church, according to Father Jordan, has suffered for a long time from poor-box thefts, but not until last night was the problem of the money's disappearance solve," reported the newspaper.

Two months later the incident was largely forgotten as the church prepared for a yearly fund-raising event that would surely raise eyebrows today.  On April 26 The Evening World reported that "Preparations for the annual minstrel show of St. Monica's Roman Catholic Church...are complete.  Yorkville is on edge, for this is the banner entertainment of the year in that part of the city."

The article said that a "chorus of ninety girls and half as many young men" would perform.  It added "The proceeds will be devoted to lifting the debt incurred when the Rev. Father Lennon in 1907 raised St. Monica's from n old type wooden structure to a big modern church."

Ticket buyers could look forward to Miss Edna Schaufele singing "How Can They Tell I'm Irish?" accompanied by eight dancing girls.  In addition, said The Evening World, "'Implicitus' Joe Farley, the veteran interlocutor, and 'Dinklepop' Peter Buckley will be on the job."

The onslaught of the Great Depression seriously affected Yorkville residents and, subsequently, the Church of St. Monica.  Its pastor since 1913, Father Arthur J. Kenny had been elevated to Monsignor in 1926.  He watched his congregation decline to 3,900 by 1942, about 30% fewer than in the 1920's.  Monsignor Kenny turned the focus of the church's outreach to serving the unemployed and needy.

Three decades after taking the pulpit here, Monsignor Kenny died in April 1943.  The Times called him "A quiet and retiring man who sunned publicity."  Dwindling membership did not prevent the church from being crowded with 1,200 mourners on April 24, the day of his funeral.  The services were led by Auxiliary Bishop Stephen J. Donahue and attended by another Auxiliary Bishop, J. Francis A. McIntyre, two monsignors and 50 priests and seminarians.

With the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the parish just months away, fire broke out in the church in August 1953.  The four-alarm blaze resulted in significant damage "necessitating considerable renovation," as noted by The Times.

Donations poured in to restore the structure and seven months later, on March 8, 1954, The New York Times reported that the goal of $125,000 had been surpassed by $66,000 with money still coming in.  On October 25, the same newspaper reported that Cardinal Francis Spellman had celebrated the jubilee mass in the renovated church.  "There was a capacity congregation of 1,800."

Change in the demographics of Yorkville and times in general were reflected in the parishioners and the activities of the Church of St. Monica over the subsequent decades.  On October 16, 1980, for instance, it was the scene of an event hosted by the Irish Arts Center.  It featured "traditional music and dance--jigs, flings, reels, and mazurkas."  The Times added "Special instruction in Irish ceili dancing will be offered."

As Catholic Church attendance in general lessened and income subsequently suffered, the Archdiocese looked at closing parishes throughout the city.  In November 2014 Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced the closing of the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the church for the city's deaf Catholics, on East 83rd Street.  Its congregation, as well as that of St. Stephen of Hungary, were merged with St. Monica.  The action resulted in the somewhat cumbersome name of The church of St. Monica-St. Elizabeth of Hungary-St. Stephen of Hungary.

Sadly, Schickel & Ditmars's striking English Gothic structure, once referred to as the Cathedral of the East Side, is often overlooked today.

photographs by the author


  1. Thank you for sharing this great article. Do you happen to know if any pictures exist of the original building? I believe it was called the "Lower Church." I'm asking because my great grandparents were married at St Monica's in 1904. Since the current building wasn't completed until 1905, I believe they were married in the original church. I also believe that the original church is no longer standing. I'd love to be able to see what their church looked like. Thanks!

    1. I have not found a depiction of an earlier church. Sorry.