Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Church of St. Catherine of Genoa - 504 West 153rd Street

On April 28, 1888 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "A new Roman Catholic Church is to be built at 10th avenue and 153d street.  It is to be called the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa.  Articles of incorporation have just been filed."  Archbishop Michael Corrigan had chosen the Rev. Father Edward F. Slattery to establish the new parish.  The Record & Guide pointed out that he "has been quite active in the organization of new churches."

Within two months an architect was hired.  On June 23 The Record & Guide announced "Thos. H. Poole will shortly commence the plans for the Church of St. Catharine [sic] of Genoa...under the direction of the energetic and popular Father Edward J. Slattery.  The building will be 150 x 85 in size and will probably be of limestone."

Fund-raising to build the church was given an enormous boost at the same time.  The day before the Guide's announcement The New York Times had reported on two enormous gifts received by Father Slattery.  "Father McGovern, an aged and rich priest, has given him $25,000 and John D. Crimmins, the contractor and ex-Park Commissioner, $25,000."  The total windfall would be equal to about $1.36 million today.

Construction did not get underway until late that year.  But Archbishop Corrigan was on hand to lay the cornerstone in the spring of 1889 and the building was completed and dedicated that fall.  

Poole's design apparently came as a surprise to newspapers and others who had foreseen a Gothic style church faced in limestone.  A pleasing marriage of styles, the red-brick facade sat on a water table of rough-cut limestone blocks.  The three entrance doors were sheltered by a highly unusual singled canopy upheld by wooden brackets.  Poole married Venetian Gothic with Flemish Renaissance Revival by juxtaposing a stepped gable with the sinuously arched stained glass windows.

A stone carriage step, necessary for ladies to disembark from their vehicles gracefully, sits on the sidewalk. The Catholic Church in the United States of America, 1914 (copyright expired) 

Slattery had purchased the three-story brick home of Henry V. and Margaret J. Steers at No. 506 West 153rd Street in 1888 to be used as the rectory.  He paid the Steers $13,500--a significant $386,000 in today's dollars.  Now that the church was completed Thomas H. Poole was brought back to replace the house with a property rectory.  Completed in 1890, its design surprisingly could not have been more different from the church.

Poole created a rather serious blend of Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival design for the rectory.  Not even the color of brick was harmonious with the church next door.
Newspapers nationwide took note of one of the first weddings in the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa.  On July 29, 1894 The New York Times reported "With a decided lack of display, the marriage of Miss Caroline Jones, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel S. Jones of Chicago, and the Viscount Benoist d'Azy of France, was celebrated yesterday morning, in the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa."

The weddings of American debutantes to titled Europeans were most often brilliant affairs.  But this one was purposely understated.  "The decorations of the church consisted of a few cut flowers and palms.  Only relatives were present," said The Times.  The Evening World went further.  "The invitations scarcely included an intimate friend, and except for the three or four friends who officiated nobody was present by relatives."

It seems that there may have been friction--both domestic and religious--concerning the marriage.  For one thing, Nathaniel S. Jones, did not show up.  "His business interests compel him to spend much of his time in Chicago, and he was unable to attend his daughter's wedding," said the article.  And although Pope Leo XIII had asked Archbishop Corrigan "to bestow the Papal blessing," he passed that duty to Father Slattery.  He was, according to the Church, "in the Catskills."

Nevertheless, the couple's story was a romantic one.  The Evening World called the groom, who was in line to become the Count Benoist d'Azy, "young, rich and handsome."  And The New York Times remarked "The marriage was the outcome of a case of love at first sight.  The Viscount was first presented to Miss Jones in Chicago about two years ago, and was immediately smitten with her charms."

New Yorkers of 1896 were less accustomed to unstable homeless people than those of today--at least within their churches.  And so when one came to the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa on Sunday, July 26 that year, upheaval ensued.

"An insane man created considerable commotion at the celebration of the mass in St. Catherine of Genoa's Roman Catholic Church...yesterday morning," said the New-York Tribune.  As the congregation filed into the church for the 8:00 mass, a "tall, shabbily dressed man," entered as well.  Richard Sadler, who was about 22-years old, entered a rear pew and dropped to his knees, apparently in prayer.  He remained in that position, hands tightly clasped, well after the service.  When the sexton approached him and asked if there was anything wrong, the man became enraged and let out a violent shriek.  "His cry greatly frightened the congregation and several women and children hastily left the church."

Later Father Slattery approached the Sadler "to pacify him," but the man "yelled madly."  Finally, at around noon policemen were called to remove him.  The Tribune reported "when the maniac saw them he became frantic...The lunatic fought desperately to resist arrest, and it required the combined strength of four men to unclasp his hands."  Sadler was taken to Bellevue Hospital for treatment.

Far different from the wedding of a future Count and Countess was the funeral of a saloon king on August 5, 1898.  Philip Milligan, known to his patrons as Phil, had operated his saloon and restaurant on Broadway near 33rd Street for more than a quarter of a century.  His was no low-class Tenderloin District dive, however.  The Times noted "His customers were high-class sportsmen, the gambling fraternity, and the 'sporty' elements of the Legislature and the Judiciary."  Phil Milligan's funeral garnered press attention across the city.

While talking to an assistant priest in the church on September 8, 1901 Father Slattery was suddenly "stricken with paralysis," according to newspaper accounts.  It was most likely a massive stroke.  The 52-year old priest was taken unconscious to his rooms in the rectory where he died within a few hours.  His body lay in state in the church until it was removed to St. Patrick's Cathedral for his funeral, conducted by the Archbishop, on September 11.

Slattery was temporarily replaced in the pulpit by Father Francis J. Heaney.   Only a month later he responded to a horrific accident in the subway excavation tunnel nearby at Broadway and 164th Street.  The New-York Tribune reported on October 19, 1901 "At 9:25 a.m. yesterday a mass of rock 63 feet long, 11 feet wide and 10 feet high, weighing about 150 tons, suddenly caved from the west side and roof of the Rapid Transit tunnel."  Five men were instantly killed and two others were injured.  The article noted "At noon Father Francis J. Heaney, of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine of Genoa...went down into the shaft."

Before the end of the year the Irish-born Reverend Patrick E. McCorry was appointed full-time rector of St. Catherine's.  The congregation continued to grow and he announced plans to enlarge the church in May 1904.  The Sun reported "A three-story extension, 53 feet deep, is to be built, the gallery enlarged and two new sacristies built in the rectory."  Architect John C. Kerby designed the alterations, which cost the congregation the equivalent of $116,000 today.

The size of the congregation was evidenced during World War I simply by the number of members who marched off to battle.  Service flags were a means to honor members of a company or other organization serving in the military.  The flags were emblazoned with one star for each soldier or sailor.   On January 20, 1918 Father McCorry blessed a service flag and an American flag, and then hoisted them into the breeze.  The service flag bore 310 stars.

It was no small ceremony.  The flag raising was preceded by a parade headed by a "children's protectory bank and a color guard from the newly formed Sixty-ninth Regiment," according to The Sun, and a Marine band.  A reception in the parish house followed.

On December 21, 1928 Rev. Patrick E. McCorry celebrated a half-century of priesthood.  Although he "refused any general celebration of the anniversary," according to The New York Times, the parishioners poured into the church for his 9:00 a.m. mass.  "The church was crowded, the more than 900 pupils in the parochial school, which he himself built, being present in a body."

Six years later, on September 1, 1934, Rev. McCorry died at the age of 81 in the rectory.  The Times explained "he had been suffering from a complication of ailments for four months."  His high requiem funeral mass was held in St. Catherine's four days later.

The face of the Hamilton Heights neighborhood and, subsequently, the congregation of St. Catherine of Genoa had greatly changed by the last decade of the 20th century.  

Among the families worshiping here at the time was that of William Batista, born in the Dominican Republic.  On October 21, 1995 The New York Times began its blood-chilling article saying "For some 20 years, William Batista had struggled to shield his family from Harlem's everyday dangers, working the night shift at a midtown Manhattan hotel and setting aside his earnings at home, for safekeeping.  Yesterday morning he returned home from work to find the horror he had never foreseen: his wife and teen-age son were lying face down in the master bedroom, both shot once in the head.  His daughter, whom he discovered in her room, had also been shot in the head."

Police and neighbors theorized that crooks had found out that Batista stashed his money at home, rather than in a bank, and the murders were the result of robbery.  More than $22,000 was missing from the apartment.

Batista had kept a tight rein on his children.  A neighbor said that William, who was 15, and Arelis, 18, were "very religious.  The only place they go out is to go to church."  Their father would routinely call St. Catherine of Genoa School to make sure William was in class.  And he would visit Mother Cabrini High School during recess to see his daughter.

Just as mourners were gathering at the Church of St. Catherine of Genoa for the triple funeral on October 23, shocking developments were being uncovered at police headquarters.  Two suspects, Lamar Sanchez and Jose Rodrigues had been arrested and charged with murder, robbery and weapons possession.  The chilling surprise was that they had been hired by Arelis Batista to kill her family.

The Times reported that the teen, who had been the former girlfriend of Sanchez, "let the killers into the apartment...and then became a victim.  The police said that she was bitterly angry at her domineering father and that she had hired the men to kill him."  Instead, aware of the hidden cash, they simply murdered everyone in the apartment and fled.

The diverse demographics of the neighborhood is reflected in the masses today--celebrated in English, in Spanish, and in French and Haitian Creole.  Thomas H. Poole's striking structure continues to be a vibrant presence in the Harlem neighborhood after 130 years.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. My Family went to this Church in the 1950's.. We lived at 3692 Broadway..
    I remember I had my 1st Communion and My Confirmation there and went to the school next door until 6th grade My sister was Baptised... We moved in spring 1961 when my father passed away on Feb 7th 1961.. Right after the Snow storm Feb 3-4, That left 17 inchs of snow with 10 Foot plus snow drifts
    I also have many Good Memories...
    Use to play Skellzies (Skully) on the street in front of the school during recess..
    Also Ringolevio and Red Rover... after School we played Stick Ball..