Monday, November 11, 2019

The Lost St. Alphonsus Church - 308 West Broadway

from the collection of the Library of Congress

The parish of St. Joseph's was geographically immense prior to 1847--beginning at Canal Street and stretching north to 14th, and between Broadway and the Hudson River.  But, as The Evening World explained later, the district's "increasing German population, almost entirely without facilities for religious instruction in their own language," prompted Bishop John Hughes to add a mission parish that year.

St. Alphonsus Ligouri would be a mission church of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer on Third Street.  It was placed in the control of the Redemptorist Fathers and the cornerstone of its first church on Thompson Street, between Canal and Grand Streets, was laid by Bishop Hughes in August 1847.  The church was completed three months later.

In 1866 the congregation had grown enough to warrant the elevation of the parish from a mission to church, with a full-time pastor, the Rev. F. Nicholas Jaeckel.  The demographics had changed, as well.  The Evening World noted "Moreover, the church was attended largely by English-speaking Catholics, as well as Germans."  Those English-speaking Catholics were, for the most part, Irish.

In 1870 it was deemed necessary to erect a larger edifice.  Land was acquired on South Fifth Avenue (renamed West Broadway in 1897) just north of Canal Street.  German-born architect Francis G. Himpler was hired to design the new structure.  Archibishop John McCloskey laid the cornerstone on September 4, 1870 "with unusually impressive ceremonies," as described by The Evening World.

The church was dedicated on April 7, 1872.  Himpler had produced his own take on the Sicilian Romanesque style.  Faced in Philadelphia brick and liberally trimmed in Ohio brownstone and bluestone, the structure had cost $275,000--more than $5.8 million today.  The Evening World described it as "one of the most imposing in town," and The New York Times said "It is scarcely surpassed in beauty of its interior by any church in the City."  A broad set of granite steps led to the triple-arched entrance two stories below the seventeen-foot wide rose window.  A soaring clock and bell tower containing three bells which weighed 4,000, 3,000 and 1,500 pounds rose 190 feet above the sidewalk.  A statue of St. Alphonsus, eight and a half feet tall, stood within a niche in the gable.

The dedication ceremonies were imposing.  The New York Times reported "A brass band performed outside the church gates.  The Independent Rifle Corps (German,) from third-street, and a company of pioneers in blue jackets and Prussian helmets, formed two lines, between which the confraternities marched into the church and took their places.  The pews are intended to seat 2,500 persons, but there were many more present."

Above the cost of the church proper were the interior elements.  The floor was composed of marble tiles and the woodwork was walnut. 

The Times said "The altar was imported from Munich at a cost of $12,000 in gold.  It is a magnificent piece of workmanship, with [a] massive dome overhead, and elegantly designed pillars of green marble, with gilt capitals."  It had been executed by Meyer & Co. from designs provided by Himpler.   The stations of the cross were executed in Munich, as well, at a cost of $1,000.  "They are different from those in the other Catholic churches of the city," said The Times, "for instead of being paintings or engravings, they are carvings, the figures in full relief and colored."  The organ, built in Boston, had cost $15,000.  The New York Herald said it "is one of the largest in the United States and has sixty-five full stops."  Its black walnut case rose 46 feet high.  The total of these three elements alone adding nearly another $600,000 in today's dollars to the cost.

There were 79 stained glass windows and, according to The New York Herald, "the gas fixtures are of the most tasteful design and superior workmanship."  The 16 wall frescoes depicting the life of St. Alphonsus were done by William Lamprecht, "an artist of reputation," as described by the Herald.  The German-born artist did almost no work other than ecclesiastical. 

Although established as a German-language church, it was obvious that St. Alphonsus was becoming a mostly Irish parish.  Two weeks after the dedication The New York Herald reported "In St. Alphonsus' church Father "Tom" Burke addressed the Irish societies assembled there to participate in the ceremony of blessing the beautiful banner presented by the nuns of Kenmare, Ireland."

In the first years of the 1880's a political and social movement was taking root in America--socialism.  The fathers of St. Alphonsus seem to have viewed the movement with suspicion.  On December 7, 1884 The New York Times reported that a visiting priest from Savannah "will deliver a lecture in the Church of St. Alphonsus, in South Fifth-avenue, on Thursday evening, on the subject, "Christian Charity the Remedy of the Socialistic Movement of the Age."  It was evidence of a coming stand-off that would have explosive repercussions.

On May 15, 1898 the church began its 11-day celebration of its 50th anniversary.  Before the high mass that morning the St. Alphonsus Club band played on the sidewalk.  During the service, the number 50 played an important role.  The Times reported "The processional to the altar was headed by a cross bearer and two acolytes, followed first by fifty small boys with golden colored sashes, each carrying in his right hand a large bouquet of white and red roses.

"Then came fifty girls attired in white, each holding in the right hand a bouquet of roses...These were followed in turn by fifty alter boys dressed in red, white and purple cassocks.  Then came the clergy, numbering about fifty priests from other cities."

On February 26, 1903 a carriage pulled to the curb at Beach and Greenwich Streets.  The elegant vehicle drew the notice of the residents of the tenement district.  A young woman, described as "stylishly dressed," stepped from the carriage with a bundle and walked a block to the north.  After pacing up and down the block nervously, she entered the tenement building at No. 22 Hubert Street then quickly left, no longer carrying the bundle.  Neighbors watched her quickly return to her carriage and be driven away.

Shortly afterward Mrs. Kaye Ryan arrived in the building to visit her sister, Mrs. Patrick Saunders, on the second floor.  As the street door closed behind her, she heard the cries of babies.  She discovered twin boy infants dressed in "clothing of fine texture" and, according to The Times, "the head of each baby was incased in a delicate lace hood."  Each wore "expensive long dresses."

Mrs. Ryan took the babies to her sisters' apartment and within minutes "the Saunders apartment was crowded with women and children, all anxious to get a peep at the little fellows."  Reports flew around the room of the refined lady who had been seen dropping off the bundle.

But Mrs. Ryan had more important things on her mind than the mother.  According to The New York Times her "first thought was to have the infants baptized.  She took them to the Church of St. Alphonsus...and Father McKenna performed the baptismal rites."  The babies were named Patrick and Joseph.  Now, with the important business out of the way, the police were notified.

The sharp ideological differences between the socialists and the priests of St. Alphonsus came face-to-face on the evening of March 4, 1914.  As worshipers filed into the dimly-lit sanctuary for Lenten services at 6:00, members of "The Army of the Unemployed" assembled to hear the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, Frank Tannenbaum, speak in Rutgers Park.  By 7:00 the crowd had grown to about 700.

After speaking, Tannenbaum told the men to fall into line, two by two, and follow him to a free night's lodging and a meal.  The New York Times estimated that 600 men headed up Canal Street, "walking more rapidly than usual and halting traffic at cross streets."  The mass of men stopped in front of St. Alphonsus Church and Tannenbaum and a "handful of followers" entered the church and marched up the center aisle.  "They made so much noise that the members of the congregation arose from their knees in alarm," said The Times.

Tannenbaum told the Father Adrian he wanted to see the pastor, and was directed to the rectory next door.  There Tannenbaum told Rev. John G. Schneider, "I've led my army here to make one request of you.  We want to sleep in the church tonight.  Can we do it?"

"No, you cannot," was the reply.  

Tannenbaum assured the priest they would clean up in the morning, but was told "You'll do nothing of the kind.  The Catholic church is no place for you to sleep, and I strongly object to the way you entered here."

"Well, will you give us money to buy food?"


"Will you give us work?"


"But I tell you we're starving."

"I can't help that.  why don't you get work?  All I have to say is that you can't stay here."

Tannenbaum pointed out to Father Schneider that his attitude fell short of Christian teachings, then moved away.  The New-York Tribune reported "Tannenbaum went to the [church] doors and called to his men to enter.  They stormed in, those who could not ascend the narrow stairs leaping the fence and entering by the side doors."

The priests gathered the women members to one side and directed the men out of the sanctuary through a rear door.  One priest ordered everyone who did not belong to the church to leave.  It was answered by one of the army directing the men, "Sit down, boys, sit down."  St. Alphonsus Church was now under the occupation of 190 members of the Army of the Unemployed.

When word arrived at Police Headquarters newly appointed Commissioner Douglas McKay ordered that every man inside the church was to be arrested.  "In a few minutes the reserves swarmed about the church, whose doors were guarded," wrote The Times.  "There was a large crowd in the street outside and traffic was blocked."

Arresting the mob inside took some time.  "The wagons were filled, driven to the station, emptied, driven back and filled again until the prisoners in all had been taken," explained the article.

The Army of the Unemployed had not had their last say.  Just before midnight on October 13 a bomb was tossed at the rectory from the elevated train feet away.  "The explosion that followed could be heard at a distance of eight blocks," reported the New-York Tribune.  The iron railing of the stone steps was blown out of place.

The explosive was tossed from a southbound train.  photo by Robert L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

"Inside the rectory, the priests were thrown from their beds by the force of the explosion, and Brother Patrick, who was asleep on the ground floor, was painfully cut by flying glass."  Neighbors flew into a panic.  "Intense excitement prevailed in the section where the explosion took place, and the police had their hands full endeavoring to quiet the nervous inhabitants."

Two days later investigators linked the bombing to "the anarchists, the 'unemployed,' and the I.W.W."  And, as a matter of fact, Joseph J. Cohen of the Francisco Ferrer Association, an anarchist organization, said "A lot of people would have been pleased if St. Alphonsus's church had been destroyed by the bomb.  This is because of the treatment accorded Frank Tannenbaum and his followers, who were clubbed and maltreated when they were there last winter."  Propaganda, it seems, had inflated the story of March 4 to garner support.

The parish received a special honor in 1947 upon its 100th anniversary.  Cardinal Francis Spellman celebrated a solemn pontifical mass on October 5 attended by an estimated 1,000 persons.  He then read a letter from the Vatican that read:

It is the express wish of His Holiness that this blessing be shared by all the friends of St. Alphonsus who join with you to celebrate this anniversary.

In 1972 E. Power Biggs was among the most celebrated concert organists in the world.  That winter he arrived in New York to inspect what he deemed "some of the city's interesting organs."   Eleanor Blau of The New York Times accompanied him to St. Alphonsus where he explained that most 19th century instruments "have fallen into disrepair or have even been discarded."  She continued "An exception, he said, is an 1871 instrument at St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church...Built by E. and G. G. Hook of Boston, and later electrified by Hook & Hastings, it is particularly suited for French Romantic music.  It also has an interesting case bearing angels with trumpets."

But unseen to anyone at the time was that the magnificent instrument and the building in which it sat were in peril.  The stream which had formed the filled-in canal from which Canal Street derived its name ran under the church.  Francis G. Kimpler ignored the marshy soil and rather than drive pilings, as was customary, he placed the immense structure on a concrete slab.  The architect could not have anticipated the heavy modern-day vibrations that would be caused by the nearby subway nor the traffic on Canal Street.

photo by Neal Boenzi, The New York Times, June 21, 1980

Not long after Biggs admired the organ, it was becoming obvious that St. Alphonsus Church was sinking.  The problem first appeared in the sagging marble flooring and in cracks that ran up the walls near the altar.  Measurements showed the church was sinking at the alarming rate of more than half an inch per year.  Because of the fear of falling plaster the church was closed by the archdiocese in October 1979.

In 1980 the property was placed on the market.  "The costs of repairing the foundation would have been prohibitive," explained Rev. Timothy McDonnell, coordinator of buildings for the archdiocese.  On June 20 a "liquidation sale" was held.  Buyers walked out with "statues of saints, stained-glass windows, and hundreds of other religious artifacts," said The Times.   

James Dillon, a researcher for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, noted "It's a very fine building and it would be a pity if it were demolished, but it does have serious structural problems."  But it was demolished.  The vacant plot sat behind a chain link fence growing weeds for years.  Then the Soho Grand Hotel opened on the site in 1996.



  1. The organ was relocated to St Mary's in New Haven Ct, where it still exists. This issue of the Organ Historical Society magazine covers the move:

  2. St. Alphonsus was known for holding a Midnight Mass on Saturday nights. As a child in the 1950s, my aunt and uncle would occasionally take me there on summer Saturdays, driving in from Jackson Heights. By this stratagem, we were able to fulfill our weekly obligation and then go on Sunday morning to spend the whole day at Jones Beach. I remember very little about the church other than it seemed dark and brooding. For your information, one of the adjacent buildings housed the St. Alphonsus girls' commercial high school (my aunt went there in the 1920s to become a secretary/stenographer).

  3. I attended St. Alphonsus HS. We were to be the first class that would have an academic curriculum. The course changed from 3 years to 4 years. During the second half of our Junior year we were told Saint
    Alphonsus would be knocked down because the building was sinking. The HS school, church and grade school became condemned and then we became seniors the second half of our junior year. This was 1967. Rhe church wad gorgeous.The windows in the HS were crooked and slanted. The stairwell of the HS were wooden, gray planks. Loved fire drills on the giant fire escape.

    1. Are there any pictures of the Main Altar? It was a beautiful church and I wish I can find photos going back to 1958 when I graduated.

    2. I attended St. Alphonsus HS in the seventies and we were told the school was sinking and you could tell by the floors and window. The best sisters IHM think of them often.

    3. I own two of lights from this church

  4. At the time, I did not realize how special it was, but the church’s organist (who was also choirmaster at my parish, IHM, at the time), my father, and I had the distinct privilege of singing midnight mass one Christmas in the mid-60s. I remember watching from the choir loft as my younger sister fell asleep on my mother’s lap as we sang. The acoustics were fantastic - my father’s unmic’d baritone filled the church when he sang “O Holy Night”, and even my faint boy soprano could be heard throughout the building during my big “Silent Night” solo. The three of us managed to do a decent job filling the space, if I am accurately remembering the reel-to-reel tape recording of our performance from that night.

  5. My late Father had a jazz band and played a gig at the hall there on 11/27/1953. They were known as the Village Five. I just had a tape of this event restored from reel-to-reel. Since this was a Friday I'm assuming it was just a dance to shake off the Thanksgiving leftovers though it could have been a wedding reception, not sure. I'm curious if there is anyone who is familiar or who has stories of these events.