Monday, December 9, 2019

The Lost Church of the Holy Family - 321-323 East 47th Street

The church was flanked by a factory and a squalid tenement in June of 1930.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The neighborhood around 47th Street near the East River was a gritty one in the 19th century.  In 1884 plans were filed for a "storage warehouse" to be build on the site of a stables building at Nos. 321 and 323 East 47th Street.  By World War I the Clausen-Flanagan brewery engulfed Nos. 303 through 323 East 47th Street, uncomfortable bedfellows with with St. Anthony's Chapel at the corner of Second Avenue.

To serve the growing Italian population of the East Side neighborhood, St. Boniface's Church established the chapel in 1915.  The New York Times explained that the pastor "received permission to begin special work among the Italians by opening St. Anthony's Chapel."  The school hall of St. Boniface's was used for Sunday services under the direction of Father Daniel de Nonno.

St. Boniface's Church held services in English and German.  But the Italian population in the parish was exploding.  A 1924 census listed 9,000 Italians in the immediate neighborhood.  Father de Nonno lobbied the Archdiocese for a separate parish to serve them. 

On January 25, 1925 The New York Times reported Hayes "has established a new church in the Grand Central zone.  It is an Italian parish, and property on the north side of East forty-seventh Street, from 315 to 323 has been purchased.  On the site will be the Church of the Holy Family, and the Rev. Daniel De Nonno has been named pastor."  The article noted "Father De Nonno, who has long been an assistant at St. Boniface's, has been intimately associated with the development of the Italian branch."

The site acquired for the church structure was the old brewery.  The bleak conditions of the neighborhood was evidenced two months afterwards when a five-story tenement building, directly across the street, was set ablaze by an arsonist.  On March 23, 1925 The Times explained "The house had been freshly painted and the flames, which started in a baby carriage in the first floor hallway, mounted so rapidly that the escape of many tenants was cut off."

Tragic stories played out as fire fighters tried to rescue the tenants and squelch the inferno.  The Times recounted, for instance, "Mrs. [Patrick] Walsh, with her baby in her arms, stood at the rear window of their apartment on the fourth floor, where they were burned to death.  It was impossible to reach them.  Her scrams for help grew gradually fainter and finally ceased as she fell backward, still clutching the body of her son."  Katherine Walsh was 25-years old and her baby, Joseph, was just 17 months.

As the the drama played out, Father de Nonno and Father Patrick F. O'Connor "said prayers for the dead over the bodies of the victims after the fire was under control."

Three weeks after the that tragedy Father de Nonno was honored with a testimonial dinner at the Biltmore Hotel.  It resulted in donations of $17,500 for the erection of a church structure.  And the special needs of the blue collar parishioners had not been overlooked.  Reporters were advised "A kindergarten, where working mothers can leave their children during the day, will be established on the roof of the building." 

The completed structure, a modern blend of historic styles, was dedicated in April 1927.  Its brick and stone facade edged up to the property line, necessitating the wide set of entrance stairs to be recessed within the structure, rather than introducing it.  The triple entrance sat below a massive stained glass window within a rounded arch.  A handsome bell tower with triple arcades and a pyramidal roof sat five stories above the sidewalk.
from the collection of the New York Public Library
In his first sermon in the church, Father de Nonno chose to ignore the brewery and focus on the old 1870's stable.  He noted the appropriateness of a stable site; since the Holy Family was formed in a stable.

On January 18, 1931 a shrine to Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers, was dedicated.  The New York Times commented "the movement for the establishment of the shrine was started by chauffeurs and garage workers of the neighborhood." It was the beginning of a movement.  With a few weeks the congregation began alterations to convert the basement "as a clubroom for automobilists," according to The New York Times.  

And then Father de Nonno took the concept of the patron saint of travelers a step further.

For generations on the Feast Day of St. Francis Manhattan parish priests had blessed the thousands of horses that pulled delivery wagons, coaches, carriages and other vehicles.  On Sunday, February 8 Father de Nonno preformed the first Blessing of the Automobiles.

The New York Times reported "The protective spirit of St. Christopher, friend of the traveler, was invoked for New Yorkers...While a crowd stood bareheaded in the rain, sixty automobiles packed in East forty-seventh Street, between First and Second Avenues, were blessed in the name of the saint, who lived in the third century."

Father de Nonno used a relic of the saint, a small bone within a reliquary, in the ceremony.  The crowd of 200 and the automobiles were sprinkled with holy water.  The Daily Worker was skeptical at best.  With tongue in cheek it advised its readers "If you have a tin Lizzie who has been staying out night and may have carbon in the cylinders," this was the answer.  It spoofed, "Wicked Studebakers and lewd Lizzies, which have parked themselves in secluded spots on Saturday nights, are doubtless expected to be run through the confessional before enjoying the blessing."

Father Daniel de Nonno blesses a car in the first Blessing of the Automobiles The New York Times, February 8, 1931
Father de Nonno found nothing funny about it.  The New Yorker wrote "Rev. Daniel de Nonno will hold these services on the second Sunday of every month."  The Church of the Holy Family quickly gained the nickname "The Motorists' Church and Father de Nonno soon became the national director of the Confraternity of St. Christopher.

Later that year, in October, three murals by Italian artist Ignazio La Russa were unveiled.  They represented the Glorification of the Holy Family, the Ascension of Christ, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.  The latter was a copy of Titian's masterpiece in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Venice.  They were unveiled by the rector of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Mgr. Michael J. Lavelle.

Titian's masterpiece was reproduced in the Church of the Holy Family

On December 29, 1936 The New York Times reported that Father de Nonno had been transferred to the office of administration of St. Anthony's Church in the Bronx.  The Church of the Holy Family now shared a rector--Father George Zertgraf--with St. Bonifice's Church.  

Three and a half years later, on June 14, 1940, de Nonno died.  In reporting on his death, The New York Times reminisced about his ministry to travelers.  "Every Sunday, beginning in the early Nineteen Thirties, Father De Nonno, carrying a reliquary containing a bone of St. Christopher, would bless a long line of cars parked on East Forty-seventh Street.  He also blessed cars by special appointment, and made a point of this work in the belief that accidents and the death toll due to motoring would be cut down."

In 1950 the United Nations opened on its massive site on 1st Avenue.  Within a decade its growth demanded expansion and nearby blocks were acquired for new structures.   The block upon which the Church of the Holy Family was demolished to make way for Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in the early  1960's.  A new structure for the church was completed in 1965, next door to the old site, and designed by George J. Sole.  

photo via Mid-Century Mundane
The immediate site of the 1925 church is occupied today by partly by The Family School and by the Japan Society.


  1. I same here looking for references to the Painter Ignazio La Russa. I have an original oil by him, but I can find virtually nothing about him. He made a mural of three paintings in the Church of the Holy Family. I would love to see that mural and compare it to the painting I have.

  2. My grandmother was a parishioner of Holy Family and her funeral was in September 1970. The old church still stood then.