“They should be treasured, not just by the people worshipping there, but by the city as a whole,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
The scarcity of these pieces of New York City’s past is alarming. The New York Landmarks Conservancy claims there are no more than 15 antebellum Catholic churches in Manhattan, some of which face closure and demolition – most notably, of course, St. Brigid’s on Tompkins Square Park, one of the oldest buildings of any kind above Houston Street.
Breen sees these structures as one of the best tools one can use to understand Manhattan’s development.
“They share immigration patterns, social patterns and architectural styles,” she said. “They’re another way to read the history of the city.”
While there is an equal amount of pre-Civil War Protestant churches, their Catholic equivalents paint a powerful portrait of the church in a period of ascent.
“Even pre-Civil War, the Catholic Church was a strong and growing presence in New York,” Breen commented. “If you read the history of St. Patrick’s, it was built to show that Catholics had arrived. It was going to be a beautiful, prominent cathedral in a prominent location. They were saying, ‘We’re here, we’re powerful, get used to it.'”
These churches also played an important part in assisting newly arrived immigrants to adjust to life in America.
“If you go back through the history of St. Brigid’s, there’s a whole history of the parish that talks about the social events of the time,” Breen said of the church, whose demolition is pending. “The churches were always rallying points. They were real vital centers in these communities. It wasn’t just a Sunday morning building.”
No immigrant group enjoyed the benefits of these meeting places better than the Irish.
“Given how the Irish worked, it was a place of refuge,” she said. “It was a place to get the nourishment and strength to get back out into society.”
However, plenty of other ethnic groups of the time used the Church to their advantage in organizing and everyday life. Many parishes catered to Italian, German or French communities.
Although Breen believes the archdiocese should keep St. Brigid’s and other pre-Civil War churches active for their current parishioners, she also sees it as a favor to the city.
“You don’t want to lose your sense of the past. The buildings tell a larger story if you know how to read them. They offer beauty; they offer a break from the usual neighborhood buildings. The entire city loses if you keep destroying your past.”
Churches below Houston Street
Church of St. Mary
440 Grand Street
The Church of St. Mary is one of the few pre-Civil War churches in the city that was originally built for Catholics. “It’s one of those buildings that tells a lot about religious buildings in the city,” said Ann-Isabel Friedman, the director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s sacred sites program. “It shows the architectural history of New York because it was built in the 1830s during the Greek revival and then the style was changed to Romanesque in 1864.” As a result of this Romanesque alteration, the church now sports tapered, capped towers, a unique feature for a Catholic church in the city.
Church of St. Peter
16 Barclay Street
The lot at 16 Barclay Street has a fascinating history befitting the oldest parish in the state of New York. The first building on the site, built in 1785, was replaced in 1836 by the current structure, an impressive building featuring six Ionic columns. A few blocks away from the World Trade Center, St. Peter’s became a beacon of hope for the neighborhood in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The building escaped major damage, although one plane’s landing gears struck the roof of the church. St. Peter’s and its congregants played a large part in rescue activities for the months following the attacks.
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Church of St. Patrick (Old Cathedral)
260 Mulberry Street
Not to be confused with the similarly named Midtown tourist attraction, the Church of St. Patrick is approaching its 200th birthday. Until the current St. Patrick’s Cathedral opened in 1879, the Church of St. Patrick was the seat of New York’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The architect of New York City Hall, Joseph-Francois Mangin, designed the church. Many architectural enthusiasts claim to see similarities between Mangin’s City Hall design and the cathedral. After an 1866 fire, the church was restored and reopened in 1868. Its basement houses gigantic mortuary vaults, which suggest that the building might not be the only ancient thing on the church’s grounds. Hundreds of mourners filled the church in 1999 for the funeral of John F. Kennedy, Jr.
St. James Roman Catholic Church
32 St. James Street
Former New York governor Al Smith referred to St. James as “the leading parish in New York.” He had good reason to think so — he used to be an altar boy there. St. James also has a strong connection with 19th century Irish immigrants. “The first U.S. branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was organized in this church,” Breen said. Much like in the current situation with St. Brigid’s, the Hibernians defended St. James against threats of closure. When city officials attempted to close the church in 1983 because of problems with the roof, the Hibernians supplied the resources necessary to restore it.
Our Lady of the Rosary Church for St. Elizabeth Seton Shrine
7 State Street
Church of St. Teresa
141 Henry Street
Next week: A look at pre-Civil War churches above Houston Street.