Sunday, February 21, 2016

Three 100-Year-Old Landmarked Churches…New York, San Francisco 

Brumidi Murals at St. Stephen's, Harlem's St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Brigid and "The Grace of Everyday Saints"

St.Stephen's Church East 29th Street 

I stood before the locked wrought iron gates of St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood and cursed to myself, so I thought, yet loud enough for an elderly woman to stop and frown. I apologized. But the expletives still filled my thoughts.

St. Stephen’s is less than two miles from my Hell’s Kitchen apartment yet it took me four years to get here. I passed it many times but always late at night after it closed. Finally on July 30 of 2015, a hot sunny morning, while checking my grocery list as I entered the local supermarket, I stopped, reversed my steps, exited the store, tossed the list into a trash can and power walked to St. Stephen’s. “This is my last chance, I thought. I’ll arrive twenty minutes before noonday mass with enough time to take a few pictures.”

This is not a story about one-time Catholic grade school-choir boy’s pilgrimage to the church of his favorite saint. I had wanted to visit Our Lady of Scapular and St. Stephen’s, it’s official name after a merger with another church years ago, not for mass, but for its beautiful murals by noted nineteen century artist Constantino Brumidi before the New York Archdiocese’s closed the church for good on August 1.

Over the last several years the Archdiocese underwent a major restructuring.  Dwindling school enrollment and church attendance, shortage of clergy, the high cost of maintaining many underused buildings, and possibly the expensive payouts for the church sex abuse scandals made this necessary. 

Late fall of 2014, the NY Archdiocese which includes Manhattan, Bronx, Staten Island and parishes as far north as Orange County in upstate New York, announced the restructuring of 112 of its 368 parishes. This included merging many parishes and closing about 31 others, including St. Stephen’s.
Built in the Romanesque Revival style and designed by James Renwick Jr., the renowned architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and The Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., St. Stephen’s was founded in 1854. It has 45 works by Brumidi, including his 46 by 26-foot The Crucifixion above the main altar. 

Brumidi, born in Rome of a Greek father and an Italian mother became a naturalized US citizen in the 1850’s. His most famous works The Apotheosis of George Washington adorns the US Capitol dome; his Liberty and Union painting is near entrance hall of the White House.
Among his first two-commissioned U.S. works are Martyrdom of St. Stephen and The Assumption of Mary, also at St. Stephen’s.

The Crucifixion of Christ above the main altar of St. Stephen's

I first developed an interest in Brumidi when I wrote about NYC’s Holy Innocent’s Church in this blog. His Crucifixion of Christ towers behind the altar of this West 37th Street church.
I always had a fascination for old buildings but I owe my enthusiasm for churches to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Julian Guthrie’s and her 2011 book, TheGrace of Everyday Saints.

Guthrie wrote an excellent insightful account about a small band of devoted parishioners, among them a nationally known death row lawyer, an activist priest, a Burmese convert to Catholicism and a gay Catholic who took their fight to save their local church, St. Brigid, all the way to the Vatican after the San Francisco Archdiocese’s abruptly closed their relatively vibrant parish in 1994. This lead to a decades long struggle to save their religious sanctuary and to landmark this building located in the heart of San Francisco.

St. Brigid's Church, Broadway and Van Ness Streets, San Francisco
The original wood framed church erected in 1863 by Irish immigrants and replaced in 1904 by the present Romanesque building built of curbstones from San Francisco’s streets is noted for its architecture and its many gems: an Italian-made Ruffati pipe organ, stained glass windows from Dublin, the St. Brigid and twelve life sized statues of the Apostles. A survivor of two earthquakes St. Brigid’s had played an integral role in religious and cultural life of the city’s Irish community and for those groups that: Italians and in later years newcomers from Hong Kong, Burma, Mexico, and the Philippines.  They lost their house of worship but St. Brigid’s, a city landmark, still stands and San Francisco’s Academy of Art University uses it today for classrooms and gallery space.

My story does not end at the gates of St. Stephen’s. On August 1 I took the subway uptown to Madison Avenue and East 129th Street, to a church known as Harlem’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Also designed by James Renwick Jr. and his nephew William Renwick, All Saints Church is a cathedral-sized ornate Gothic building with a very tall bell tower, and Franz Mayer stained glass windows, and a Roosevelt Organ.

Harlem's All Saint's Church at Madison Avenue and 129th Street.
The parish, founded by Irish immigrants in 1883, the upper church was not completed until 1893. A city landmark since 2007, the one-time beautiful hard carved mahogany pews seats over 1500. When Harlem’s demographics changed in the early part of the last century the church became predominantly African American. In later years it also served Nigerian Catholics.

On that beautiful blue-sky morning I arrived in plenty of time for All Saint’s late morning Sunday mass. I sauntered past the open iron gates, up the steps to the large front doors and smiled in anticipation of exploring this magnificent edifice. As I cupped the door handle and pulled, the door did not budge. 

Locked out again!!!!

Editor's Notes:
St. Stephen's Church has two main entrances and two major facades.  In the 1860's the church was expanded through to East 29th Street. It had one of the largest congregations of any Catholic Church in the city at the time. The 29th Street facade is not as distinguished although it contains a huge rose window.

The Grace of Everyday Saints - How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith
By Julian Guthrie, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

St. Stephen's Church and All Saint's Church: Rudi Papiri
Brumidi's Painting: St. Stephen's Church Bulletin
St. Brigid Churh: Courtesy of Alvis Hendley,