A young Catholic history buff pleads with the archbishop of New York to save a priceless treasure.
Editor’s Note: The Archdiocese of New York is in the midst of plans to revamp its parish structure, a plan that will likely lead to the closing of many churches in neighborhoods where the Catholic population has dwindled.
This includes several venerable churches in New York City.
Since a list of churches being considered for closure was leaked, there has been a particular outcry at Manhattan’s Church of the Holy Innocents. Nestled into a crowded street in the “Garment District,” right off busy Broadway, Holy Innocents has become a destination for devotees of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Now administered by popular theological author Father George Rutler, the church is also home to a massive painting of the crucifixion by the same 19th century Italian immigrant who decorated the U.S. capitol.
Aleteia came across a blogger who takes an interest in these and other aspects of Holy Innocents. With her permission, we reprint here her open letter to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, pleading with him to reconsider.
Dear Cardinal Dolan,
Greetings in Christ! Like you, I am a transplant to the NYC area with Midwestern roots. … Your joyful witness to our Catholic faith is such an inspiration.
It’s come to my attention that the Archdiocese of New York is considering closing several churches. It’s always a shame to see a parish go, but I get it. Neighborhood demographics change, and we’re no longer in an era where multiple ethnic parishes need to co-exist within blocks of each other. Urban dioceses now find themselves with more real estate than they can handle. New York is an old city full of historic buildings, but it’s also constantly evolving.
Among the parishes under consideration for closure is Holy Innocents on West 37th Street. Its closure would be a great loss to the spiritual life of the this city and a regrettable mistake.
I’ve gotten to know the parishes of Midtown West because of my daily commute from New Jersey to Brooklyn through Penn Station. Once Penn was a magnificent landmark, a beautiful space carefully designed by a famous architect. But Manhattan changed, as it always does, and the old Penn was deemed unnecessary. You know the rest: good design was demolished and replaced with a smaller dungeon. Today that unnecessary, beautiful old station is sorely missed and needed. The new Penn is too overcrowded to meet commuters’ needs, let alone elevate their daily lives.
When I get weary from spending two hours a day in crowded underground metal boxes, I know there are refuges of peace and grace not far away. At first glance, consolidating the parishes of Midtown West might seem like an obvious practical move. There are three churches within five blocks of Penn Station, an embarrassment of religious riches. The largest of these, St. Francis, offers an impressive array of sacrament times and ministries, seemingly enough to serve the area. Both St. Francis and Holy Innocents have been godsends on bad days. St. Francis is like the department store of sacraments: it’s big, convenient, and offers a wide selection to suit your needs. Mass, adoration, and confession happen non-stop during rush hour. I’m eternally grateful for the kind wisdom offered by Franciscan friars willing to get up early so we can sleepily stare each other down in a confessional at 8am.
If St. Francis is Macy’s, Holy Innocents is an independent boutique. Its building is smaller and more intimate, marked by a small neon cross peeking out between wholesale clothing shops and a kosher falafel/shwarma place. It has fewer Mass times, but what it does offer is superb. The reverent liturgies there are exquisite and even better, accessible. Attend any of their Latin masses, and you’ll see everyone from commuters in business attire to the kid in a plastic vest who was hawking tour bus tickets outside.
Getting to know the extraordinary form of the Mass can be challenging. To us born after Vatican II, this part of our Catholic heritage feels like a foreign country. Holy Innocents makes our liturgical patrimony feel one of the rich cultural experiences available here in NYC, ready for new explorers to dive right in. At other homes of the EF I’ve felt like an outsider, but at Holy Innocents I’ve only found a warm welcome with humility, not snobbery.
The EF Mass could happen at any parish, but there are two more reasons not to close this gem of a church.
1. Closing Holy Innocents would mean the loss of an important artist’s work. The mural behind the altar is an historic fresco by Constantino Brumidi, the same Italian immigrant who decorated the rotunda of the US Capitol building in the 1860s. Brumidi is so significant, he posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2012. He left Italy because he was on the outs with Pope Gregory XVI, so a painting he did for the Church is an ironic rarity. Much as I love the Apotheosis of Washington, the sacrifice of Calvary is even more valuable. The parish has already invested a good deal of time and money to restore the mural’s original brilliance. The scaffolding currently surrounding St. Patrick’s Cathedral demonstrates the Archdiocese’s commitment to historic preservation, so I know the Church can continue to keep up with the federal government in promotion of great art.
2. On a more practical note, Midtown West is just too crowded for just one parish. The soon-to-open 7 subway line extension and Hudson Yards redevelopment are only going to bring more traffic to the West Side. (My job involves transit news, so I have subway construction on the brain.) If there’s a Duane Reade pharmacy every ten feet in this town, surely one busy neighborhood can handle multiple churches.
For example, on Good Friday my husband and I initially planned to attend the 3 pm liturgy at St. Francis since it was earlier than other nearby offerings. Arriving at 2:45, we found It was already standing room only with packed aisles. So we walked up six blocks to the 3:30 at Holy Innocents, which was also well attended. If St. Francis is that busy now, imagine the crowds with two more parishes’ worth of attendees.
Please, don’t make the same mistake the railroads did with Penn Station. Holy Innocents is cherished now and elevates the lives of many New Yorkers. It may be even more needed in the future.
Sarah Dugganwrites at CatholicHistoryNerd.com.