FRENCH PARISHES IN NEW YORK CITY
Every large city in the United States has two types of parishes, territorial and national. The territorial parishes are the only religious divisions of a Diocese actually permitted by the canon law of the Catholic Church. The establishment of a national parish requires the special permission of the Holy See. But before the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law of 1918, various groups were permitted, in some cases encouraged, by the bishops of the United States to have their own national churches in order to better safeguard their faith and to perpetuate certain traditions that could not be immediately discarded without some harm to their religious beliefs.
In the early part of 1800, a large number of French-speaking people resided in New York City. Gabriel Franchère, who came from Montreal, Canada, as one of the secretaries of the Pacific Fur Company founded by John Jacob Astor, reports: "In 1810, there were in New York City 32 churches, two of which were Catholic. The population was up to ninety thousand, of whom ten thousand were French-speaking. Catholics, however, may have been the minority, the majority being French Huguenots, émigrés of the French Revolution.
Bishop de Forbin-Janson, who had taken off the miter and laid aside the pastoral staff to join the Society of the Fathers of Mercy, gave a mission to the French Catholic population in February 1841, in Saint Peter's Church, Barclay Street. He concluded the mission with this exhortation: "In this great city of New York where Catholics of Irish and German birth have hesitated at no sacrifice to secure churches and priests of their own nationality, how is it possible that the French, so famous for the faith of their fathers, should remain indifferent? In truth how can they hope to maintain their traditions on a foreign soil without the strong ties of religion? Such a church is desired most strongly by Bishop Hughes, who expects great things for his Diocese from it." The words of the great orator stirred the people to action: meetings were held, committees were formed, and the result was the building of a French Catholic church on Canal Street. The laying of the cornerstone took place in October 1841, and was followed by the dedication of the completed edifice one year later in August 1842 under the title of Saint Vincent de Paul.
The missionary zeal of the Fathers of Mercy, which had swayed the people of New York, New Orleans, Alabama, Florida, and Canada, embraced all types of work. Father Annet Lafont, the Pastor of Saint Vincent de Paul, was the first white man to open a school for people of color, and that in his own residence with himself as one of the teachers. He invited the Christian Brothers to take charge of the parochial school, and this first mission of the Christian Brothers proved to be the foundation stone of Manhattan College in New York City. By his advice and well-timed assistance, he also enabled the Jesuits to begin their work in the city. He furthermore established the Ladies of Saint Vincent de Paul to care for the poor, which paved the way for the coming of the Marianite Sisters of the Holy Cross to the United States. Meanwhile, the French population had moved northward to West 23rd Street. The cornerstone of the new Saint Vincent de Paul was laid in June 1857, and the church was dedicated by Archbishop McCloskey in May 1868.
Saint Vincent de Paul Church was quite a distance from the Yorkville section of the city where a fairly large group of French Canadians had settled. They had the choice of using the slow-moving horse-drawn trolley along Third Avenue or the more expensive trains of the Harlem Railroad with its open tracks along the northern part of Fourth Avenue, now called Park Avenue. They were held together in bonds of mutual friendship and assistance by the Societé Saint Jean Baptiste, founded by Mr. Franchère in 1850.
A French missionary, Father Nicholas, did his best to foster the spiritual welfare of this group. He soon realized, however, that his all too infrequent visits were unsatisfactory, and so he laid plans for a better organized service. The Jesuits who had come to Saint Lawrence O'Toole on East 84th Street (now Saint Ignatius Loyola) were too few and too busy to organize the Canadian group as one of their priests, Father Holzer, had previously, in 1873, organized the Germans around their national church at Saint Joseph on East 87th Street. Accordingly, Father Nicholas enlisted the help of Father Peter Cazeneuve, Provincial of the Fathers of Mercy, who gave himself heart and soul to the project. He contacted the French Canadian families of the Yorkville section and aroused enthusiasm for the project of a national parish. A meeting was held in 1881. It was resolved to hold religious services in a centrally located spot. A collection was taken, and the sum contributed was twelve dollars. This was just a drop, one may say, but the first drop of a rising tide of generosity that has never failed to flow from the parishioners and friends of Saint Jean Baptiste since that historical meeting in 1881.
A mission chapel was opened at 202 East 77th Street. It was a rented hall above a stable. From the non-liturgical hoof-beating of the animals below punctuating the silence of the Mass, the rattling of chains almost drowning out the tinkling of the Mass bell, and the fragrance of the incense not quite subduing the stable odors that filtered up through the thin floor, this place of worship was picturesquely called the "Crib of Bethlehem." But the group of some one hundred worshipers who assembled for the first Mass on February 22, 1882, did not mind such drawbacks. The faithful came Sunday after Sunday to the stable loft, tracking straw and mud up to the improvised chapel. On Saturday night, a mop and broom brigade of women invaded the hall to wash the floor and dust the walls, to hang images on the unpainted boards, and to set up the portable altar for Mass. Other groups, non-Catholic, were renting the hall for services, so that all traces of Catholic worship had to be removed immediately after Mass. The poverty of the locale did not daunt the ardor of the faithful. A choir was formed, accompanied by a wheezy harmonium already on the premises.
The infant congregation had not as yet received official recognition. Grouping the French Canadians into a parish unit was only a venture, with ecclesiastical approval hinging on the success of it. They did not have to wait long. Moved by Father Cazeneuve's favorable report, Cardinal McCloskey, early in the spring of 1882, granted permission to build a church.
In the midst of these developments, Father Cazeneuve was recalled to France by his Superiors. His already precarious state of health was worsened by a very rough crossing, and these combined conditions caused him to succumb eight hours after his arrival in France, on July 10, 1882. May the memory of this dedicated Father of Mercy remain enshrined in the grateful hearts of the parishioners and friends of Saint Jean Baptiste!
THE BUILDING OF OLD SAINT JEAN'S
Before his departure for France, Father Cazeneuve had confided his project to a French priest, Father Charles De La Croix, whom Bishop Fabre of Montreal had released for that work. De La Croix, an adopted name, concealed the illustrious family name of Castries, of ducal rank. The modesty of the zealous priest left unpublished the fact that he was the brother-in-law of Marshal MacMahon, President of France from 1873 to 1879. The enthusiasm of the parishioners and the priestly virtues and personal charm of Father De La Croix were their only building assets on hand. The bank account amounted to but four hundred dollars, which Father Cazeneuve had entrusted to one of the lay trustees before leaving for France, never to return. Additional funds were obtained and a site was purchased on the north side of East 76th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, at the cost of $14,000. Napoleon Lebrun drew the plans for the church. It was to cost $20,000, and was to be of a simple Gothic style, one hundred feet long and forty-one feet wide, with a seating capacity of six hundred.
Ground was broken in October 1882, and two months later, Archbishop Corrigan blessed the cornerstone. Father Aigueperse, Provincial of the Fathers of Mercy, delivered the sermon in French, and Father M. Reilly of Brooklyn one in English. The audience was attentive, yet not so much as to ignore the twelve baskets circulating in the crowd. More than $2,000 was contributed on that occasion!
It had been agreed that the basement of the church was to be completed for the new year, but adverse weather forced a halt, and it was only in February 1884 that Mass could be celebrated in the main church. Meanwhile, worship in the "Crib of Bethlehem" had become such a problem that it was decided to use the basement as a temporary chapel for the Lent of 1883. The mounting costs of the construction, however, brought about a financial crisis. Cardinal McCloskey saved the day by taking over the title to the church. It was on the occasion of the first Mass in the church that it was given Saint Jean Baptiste as titular. Soon after, there was a change in Pastors. Father De La Croix returned to France to settle important family matters, and the first Assistant, Father Frederick Tetreau, a Canadian priest, succeeded him.
Saint Jean Baptiste was a religious success from the start. Although intended primarily for the French Canadian population, it was soon attended by a good number of Catholics of other nationalities, who dubbed it "Saint Jean [pronounced jēn] Baptiste." It may have been the convenient location of the new church for the people of the area, many of whom had to report at an early hour for work in Fifth Avenue mansions, that prompted them. It may have also been the simple yet devotional atmosphere of the church, which drew Catholics of every walk of life to it.
In 1886, the parish welcomed members of the Congregation de Notre Dame, founded by Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys in Montreal in 1653. The academy they established to educate and provide for the religious formation of the young evolved into a thriving parish elementary school which operated for more than a century until it closed in 1969, due to changes in the religious demographics of the neighborhood. Saint Jean Baptiste High School, opened in 1929, continues to operate in the school building on East 75th Street, which underwent a major renovation and expansion starting in 2009. The sisters are a familiar and beloved presence, and are involved in many parish and Archdiocesan ministries.
SAINT ANNE COMES TO SAINT JEAN'S
The people of Saint Jean's gathered in their out-of-the-way church, never dreaming that an incident, trifling in appearance, but providential in design, would spread far and wide the name of their beloved church. In 1892, this humble church became the shrine of Saint Anne.
Previous to that time, at least two churches in New York carried her name, Saint Ann's Church on East 12th Street, dedicated in 1852 and proclaimed as a national shrine in 1912, was the first church built in her honor. But even earlier than that, in 1840, an Episcopal church in honor of Saint Ann was erected in the Bronx byGouverneur Morris II in memory of his mother, Ann Cary Randolph. There was also a Saint Ann's Avenue and a Saint Ann's Park. Elsewhere in the United States, a number of cities had churches dedicated to the saint, but in no way comparable to the well-known shrine of Sainte Anne de Beaupré in Canada, 20 miles outside of the city of Quebec. To Saint Jean's came the honor of becoming the second "Sainte Anne de Beaupré."
The Right Reverend J. C. Marquis of Canada arrived on May 1, 1892, unheralded and unexpected, at the rectory of Saint Jean's. He was the bearer of the relic of Saint Anne which Pope Leo XIII had personally obtained from the Abbot of Saint Paul-Outside-the-Walls in Rome. Monsignor Marquis was bringing the relic to Beaupré.
The Pastor, Father Tetreau, asked Monsignor Marquis to expose this sacred treasure to the veneration of the parishioners during the vespers service that evening. As he was to leave for Quebec the following day, he assented and took the relic to the church.
The simple gesture was like the tiny flare starting a vast illumination. The news that the relic was to be exposed spread rapidly and a large crowd filled the church that evening. Miraculous or not, the sudden cessation of the convulsions of a young epileptic man when the priest touched him with the relic struck the city like a powerful electric shock. All through Monday and the day after, and the day after that, crowds filled the little church. The priests of Saint Jean's obtained permission from the ecclesiastical authorities to continue the exposition of the relic. Monsignor Marquis, much against his will, but reluctant to disappoint the hopes of the swelling tide of pilgrims, agreed to prolong his stay in New York.
Three weeks of May went by, and still people came in droves. The news traveled to other cities and pilgrimages came from New England and the Middle Atlantic States. Letters poured in from the South and Far West, beseeching Monsignor to delay his return to Canada for another week. Estimates of the crowds that visited Saint Jean's during that eventful month vary from 200,000 to 300,000. More would have come but it was impossible for Monsignor Marquis to delay his return to Canada any longer. He fixed the 20th of May as the last day. What happened on that date can be gleaned from the touching description of an eyewitness, Monsignor Bernard O'Reilly.
"The relic was to be taken away at noon. All through the morning hours, the pilgrims crowded the street and flowed in one continuous stream through the church. So great were the numbers still waiting that Father Tetreau's generous heart could not bear to withdraw his sacred treasure until the moment of Monsignor Marquis' departure was near at hand. At length, four o'clock struck and the sad-hearted priest had to say that he must now perforce take the relic of Saint Anne from the church. A loud wailing rose at this announcement, while Father Tetreau, standing on the altar steps, raised the relic in both hands above his head. Then he moved toward the crowded middle aisle and the front door. A scene of indescribable emotion then followed. From every part of the edifice, people endeavored to reach the priest, stretching out their arms, and crying out, amid their tears and sobs, 'Good-bye, Saint Anne, good-bye. Come back to us soon, Saint Anne! Come back to stay!'"
Saint Anne did come back to stay! Monsignor Marquis, deeply impressed by the devotion of the pilgrims, promised that he would do all in his power to obtain a relic for Saint Jean's. With the permission of Cardinal Taschereau of Quebec, he divided the relic. Then he returned to New York on July 15, 1892, and with Father Tetreau submitted the relic to the Archbishop of New York, who recognized the authenticity of the seal, and authorized the preservation and exposition of the relic in Saint Jean's.
On July 19, the novena to Saint Anne opened. The news of the return of the relic brought thousands of pilgrims to the shrine. Once more, miraculous healings were the answer to fervent prayers. The crowds came undaunted by the oppressive heat, responding with ringing voices to the invocations intoned by the priests. Year after year, the same scenes of burning hope and fervent prayers took place. Multitudes poured into the little church to pray to Saint Anne and venerate the relic.
Monsignor Marquis, previous to his return to New York with this relic of Saint Anne, had written to Pope Leo XIII of the wonders that had happened at Saint Jean Baptiste in New York and included articles from the press. The Holy Father, after reading them, wrote back that he was very pleased with the devotion of the faithful in New York. He promised to bestow another relic as soon as possible. Later, Monsignor Marquis sailed for France, went to the Shrine of Sainte Anne d'Apt, and received for Saint Jean's the promised relic.
THE CONGREGATION OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT COMES TO NEW YORK CITY
A French priest, Peter Julian Eymard, exposed the Blessed Sacrament in a humble chapel in the city of Paris on the feast of the Epiphany in 1857. To all appearances, there was nothing strikingly different between this and other familiar rituals of Catholicism; but the ceremony was different, for it marked the beginning of a new religious family in the church, the Society (Congregation) of the Blessed Sacrament. Father Eymard, canonized in 1962 by Pope (now Blessed) John XXIII, had cherished a dream: to promote love of Christ in the Eucharist by encircling the globe with a network of Eucharistic centers or shrines. His work, which included the pastoral care of youth and their catechesis for the sacraments, received approbation from the Archbishop of Paris on May 13, 1856. The solemn exposition of 1857 was the first step taken to make this dream a reality. Strong currents of faith and love caught the seeds which fell from this first Eucharistic flower and tossed them about until the arrived at God's appointed places. They first settled and rooted in the large cities of Europe, then in Montreal, Canada, in 1890.
The city of New York could point with pride at the time to the Corpus Christi Shrine of Perpetual Exposition at Hunt's Point and to many lay activities that spoke of a vigorous Catholicity. But it did not as yet possess a religious community vowed primarily to the worship of the Blessed Sacrament. In God's plan, Eliza Lummis became the zealous apostle of perpetual adoration.
This lady had an illustrious ancestry. She was a grandniece of Brigadier General William Maxwell, who was a friend of George Washington, and a niece of Elizabeth Ellet, a noted author. Her maternal grandmother was a convert to the Catholic faith. She was a descendant of the Huguenot Guion family of La Rochelle, France, the first settlers of New Rochelle, New York. Her maternal grandfather was William O'Brien, Earl of Inchaquin, a descendent of Brian Boroihme.
Miss Lummis was also a person of deep piety and great literary talents. In 1896, with the hearty approval of Monsignor Michael Lavelle, the Rector of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, she established the People's Eucharistic League, with its center at the cathedral. Moreover, she took part in the organization of the Corpus Christi reunion for men of the Nocturnal Adoration Society. Besides all these activities, she did much literary work, and her magazine articles and poems were very popular. In 1898, she founded a Eucharistic monthly Sentinel of the Blessed Sacrament, wrote most of the articles, and retained the editorship until she turned the magazine over to the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament in 1902.
Through her readings of any and all publications on the Holy Eucharist, she had become acquainted with the Congregation's Montreal foundation. Wishing to know more about the work of Father Eymard, she paid a visit and recorded her deep impressions in articles later published under the title, "A Nineteenth Century Apostle." Little did she suspect, as she met Mlle. de la Rousselière, who had been instrumental in bringing the Congregation to Canada, that she would emulate the zeal of this pious lady and have much to do in finally introducing the Congregation to the United States.
The Eucharistic movement was gaining momentum in the United States, and invariably the name of Father Eymard came up for more than honorable mention. The Reverend Bede Maler, O.S.B., of Saint Meinrad, Indiana, called the attention of the American clergy to the work of Father Eymard in a monthly magazine which he founded as the organ of the Priests' Eucharistic League, Emmanuel (now published and edited by the Congregation). At about the same time, the late Abbot of Saint Meinrad, Very Reverend Finton Mundwiler, O.S.B., sent a circular to the bishops of the United States advancing the project of a Eucharistic Congress for priest adorers. The Most Reverend Camillus Maes, Bishop of Covington, Kentucky, was enthusiastic about the idea and agreed to sponsor the first convention of the Priests' Eucharistic League, which was held at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Bishop Maes accepted in 1895 the office of Protector of the league. Keenly interested in the work of Father Eymard, he warmly approved of the ambitions of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament to open a foundation in the United States. Some proposals for a house in the Middle States gave way to the cherished hopes of a Eucharistic shrine in a large city on the Eastern seaboard. The answer to the prayerful wishes of the Congregation came unexpectedly in 1900.
Father Louis Estevenon, the Superior of the Montreal foundation, went to Mexico City in late 1899 to study the possibilities of a foundation there. He met ideal religious conditions, for Monsignor Plancarte de Cempeche had constructed a shrine fulfilling the requirements of the Eucharistic worship as carried on by the Congregation. Father Estevenon found the church with its rich floorings, mosaics, altar of white marble and onyx, and ciborium supported by spiral columns of white marble, a most suitable shrine, and sent to the major superiors of the Congregation in Paris a warm recommendation of the project. However, political conditions of the time were far from being favorable, for the laws did not permit the existence of any religious group in Mexico. The General Council of the Congregation did not accept the tempting offer, and that must have been a stroke of Divine Providence, for the revolutionary upheavals that scourged Mexico would have made short shrift of any foundation.
At about the same time, a Father Duhamaut, who had met Father Estevenon as fellow travelers while on a ship from Europe, offered his church, Saint Stanislaus, in Brooklyn, New York. The Blessed Sacrament Congregation, much to their sorrow, was unable to accept this kind offer, as the Order did not have in the Canadian community the two German-speaking priests needed for the spiritual care of that large group at Saint Stanislaus.
Father Estevenon, on his return from Mexico City, met Miss Lummis in New York and spoke of his trip. "Mexico is not the place for you," she said. "Your place is here in New York." "But who shall welcome us?" asked Father Estevenon. There was determination in her voice: "We shall see to it."
And Miss Lummis did see to it! She rallied to her cause some prominent members of the clergy: Monsignor Lavelle and Father John McMahon of the Cathedral of Saint Patrick, Father Charles Colton, Pastor of Saint Stephen's Church, the Jesuit Fathers Murphy and Young of Saint Francis Xavier, and McKinnon and Pardow of Saint Ignatius Loyola; also influential Catholic lay people, outstanding among whom was Miss Annie Leary, a papal countess. Before seeing Countess Leary, Miss Lummis had written her a letter and had placed it under a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is said that the Countess Leary did not sleep well that night but that she was in a favorable state of mind to rally to the cause so elegantly presented to her by Miss Lummis. Archbishop Corrigan graciously listened to the pleadings of these Eucharistic-minded souls and finally gave his consent to the coming of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. That they might not be a financial burden on the Diocese, Countess Leary and the other ladies underwrote the sum of $50,000 which the Archbishop had mentioned as the required amount, and the way was cleared for the Congregation to come to New York. Archbishop Corrigan received a flattering letter of commendation from Archbishop Louis Bruchési of Montreal, and on May 1, 1900, he officially invited the Congregation to New York to locate a suitable place for a Eucharistic shrine.
While these negotiations were in progress, several trips were made from Montreal to New York. Two Fathers, in April 1900, were guests of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Cenacle on Riverside Drive in New York City. Mother De La Chapelle, who gave them hospitality at the request of Miss Lummis, tells of their stay in the chaplain's quarters: "The Fathers were content with very little. All we had to offer them were cold rooms in a remodeled barn!" An aged sister remembered their short stay, for the squeaky new shoes which the Fathers had brought for the trip betrayed their early rising for their morning devotions.
On the eve of the Ascension, May 24, 1900, Father Arthur Letellier left Montreal with Brother Patrick Welsh and arrived in New York the following morning. Their first visit was to a nearby church, and then the newcomers called on Archbishop Corrigan to inform him of their arrival and to thank him for his great kindness on their behalf. They took quarters at Union Square in the home of a Mr. Molloy who had offered them the use of his house while the family was spending the summer in the country. Father Estevenon, who had been named Superior of the group, arrived from Montreal on June 6, 1900. For several weeks, the trio led a busy life; visits to likely places for a foundation were the only interruptions they allowed themselves in the intensive study of English. They sometimes studied as many as ten hours a day under the tutoring of Father Young, S.J., and of Brother Patrick. This genial brother had many fine qualities, but never was able to manage pots and pans with success. His meals were prepared with more good will than skill, and when Monsignor Lavelle called on them one day, the sight of their emaciated features touched his heart.
"You are killing yourselves here," he said. "Come to the rectory and be my guests. You can learn English by conversing with the priests. I shall give you good meals and you will be able to help me in return."
The little community accepted the generous offer, and Father Estevenon often referred to the kindness of the rectory staff, who made them feel at home: "We could not have received a better welcome in any rectory of Europe or Canada." When the Fathers moved into the cathedral rectory, Brother Patrick returned to Montreal.
The Fathers soon learned of the Canadian church Saint Jean Baptiste, and often said Mass there on Sundays. Aware of their fruitless search through the city for a place to start a Eucharistic shrine, Father Tetreau one day said to them, more in jest than in earnest: "If you can't find anything, I'll have to give you my church." Somehow this casual remark reached the ears of Archbishop Corrigan, who then and there decided to effect a long-desired change, and the very next day he informed Father Tetreau that the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament would take over the church of Saint Jean Baptiste. Father Tetreau gave his farewell sermon on September 30, 1900, and on October 2, 1900, the parish held a reception to bid Godspeed to the Pastor who had labored so zealously to build up the church and to promote the spiritual welfare of the people of the neighborhood.
Then followed the departure at various dates of the secular priests of Saint Jean Baptiste. Father Tetreau returned to his native Diocese of Nicolet in Canada. His brother, Father John Tetreau, went to Washingtonville, New York, and became the first Pastor of that parish. The saintly Canon Petit, who had arrived at Saint Jean's in 1890, remained in charge of the relic of Saint Anne. Fathers Monnier and Gravel consented to remain to care for the English-speaking congregation. After two years, Father Gravel went uptown to the parish of Saint Joseph. Later, he toured and lectured among the Canadian population of New England. He persuaded many to emigrate to Saskatchewan, and a new city, Gravelbourg, was named in his honor.
Meanwhile, the Fathers were moving into Saint Jean's. Father Estevenon, on Sunday, October 7, 1900, addressed the Canadian congregation of the parish at the ten o'clock Mass, while Father Letellier spoke in English at all the other Masses. The community was now complete; reinforcements of religious had arrived in New York the previous Wednesday. Nine priests and brothers made up the group: Father Louis Estevenon, Superior; Fathers Arthur Letellier, Telesphore Roy, Alfred Pauzé, Remi Gingras, and Brothers Ferdinand Stubert, Leonard Routhier, Patrick Welsh, and Eli Gingras. An inscription on the inside of the base of the special Golden Jubilee Chalice carries the names of these devoted religious.
From October to December 1900, "Old Saint Jean's" was the scene of busy activities in preparation for the solemn inauguration of the Eucharistic worship. Between the morning Masses and the three o'clock holy hour, the community labored to make the necessary changes in the church. The generosity of the ladies, especially of the Countess Leary, enabled them to obtain a new altar, with its coating of white paint offset by encircling golden rays and the distinctive "royal mantle" in use in most of the churches of the Congregation at that time. New vestments, sacred vessels, and a monstrance also came through the generosity of Countess Leary.
"Old Saint Jean's" showed its transformed interior on December 12, 1900, to the imposing gathering of priests and lay people who came to witness the solemn inauguration of the Eucharistic worship. Bishop Blondel of Montana, who was in New York preaching for the missions, celebrated the Mass, presided over by Archbishop Corrigan who delivered the sermon and solemnly exposed the Blessed Sacrament at the conclusion of the ceremonies. Fifty priests were in the sanctuary to give a warm welcome to the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. In the nave, where only a third of the throng was able to find a place, was the first group of many friends, generous benefactors, and lovers of the Blessed Sacrament that would help the Congregation to make of Saint Jean Baptiste a nationally known shrine of Eucharistic worship. The famous Boys Choir of Saint Ignatius, under the direction of Father Young, sang at the Mass and benediction.
DEVELOPMENTS AT OLD SAINT JEAN'S
Saint Jean's, although it was not a territorial parish, never had, even from the start, an exclusive national character. An ever-increasing multitude found its way to "Old Saint Jean's," attracted by the daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and the advantage of the daily confessions which the Congregation inaugurated in the city. Even before the decree of Pope Pius X concerning early and frequent Holy Communion, the Congregation was a zealous promoter of both practices. It was an inspiration to the faithful to see the priests and brothers coming hour after hour for adoration of our Eucharistic Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The size of the community did not permit perpetual adoration more than once a week, but they invited the people to participate in this weekly vigil. Father Letellier busied himself with the school and other parish activities, Father Pauze with the sodality and the Eucharistic societies, and Father Poirier with the choir. Most of the baptisms and weddings fell to Father Roy.
The arrival of more religious in the years that followed, enabled them to take a more active share in the pastoral work. Father Joseph Lagacé became the Chaplain to the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, at Madison Avenue and 81st Street, and labored there successfully for 20 years. Father Beat Gmur gradually took over the chaplaincy of Lenox Hill Hospital, at 111 East 76th Street, and answered sick calls day and night for over 30 years. The Congregation also became the ordinary and extraordinary confessors of various communities of sisters. All this pastoral work spread further the knowledge of Saint Jean's and brought more and more people to this Eucharistic shrine.
No wonder East 76th Street became a busy thoroughfare, with people from all walks of life and from every section of the city coming to "Old Saint Jean's" for their devotions. Like an old garment bursting at the seams, the walls of the small church seemed to try to expand to accommodate the worshipers who came, not only to see the brilliant repository on Holy Thursday, but also on weekdays to join the religious community in the public homage paid to Christ Eucharistic.
Father Estevenon, aware that the Congregation was about to be expelled from France, in 1903 went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the invitation of a Spanish lady, Mrs. Anchorena, who had promised assistance to the Congregation. She offered to finance the building of a church, and Father Estevenon invited the community from France to take refuge in Buenos Aires. He laid the foundations of another shrine in Santiago, Chile, in 1907, and to recruit vocations for these Spanish-speaking countries, opened a preparatory seminary in Tolosa, Spain. Meanwhile, he had been elected the Superior General of the Congregation and remained in that office until his death in 1912. The Congregation reveres him as its second founder. Saint Jean's, in particular, owes him a grateful remembrance for his pioneer work in New York City.
THE NEW SAINT JEAN'S
Father Letellier succeeded Father Estevenon as Superior of the community and Pastor of Saint Jean's in 1903. All who knew him recognized his zeal and his great vision for the church and its worship. He was a leader with a keen faith and a love of Christ in the Eucharist. He and his devoted Assistants remembered the prophetic words of Archbishop Corrigan at the inauguration of the solemn exposition in December 1900: "Evidently this church is too small and not imposing enough for the requirements of perpetual adoration. A new and becoming temple will one day be erected that will be more worthy of the divine King." The many friends and benefactors of Saint Jean's joined their prayers and offerings to pave the way for the construction of an edifice more worthy of the Eucharistic King. These fervent wishes and prayers materialized in 1910.
A momentous decision was the result of a very simple conversation between Father Letellier and a prominent financier, Thomas Fortune Ryan. Serving Mr. Ryan in the capacity of advisor for his many charitable enterprises, a Miss Katherine O'Connor, a friend of Miss Lummis and of Countess Leary, often discussed with Mr. Ryan the work of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. Mr. Ryan invited the Fathers to be his chaplains and to say Mass on weekends at his summer home, Montebello, in Suffern, New York. For two summers, Father Poirier went from New York to celebrate Mass in the Ryan private chapel. After the Congregation had inaugurated a minor seminary in Suffern, which Mrs. Ryan bought in 1904 and donated to the Congregation, the Fathers said Mass daily for the family and for the Catholics of that rural area.
Mr. Ryan soon became a frequent visitor at Saint Jean's, preferring the humble church to the more imposing edifices closer to his Fifth Avenue mansion. Going to High Mass at Saint Jean's as he frequently did, it appears that one Sunday he arrived a bit late and had to remain standing during the entire Mass in the over-crowed church. During the announcements, Father Letellier asked the prayers of the faithful for the erection of a new church. After Mass, Mr. Ryan who had always been deeply impressed by the priests and brothers kneeling in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, went to the rectory, and greeted Father Letellier with this question: "How much would it cost to build a new church?" Father Letellier was not a man to fumble and stumble. "At least $300,000," he replied at once. "Very well," came from Mr. Ryan, "Have your plans made and I will pay for the church." These two men, one a venturesome and successful businessman, the other a visionary apostle of the Eucharistic Lord, understood each other very well!
THE SITE OF THE NEW SAINT JEAN'S
The first site of the project was the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and East 76th Street. The Congregation bought some land in 1910, but the asking price for the rest of the ground needed for the project was prohibitive. Pressure was exerted to move west of Lexington Avenue as a more desirable location. But that would have put the church away from the bulk of the loyal and generous supporters of Saint Jean's.
Representatives of the Congregation then bought up the necessary land under their own names and resold the various properties to the Congregation so that the owners would not take unfair advantage of the building project. People were soon startled to see recently-erected apartment houses being torn down. At least one of them seemed to have been destined for an early removal, since the builder, a Mr. Irwin, although not Catholic at the time, acceded to the wish of a nun who was passing by with a companion: "May I place a medal in the foundations? Later a church may rise on this spot!" Mr. Irwin later became a convert and narrated the incident with pride on any mention of Saint Jean's.
The contract to demolish the apartment houses was given to J. Reefer's Son Company, and was to be completed within two months. Work progressed rapidly, but soon difficulties interfered with this preparatory stage of construction. Some of the tenants refused to accept a fair compensation for the termination of their leases. The owners of a drugstore and of a garage were the most stubborn holdouts for exorbitant compensations. With the razing of the surrounding buildings, their premises soon became like islands, roofed over for protection and shored up to prevent collapse. A storm of indignation, including vigorous picketing by the friends of Saint Jean's, fell upon the stubborn tenants until they accepted the just compensation offered them. The litigation and the compensation amounted to $10,000.
The first soundings of the site led the architect to submit an estimate of $12,000, but the figure soared to over $100,000 before the completion of the digging of the foundations. In earlier days, two brooks, one arising in the vicinity of West 90th Street and draining into what is now Central Park, and the other arising near 95th Street, joined at East 75th Street and Third Avenue and flowed toward the East River. The lower level around 76th Street had been marshy ground before it was filled in, prior to building operations after the middle of the century. The digging, in order to reach solid bedrock for the foundations had to go some 25 feet lower that the original estimate. Because of this setback, plans for gilding the dome and towers and decorating the interior with marble and mosaic were shelved indefinitely.
The donor of Saint Jean's, Mr. Ryan, had stipulated that his name be kept secret until such time as he cared to divulge his identity. The Congregation respected the wishes of its benefactor. It was only in October 1912 that the newspapers received a statement from the office of Mr. Ryan which made headline copy of his generous assistance to Saint Jean's and to other important institutions.
Mr. Ryan took an active interest in all phases of the new construction. He had cherished the plan of a small church, but rich and elaborate in every detail. Father Letellier called upon all his diplomacy and convinced Mr. Ryan of the need of a church large enough to seat twelve hundred people, with wide aisles to permit solemn processions of the Blessed Sacrament. The plan of the huge dome to crown the edifice hung in the balance, due to the mounting cost of construction. Father Letellier requested his brother religious to make an extra night of adoration. The following day, Mr. Ryan, seeing the effect of the dome on the miniature replica of the church, consented to contribute the $43,000 required to build it. The lack of adequate knowledge of the local costs of material and labor on the part of the Italian architect sent the construction expenses soaring far above the original sum agreed upon by Mr. Ryan. Father Letellier was saved from an embarrassing situation by the repeated donations of Mr. Ryan. His generosity toward Saint Jean's finally approximated the sum of $600,000.
The design of the new church came from Mr. Nicholas Serracino, and had won first prize in the International Exhibit at Turin, Italy, in 1911. The plans are of a church of the purest Renaissance style, with twin towers surmounting the edifice, each 150 feet high, and a great dome 175 feet above the floor level of the upper church. Arches and fluted pilasters support the rounded ceiling which covers the three naves. A wide cornice carries around the nave and at the middle height of the apse. Circling the altar is a triforium. Indiana limestone lines the church exterior. The façade in the original plans called for an imposing Arch-of-Triumph portico, supported by four gigantic columns, and an impressive approach of church-wide steps. Unfortunately, the widening of Lexington Avenue entailed the partial removal of these steps.
THE BLESSING OF THE CORNERSTONE
The construction of the new church, after one year of work, had progressed to the point where it was possible to have the laying and blessing of the cornerstone. This ceremony took place on April 28, 1912, in the presence of some nine thousand people. The brothers who took up the offerings at the ceremony had to elbow their way with the collection baskets through the dense crowd. Saint Joseph, one of the patrons of the Congregation, whose opportune intercession had saved the Congregation from a financial disaster during its early days, was called upon to make a success of the ceremony. Father Letellier said to the sacristan, Brother Eli: "Place his statue right out in the open, the first thing of all, and remove it after everything else has been taken in." Clearly, Saint Joseph was "on the spot"; moreover, it was the feast of his patronage. Such confidence was well rewarded. The threatening rain held off until the end of the ceremony. As soon as the sacristans had removed the statue to the sacristy of "Old Saint Jean's," the rain came down in torrents.
Cardinal Farley presided at the ceremony and set and blessed the cornerstone. One thousand school children took part in the procession. They were followed by 300 Sodalists dressed in white. An impressive group of men marched to their respective seats, scattered around the steel framework which rose like a giant web. Two hundred members of the Nocturnal Adoration Society, 100 cadets of the Eymard Lyceum, and 600 Holy Name men from different parishes of the city formed the male contingent.
Bishop John Chidwick, the Rector of Dunwoodie Seminary in Yonkers, New York, delivered the sermon at the conclusion of the liturgical blessing of the cornerstone. A brilliant orator, he glorified Christ our Lord as the living cornerstone of the church, and reviewed the history of the Catholic Church in the Yorkville section of the city. Even with four large churches, Yorkville needed another shrine where something distinctive would be added — the perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
The cardinal closed the afternoon ceremony with devout praise for the Congregation and congratulated the friends and parishioners of Saint Jean's for their sustained generosity. He also affirmed the he would not take it amiss if the new church were to surpass in beauty his own Cathedral of Saint Patrick. He then imparted the papal blessing to the kneeling multitude and the day ended, marking an important step in the development of the Church of Saint Jean Baptiste.
THE OPENING OF THE LOWER CHURCH
A cordon of police on East 76th Street attracted a great deal of attention all through the early and late hours of February 24, 1913. They stood by to protect the open church while the priests, brothers, and volunteers transported the contents of the sacristy from "Old Saint Jean's," in preparation for the opening of the lower church on February 25. Father Letellier was marking the 25th anniversary of his ordination, and it was only fitting that the jubilarian be the first one to celebrate Mass in the church for which he was spending his generous heart and undaunted will.
Bishop Maes of Covington, Kentucky, Protector of the Priest Adorers of the United States, preached the sermon. He dwelt at length on the development of devotion to the Holy Eucharist, highlighted in 1247 by the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi. He respected the wishes of the jubilarian not to make mention of his 25th anniversary. The friends and parishioners of Saint Jean's, however, spontaneously expressed their praise and gratitude to Father Letellier at the reception in the parish hall later that evening. The audience roundly applauded the congratulatory speeches of their spokesmen. Miss Helen Toohig presented a bouquet of 25 lilies, a hundred dollar bill curled in the center of each flower. This generous gift of the Sodality covered the cost of the Communion railing in the lower church. Father Letellier also received a sterling silver chalice, heavily studded with precious stones, the nodus set off by four large and unusually perfect sapphires.
THE BLESSING OF THE UPPER CHURCH
The blessing of the lower church of Saint Jean's represented the first step in the realization of the planning and tireless zeal of Father Letellier, assisted by his devoted brethren and the sustained generosity of Mr. Ryan. The walls rose higher and higher. The roof, with its towering dome, covered the nave and the sanctuary. Although the permanent altar and choir stalls were not in place, the upper church was at least ready for public worship. The ceremony of the dedication took place on January 6, 1914. Less than 14 years after its arrival in the United States, the Congregation could rejoice in the dedication of a new and beautiful shrine to Christ Eucharistic.
The many worshipers who filled the "New Saint Jean's" to capacity on the day of its dedication sensed the dawn of a new era. The presence of Cardinal Farley enhanced the solemnity of the occasion. Bishop Maes of Covington celebrated the Mass. A large assembly of prelates and priests assisted in the sanctuary. The spacious naves overflowed with the many friends and benefactors of Saint Jean's and representatives of the People's Eucharistic Leagues.
Father Letellier drew a forceful parallel between the mystery of the Epiphany and the characteristics of Saint Jean's as a shrine of perpetual adoration. He referred tactfully to the benefactor who made Saint Jean's possible: "The Wise Men, who brought a tribute of wisdom, power, and wealth to Jesus newly born, have had their successors and imitators, and this church is an evident proof of it. A man whose reputation is widespread, whose great intelligence is sufficiently proved by the astonishing success that that has crowned his efforts, a man who treated on equal terms with rulers in great financial and social enterprises, and whose nobility of heart is as great as his immense riches, such a man came to us one day, but almost stealthily, and asked us what it would take to build a superb sanctuary for the God of the host. The sum mentioned, already very huge, was accepted with a simplicity that almost hid the greatness of the gift. And you, my dear parishioners, although this temple has been erected primarily for the glory of the Blessed Sacrament, it is not less true that it is, and will remain, your parochial church. Do not imitate the people of Bethlehem who neglected to recognize and render homage to the Infant-God. Follow rather the footsteps of the Magi and faithfully copy their admirable example by entering frequently into the dwelling place of Jesus, there to kneel and adore."
Cardinal Farley spoke at the end of Mass and said in part: "No celebration has given more pleasure that the one I am now presiding — the dedication of this church, which realizes the intentions of the generous donor and of the Fathers in charge. Our Lord promised to leave behind him a memorial of his life, his death, his love for mankind, and his promises never fail. Two thousand years have passed and there has been no cessation of the bloody sacrifice of the New Law. From the altars flows that salvation which has come upon the world. I now conclude by congratulating the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament, by congratulating the most munificent donor, and the people who come here from time to time to offer their homage to their King and Lord on his throne of love and mercy." The cardinal then read a congratulatory cable from the Holy Father, Pope Pius X, and imparted the papal blessing.
PASTORS AND ADMINISTRATORS
1882-1883 Reverend Peter Cazenueve, C.P.M.
1883-1900 Reverend Frederick Tetreau
1900-1903 Reverend Louis Estevenon, S.S.S.
1903-1914 Reverend Arthur Letellier, S.S.S.
1914-1918 Reverend Fernando Gaudet, S.S.S.
1918-1921 Reverend Arthur Letellier, S.S.S.
1921-1930 Reverend Alphonse Pelletier, S.S.S.
1930-1938 Reverend Auguste Pelletier, S.S.S.
1938-1944 Reverend John Graham, S.S.S.
1944-1958 Reverend William LaVerdiere, S.S.S.
1958-1972 Reverend Adrian Hebert, S.S.S.
1972-1978 Reverend Donald Jette, S.S.S.
1978-1979 Reverend Andrew Beaudoin, S.S.S. (Administrator)
1979-1984 Reverend Gerald Levesque, S.S.S.
1984-1987 Reverend Norman Pelletier, S.S.S.
1987-1988 Reverend John A. Kamas, S.S.S. (Administrator)
1988-2000 Reverend John A. Kamas, S.S.S.
2001-2002 Reverend Mario Marzocchi, S.S.S.
2002-2003 Reverend Paul Bernier, S.S.S. (Administrator)
2003-2013 Reverend Anthony Schueller, S.S.S.
2013-present Reverend John A. Kamas, S.S.S.
Want a permanent reminder of the magnificence of this house of worship?
Eglise de Saint Jean Baptiste is a beautifully illustrated book detailing the history and grandeur of Saint Jean's from its construction, through the restoration, to the present. Hardbound edition ($50.00), plus $7.50 shipping and handling. Call the Parish Office at 212.288.5082.