In the early part of 1800, a large number of French speaking people resided in New York City. Mr. Gabriel Franchere 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 thirty-two churches, two of which were Catholic. The population was up to ninety thousand, of whom ten thousand were French speaking.”
Bishop de Forbin-Jansom, of 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 his exhortations: “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 patronage of Saint Vincent de Paul.
Within ten years the French population had moved northward to West Twenty-third 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. Because the 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 Societè Saint Jean Baptiste, founded by Mr. Gabriel Franchere 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 began planning for a better organized service.
The Jesuits who had come to Saint Lawrence O’Toole on East 84th Street (later Saint Ignatius Loyola) were too few and too busy to organize the Canadian group as one of their Fathers, Father Holzer, had previously organized the Germans in 1873 around their national church of Saint Joseph on East 87th Street. 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 unliturgical 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 hundred worshippers 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 hand images on the unpainted boards and to set up the portable altar for Mass. Other groups, some non-Catholic, were renting the hall for services, so 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.
Early in the Spring of 1882, moved by Father Cazeneuve’s favorable report of the flourishing French Canadian community, Cardinal McCloskey 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. He died eight hours after his arrival in France, on July 10, 1882. May the memory of this dedicated father of Mercy remain in the grateful hearts of the parishoners 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.
The enthusiasm of the parishioners and the priestly virtues and personal charm of Father De La Croix were the only building assets on hand. At the time, the bank account amounted to four hundred dollars, which Father Cazeneuve had entrusted to one of the lay trustees before leaving for France. Additional funds were soon obtained and a site purchased on the north side of East Seventy-sixth Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, at the cost of $14,000. Mr. Napoleon Lebrun drew the plans for the church. Built in a simple Gothic style, one hundred feet long and forty-one feet wide, with a seating capacity of six-hundred, the church would cost $20,000 to complete.
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 delivered one in English. The audience was attentive not only to the two priests, but to the twelve baskets circulating the crowd. More than $2,000 was contributed on that day!
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. Bad weather forced a halt to the construction and it was only in February, 1884, that Mass could be celebrated in the main church.
The mounting costs of the construction 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 its patron. 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.
The “Old Saint Jean’s” was a religious success from the start. Although intended primarily for the French-Canadians, it soon attracted Catholics of all nationalities. It may have been the convenient location of the new church that was appealing to many who had to report at an early hour for work in Fifth Avenue mansions, or perhaps the simple yet devotional atmosphere of the church that drew Catholics from every walk of life.
The Relic of Saint Anne Comes to Saint Jean’s
During the years between 1884 and 1892, the people of Saint Jean’s gathered in their little church never dreaming of the world-wide fame they would soon enjoy.
Prior to 1892, at least two churches in New York were dedicated to St. Ann. One, on East 12th Street, was erected in 1852 and proclaimed as a national shrine in 1912. It was the first Catholic church built in her honor. In 1840, an Episopal church in honor of Saint Ann was erected in the Bronx by Gouverneur Morris, Esq., in memory of his mother, Ann Carey Randolph. There was also a Saint Ann’s Avenue and 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 Beauprè in Canada, twenty miles outside of the city of Quebec. To Saint Jean’s came the honor of becoming the second “Saint Anne de Beauprè.”
On May 1, 1882, Monsignor Marquis arrived at the rectory of Saint Jean’s bearing a relic of Saint Anne that Pope Leo XIII had personally obtained from the Abbot of Saint Paul-outside-the-walls at Rome. He was bringing the relic to Beauprè. The pastor, Father Tetreau, asked Monsignor Marquis to expose the relic for the veneration of the parishioners during the Vesper service that evening. Because he was to leave for Quebec the following day, he agreed and took the relic to the church.
The news that the relic was to be exposed spread rapidly and a large crowd filled the church that evening. The sudden healing of a young epileptic man when the priest touched him with the relic struck the city like an electric shock. For three days after that, crowds filled the little church. Permission was granted to continue the exposition of the relic. Monsignor Marquis agreed to prolong his stay in New York.
For three more weeks people came in droves. The news traveled to other cities and pilgrimages came from New England and the Middle States. Letters poured in from South and 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. Even 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, D.D.
“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 not 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!”
Deeply impressed by the devotion of the pilgrims, Monsignor Marquis promised that he would do all in his power to obtain a relic for Saint Jean’s.
He soon wrote to Pope Leo XIII relating all that had happened at the church of Saint Jean Baptiste in New York, and included articles from the press. The Holy Father wrote back that he was pleased with the devotion of the faithful in new York, and promised to bestow another relic as soon as possible. Later, Monsignor Marquis sailed for France, went to the Shrine of Saint Anne d’Apt, and received the promised relic for Saint Jean’s.
On July 19, 1882, the Novena to Saint Anne opened and the return of the relic again 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 of the summer. Year after year, similar scenes of hope and earnest prayer took place as multitudes poured into the little church to pray to Saint Anne and venerate the relic.
The Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament Comes to New York City
In 1856, on the feast of the Epiphany, a French priest, Peter-Julian Eymard, exposed the Blessed Sacrament in a humble chapel in the city of Paris marking the beginning of a new religious family in the Church, the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. It was Father Eymard’s dream to encircle the world with a network of Eucharistic shrines. The Solemn Exposition of 1856 was the first step taken toward realizing that dream, first in Europe, and then in Canada in 1890. By the time of his canonization in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, Father Eymard’s congregation was a world-wide organization with 1200 members.
Although 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 organizations that spoke of a vigorous Catholicism, it did not as yet possess a religious community vowed primarily to the worship of the Blessed Sacrament. In God’s plan, Miss Eliza Lummis was to become the zealous apostle of Perpetual Adoration who would change this.
Miss Lummis was a person of deep piety and great literary talents. In 1896, with the hearty approval of Monsignor Michael Lavelle, Rector of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, 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 all the while continuing her literary career – writing poetry and articles which were very popular. In 1898, she founded a eucharistic monthly, the Sentinal of the Blessed Sacrament, of which she was the chief writer and editor until she turned the magazine over to the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament in 1902.
Through her extensive reading, she had become acquainted with the foundation of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament in Montreal. 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 Rousselierè, who had been instrumental in bringing the Congregation to Canada, that she would emulate the zeal of this lady and have much to do in finally introducing the Congregation to the United States.
As the eucharistic movement was gaining momentum in the United States, the Reverend Bede Maler, O.S.B., of Saint Meinrad, Indiana, called the American clergy’s attention 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 in New York. At about the same time, the 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 Camilus 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, Indiana. In 1895, Bishop Maes accepted the office of Protector of this League. Keenly interested in the work of Father Eymard, he heartily 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, Superior of the Montreal foundation, went to the Mexico City in late 1899 to study the possibilities of a foundation there. He discovered what seemed to be ideal 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 a ciborium supported by spiral columns of white marble, a most suitable shrine. Although he sent a favorable recommendation to the Major Superiors of the Congregation in Paris, the political atmosphere of the time was far from favorable. The General Council of the Congregation did not accept the proposal. It was a stroke of Divine Providence, because the revolutionary upheavals that repeatedly scourged that country would have been the downfall of any foundation there.
On his return from Mexico City, Father Estevenon 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 all took up the cause. Miss Lummis also gathered influential Catholic lay people, among whom was Miss Annie Leary, a papal countess.
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. So as not to be a financial burden on the diocese, Countess Leary and the other ladies gave $50,000 to begin the project. Archbishop Corrigan received a flattering letter of commendation from Archbishop Bruchesi of Montreal and on May 1, 1900, he officially invited the Congregation to the New York to locate a suitable place for a eucharistic shrine.
The Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament Comes to Saint Jean’s
On the eve of the Ascension, May 24th, 1900, Father Arthur Letellier left Montreal with Brother Patrick Welsh and arrived in New York the following morning. 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 Monteral on June 6, 1900. For several weeks the trio let 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 Brother Patrick.
When Brother Patrick was not teaching English, he cooked for the little community. Although this genial Brother had many fine qualities, his meals were prepared with more good-will than skill. 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 community accepted the generous offer, and Father Estevenon often referred to as the kindness of the Rectory Staff at St. Patrick’s, 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 Welsh returned to Montreal.
The Fathers soon learned of the Canadian church of 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, pastor of the church, said to them one day, 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 the Archbishop Corrigan who then and there decided to effect a long-desired change. The very next day he informed Father Tetreau that the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament would talk over the church of Saint Jean Baptiste. Father Tetreau gave his farewell sermon on September 30, 1900. The parish held a reception to bid God-speed 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.
The Secular Priests of Saint Jean Baptiste soon departed. Father Tetreau returned to his native diocese of Nicolet, Canada. His brother, Father John Tetreau, went to Washingtonville, New York, and became the first pastor of the 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 Manitoba, 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 ten o’clock mass, while father Letellier spoke in English at all the other Masses. The community was now complete; reinforcements of Fathers and Brothers arrived in New York on October 3, 1900. Nine religious made up the group: Father Estevnon, Superior, Father Arthur Leterllier, Father Telesphore Roy, Father Alfred Pauze, Father Remi Gingras, Brother Ferdinand Stubert, Brother Leonard Routhier, Brother Patrick Welsh and Brother Elie Gringas.
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 name, 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 who would help the Congregation to make of Saint Jean Baptiste a nationally known shrine of eucharistic worship. The Boy’s Choir of Saint Ignatius, under the direction of Father Young, S.J., sang at the Mass and Benediction.
Developments at “Old Saint Jean’s”
Saint Jean’s never had, even from the start, an exclusive national character. Many people found their way to “Old Saint Jean’s” attracted by the daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and 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 zealously promoting both practices. The faithful were inspired to see the Fathers and Brothers coming hour after hour for adoration of our Eucharistic Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The size of the community did not permit nocturnal adoration more than once a week, but they invited the people to participant in this weekly vigil. Father Letellier busied himself with the school and other parish activities, Father Pauze with the Sodality and the eucharistic societies, 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 Lagacè became the chaplain to the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, at Madison Avenue at 81st Street. He ministered there for twenty years. Father Beat Gmur took over the chaplaincy of Lenox Hill Hospital, at East 76th Street, and answered sick calls day and night for over thirty years. The Congregation also became the ordinary and extraordinary confessors of various communities of sisters. All this pastoral work further spread the knowledge of Saint Jean’s and brought more and more people to the eucharistic shrine.
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 worshippers who came, not only to see the brilliant repository on Holy Thursday, but also on week-days, to join the Community in the public homage paid to Christ Eucharistic.
The “New Saint Jean’s”
Father Letellier succeeded Father Estevenon as Superior of the Community and Pastor of Saint Jean’s in 1903. Everyone who knew him recognized his zeal and great vision for the church. He was a leader with a keen faith and a love of the Eucharistic. 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 offering to pave the way for the erection of an edifice more worthy of the eucharistic King. These fervent wishes and prayers materialized in 1910.
The momentous decision was the result of a very simple conversation between Father Letellier and prominent financier, Mr. Thomas Fortune Ryan. Serving as Mr. Ryan’s advisor for his many charitable enterprises, Miss Katherine O’Conner, a friend of Miss Lummis and of Countess Leary, often discussed the work of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament with him. 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 opened 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, he arrived a bit late one Sunday and had to remain standing during the entire Mass in the over crowded 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 Fathers 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 lease $300,000,” he replied at once. “Very well,” said Mr. Ryan. “Have your plans made and I will pay for the church”.
The Site of “New Saint Jean’s”
The site of the project was the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and East 76th Street. The Congregation bought some land in 1910 but the price asked for the rest of the ground needed for the project was prohibited. 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.
Representatives of the Congregation then bought up the necessary land in their own names and re-sold the 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 foundation? Later a church may rise on this spot!” Mr. Irwin later became a convert and often narrated the incident with pride. The contract to demolish the apartment houses was given to J. Reeber & 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 hold-outs 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 amount to $10,000.
The Foundations of the New Saint Jean’s
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 digging of the foundation was complete. Two brooks, one rising the vicinity of West 90th Street and draining what is now Central park, and the other rising 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 19th century. In order to reach solid bedrock for the foundations, the digging had to go twenty five feet lower than the original plan. Because of this setback, the plans for gilding the dome and towers, and the plans for decorating the interior with marble and mosaic were postponed indefinitely.
Mr. Ryan had stipulated that his name be kept a 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 Mr. Ryan’s office which made headline copy of his generous assistant to Saint Jean’s and to other important institutions.
Mr. Ryan took an active interest in all the phases of the new construction. He had cherished the plan of a church that, although small, would be rich and elaborate in every detail. Father Letellier called upon all his diplomatic skills 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 Letllier 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 $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 called for a church of the purest Renaissance style, with one hundred and fifty foot high twin towers surmounting the edifice, and with a great dome one hundred and seventy-five feet above the floor level of the upper church. Arches and fluted pilasters support a rounded ceiling. A wide cornice decorates the nave at the middle height of the apse. Circling the altar is a triforium, Indiana limestone lines the church exterior. The facade in the original plans called for an imposing arch-of-triumph portico, supported by four gigantic columns, and an impreesive approach of church-wide steps. Unfortunately, the widening of Lexington Avenue later required the partial removal of the steps.
The Blessing of the Cornerstone
After one year of work, the construction of the new church 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 Brother who took up the offerings at the ceremony had to elbow their way through the dense crowd with their collection baskets. Saint Joseph, one the Patrons of the Congregation, whose intercession had saved the Congregation from many a financial disaster during its early days, was called upon to make a success of the ceremony. Father Letellier said to the sacristan, Brother Elie: “Place his statue right out in the open, the first thing of all, and remove it after everything else has been take in.” Clearly, Saint Joseph was “on the spot;” moreover, it was the feast of his patronage. Such confidence was well rewarded and 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, who presided at the ceremony, set and blessed the cornerstone. One thousand school children took part in the procession. They were followed by three hundred Sodalists, dressed in white. An impressive group of men marched to their respective seats, scattered around the steel frame-work which rose like a giant web. Two hundred member of the Nocturnal Adoration Society, one hundred Cadets of the Eymard Lyceum, and six hundred members of the Holy Name Society from different parishes of the city formed the male contingent.
Bishop John Chidwick, 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 as the living cornerstone of the Church, and reviewed the growth of the Church in 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 praise for the Congregation and congratulated the friends and parishioners of Saint Jean’s for their sustained generosity. He joked that he would not be offended if the new church were to surpass in beauty his own Cathedral of St. Patrick.
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 Fathers, Brothers and volunteers transported the contents of the sacristy from “Old Saint Jean’s,” in preparation for the opening of the Lower Church on Sunday, February 25. Father Letellier was celebrating the twenty-fifth 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 giving his generous heart and undaunted will.
Bishop Maes of Covington, Kentucky 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 twenty-fifth anniversary. The friend 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 many congratulatory speeches. Miss Helen Toohig presented a bouquet of twenty-five lillies, a one hundred dollar bill curled at 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 chalice, heavily studded with precious stones, the nodus set off by four large and unusually perfect star sapphires.
Dedication of the Upper Church
The blessing of the lower church of Saint Jean’s represented the first step in the realization of Father Letellier’s goal. Soon the walls rose higher and higher, and the roof with its towering dome covered the nave and sanctuary. Although the permanent altar and choir stalls were not in place, the upper church was ready for public worship. The ceremony of the dedication took place on January 6, 1914. In less than fourteen 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 worshippers 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 while the spacious nave overflowed with the many friends and benefactors of Saint Jean’s and representatives of the People’s Eucharistic League.
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 tactfully referred 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 has crowned his efforts, a man 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 gifts. 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 me more pleasure than this one – 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 Sacrifice of the New Law…From the altar 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 homages 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.
Father Letellier and his Successors
Father Letellier was succeeded by Father Fernando Gaudet in 1914. A heavy debt still burdened Saint Jean’s in spite of the generosity of Mr. Ryan. It was the temporary halt in completeing the interior decorations that made it possible to chip away at the debt.
In 1918, Father Gaudet established a new foundation in Chicago where he became the first superior of Notre Dame church. Father Arthur Letellier returned as the pastor and superior of Saint Jean’s in 1918.
Father Alphonse Pelletier was appointed after Father Letellier’s death in 1921. He had been the Superior of the Montreal community and had distinguished himself as the general secretary of the International Eucharistic Congress held in Montreal in 1910. Father Pelletier became the first Provincial Superior of the American Province of Saint Anne.