St. Peter Church in New York City has witnessed much in its 226 years as a parish, from the joyful birth of a new nation to the most devastating tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001.
The rear of St. Peter’s is a half block from Ground Zero; the front is just a block away.
As the oldest parish in the entire state, St. Peter’s first church building, begun in 1785, was flourishing before George Washington was sworn in as president of the new United States in 1789 at Federal Hall, not a hundred yards away.
Saints Have Prayed Here
U.S. history’s famous and not-so-famous have graced this church with their presence. A gift of 1,000 silver pieces from Spain’s King Charles III topped off donations to start building St. Peter’s.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was very familiar with the first church. On March 14, 1805, she and her children became Catholics at St. Peter’s. Days later, on March 25, she received her first holy Communion here.
Seton, who became the first native U.S. citizen to be canonized, loved to sit for hours and meditate on The Crucifixion, a magnificent painting over the main altar by Mexican artist Jose Vallejo. In 1789, St. Peter’s received it as a gift from the archbishop of Mexico City.
This same Crucifixion painting appears above the main altar today, even though the current church was built in 1836 in a Greek Revival style. The first solemn Mass was celebrated in 1837. The edifice is recognized as an official national and state landmark.
Adelaide O’Sullivan, another early parishioner, was baptized in St. Peter’s in 1817, and went on to become the saintly Carmelite Mother Adelaide of St. Teresa at the Carmel in the Diocese of Leon, Spain. Rome is currently considering her canonization cause.
Another 19th-century parishioner, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, is the parish’s other saint-in-the-making. He attended daily Mass and prayed the Rosary here.
He came to America as a slave from what is now Haiti, was eventually freed, and became a hairdresser much in demand by New York’s elite families. He devoted time to charitable work, including collecting funds for St. Patrick’s Catholic Orphan Asylum. He and his wife were also foster parents, raising and educating poor black boys.
St. Peter’s itself was at the forefront in education. In 1800, the parish established the first free Catholic school in the entire state. By 1831, the Sisters of Charity were teaching at the school — they were nuns from the order founded by former parishioner Mother Seton.
Consolation in Crisis
St. Peter’s offered major assistance during New York’s three yellow-fever epidemics from 1795 to 1805. In all three crises, the pastor, later joined by two other priests, tirelessly helped victims. They were cited by the city and citizens for their efforts. Toussaint also went into restricted areas and brought many of the sick back to his own home to care for them.
Two centuries later, St. Peter’s helped in the World Trade Center attack. So close to Ground Zero, the church sustained very little damage. Quickly on that fateful day, and the days that followed, St. Peter’s became the place workers brought emergency equipment, according to Father Kevin Madigan, the pastor. Medical supplies and food piled into the church too, and exhausted workers rested there. It was here that firefighters placed the body of their New York City Fire Department chaplain, Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, “Victim 0001” killed in the attack, before the altar.
Half a mile away, the parish’s mission of St. Joseph Chapel was stripped of pews and became the command center for police, firefighters and construction workers. Priests celebrated Mass in a tent. Now completely rebuilt, the chapel has a Catholic memorial at Ground Zero.
Both parish and mission were hit hard by the loss of so many people who came to the church for Mass during the week. (The largest faith group to perish in 9/11 was Catholics.)
St. Peter’s has long been known as a “commuter church” because it serves many people who work in the financial districts nearby. Many of the parishioners who lived near St. Peter’s had to move from the area after 9/11.
But a surprising reversal has happened. “After 9/11, the neighborhood has grown and nearly tripled in population,” said Father Madigan, who remains the pastor. Sunday Masses have gained in attendance as a result.
“We had our first first Communion here in 50 years,” Father Madigan said. Most of the congregation is in their 20s and 30s, with many families with young children. After Mass, they gather at coffee hours.
After 9/11, the church was renovated, all with respect given to historical detail. Before that, some renovations were done in 1905, with added interior marble.
The Greek Revival design starts with the facade’s splendid portico, lined with six Ionic columns. The look is monumental — like St. Peter’s achievements.
The perfect classic Greek Revival proportions continue inside, beautifully accented with white and mint green colors, which were added in the 1980s. Gold gilding adds extra beauty to the interior.
An elaborate triangular pediment tops the main altar’s reredos and acts as a canopy for The Crucifixion below it. Ionic columns help frame the painting and also frame statues of Sts. Peter and Paul to either side of the painting. Below them, the center tabernacle is also framed with classic Ionic columns.
The marble details and architecture repeat in the shrines to either side of the sanctuary, which honor our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph with the Child Jesus. Near St. Joseph stands a statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
In the sanctuary itself, two arched while-marble shrines honor Sts. Therese and Patrick.
Luminous stained-glass windows showcase Renaissance style. Among them are scenes of the Incarnation, Holy Family, Passion and Ascension. Windows also honor our Blessed Mother and the saints.
Remarkable murals tell St. Peter’s story. One high in the sanctuary shows his crucifixion. On the ceiling in the nave, others recall his miraculous escape from prison and healing of the beggar. In the choir loft, one of the murals shows Jesus giving the keys of the Kingdom to Peter.
The pews have been restored to their original wood and refinished. Father Madigan said they were installed in 1840 and made from trees that grew along the Hudson River when Henry Hudson was sailing along it.
But it is the commanding words of Christ that are most poignant post-9/11. After the World Trade Center tragedy, Father Madigan added an inscription in the sanctuary; the words flow high across the entire space like a ribbon from one side to the other. Tall letters in gold leaf proclaim: Tu es Petrus, et hanc super Petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus eam (You are Peter, and upon this rock I will built my Church. And the gates of hell will not prevail against it).
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
St. Peter Church
22 Barclay St.
New York, NY 10007