This is the story of a tiny little church in a tiny little village on a tiny little island. The church is St. Joseph’s, the village is Greenwich, and the island is Manhattan.

Located in the heart of Greenwich Village on the Avenue of the Americas, the church’s facade has a certain sterile “bankish” quality and colonial sparseness. Most visitors to St. Joseph’s think it’s Protestant. Personally, I compare that sparseness to a monk’s cell: It’s simple, clean and stripped of superfluous decoration that can distract those who come here to pray.

It was here in this church that Dorothy Day converted to Catholicism. Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, also worshipped here. And Thomas Merton deepened his faith in this church when he lived in the Village.

Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Sts. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Mother Frances Cabrini, and numerous priests and religious who ministered in the neighborhood for many years more than likely stopped by St. Joseph’s for Mass.

Rich History

The parish has been dedicated to social justice among New York City’s poor, displaced and disenfranchised since its inception. The church runs a soup kitchen and homeless shelter.

The Archdiocese of New York has a great devotion to St. Joseph, whose feast day is March 19: It has named five parishes after Jesus’ earthly father, including the parish on the Upper East Side that Pope Benedict XVI visited during his apostolic visit in 2008. Technically, this parish’s name is Saint-Joseph-in-the-Village to distinguish it from the other four.

Though St. Joseph’s Church was founded by Bishop John Dubois in 1829 as New York City’s sixth parish, it is the oldest church edifice in New York. St. Peter’s on Barclay Street (1785), St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street (1809), St. James on Oliver Street (1827), Transfiguration on Mott Street (1827) are all older, but their original buildings were either destroyed or razed, thus making St. Joseph’s the oldest.

The church was designed by John Doran, who masterfully combined a Greek Revival style with a remarkable number of Gregorian features. This was apparently his only work. At the time of its construction, it was the second-largest Catholic church in the city, second only to St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. In 1879, modernist-style stained-glass windows were installed in the church’s south wall. Today they still add beautiful but subdued splashes of color in the church.

The church was dedicated on Sunday, March 16, 1834. The first Mass featured a full orchestra, and it was estimated at the time that a full third of the congregation were Protestants who came to experience the novelty of an orchestra concert in a church.

St. Joseph’s is one of the few Catholic churches in New York City to have a gallery that wraps around three sides of the church. The parish was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and runaway slaves would hide in the choir loft. Since the parish was instrumental in helping escaped slaves, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the priests and parishioners of St. Joseph’s were also responsible for the creation of St. Benedict the Moor Parish, New York’s first church for black Catholics (340 W. 53rd St., between 8th and 9th Avenues).

Special Fresco

When the parish decided to remove the church’s high altar and reredos during the 1972 renovations, they were shocked to find a fresco that dated from the original construction. In fact, it is now considered to be the oldest fresco in America. The unsigned piece depicts the upper portion of Raphael’s “Transfiguration of Christ With Moses and Elijah” and was painted by an unknown traveling artist. It is a copy of the original piece in the Vatican created in 1520. Before being covered up by a back altar, those in charge whitewashed it several times, making the fresco’s restoration project even more difficult.

Many have stood and marveled at the enormous fresco. Whenever I come to this church, I recall God’s words to Peter, James and John: “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5).

On Dec. 3, 1972, Servant of God Cardinal Terence Cooke, then archbishop of New York, celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving to celebrate the church’s renovation and made special note of the newly discovered fresco.

Active Parish

Currently, the parish’s children’s catechetical ministry is increasing by leaps and bounds due to the number of families moving into the neighborhood.

Currently, five Dominican friars serve at St. Joseph’s. In 2005, the parish was restructured as The University Parish of St. Joseph to serve the Catholic communities of New York University, Cooper Union, New School and Pace University. The Dominicans have placed their own unique spiritual mark on St. Joseph’s by inviting the parish community to their morning and evening prayers, which are becoming increasingly popular among students.

That’s no surprise: St. Joseph’s silence and simplicity overwhelms and strengthens the solitary soul looking for a moment of respite.

Angelo Stagnaro writes

from New York City.