St. Vincent Ferrer Church is magnificent in Manhattan
One of my favorite parts of going to New York City is escaping the hustle of mid-town and the bustle around Grand Central Station for the relative peace of the upper-east side.
It's lively here in its own way, but the smaller shops and historic town-houses seem far removed from the adjacent skyscraper forest.
With this little bit of breathing room, the striking St. Vincent Ferrer Church on the corner of Lexington Ave. and 66th St. is a perfect place for an impromptu spiritual retreat.
There was even more elbow room in 1867, when Dominicans founded St. Vincent's as the second parish in this neighborhood, now one of the nation's wealthiest. Looking at the English Gothic edifice from across the street, I am immediately taken with the delicate, intricate tracery of the great rose window that stretches high over the main doors.
Between the window and the entrance is a large, intricately carved crucifix. I was surprised to learn upon my recent visit that Lee Laurie sculpted this holy rood. Most everybody is familiar with his statue of Atlas across from St. Patrick's Cathedral in Rockefeller Center. And Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, wrote that many believe the church's stained glass to be the most beautiful in the United States.
But Catholic travelers quickly realize these are only two features of a spiritual and architectural treasure.
New York Nuance
The stone church, its granite darkened with the years, has a majestic appearance outside; it seems even bigger inside — and somehow ancient beyond its years. I at once felt transported back to old New York, and beyond that, to the Gothic grandeur of centuries' old churches in Europe.
Every detail works together to announce that this is sacred, holy ground, and prayer is the first order of the visit. The massive piers of block sandstone, the Gothic arches along the nave and the soaring ceiling carry the eye to the sanctuary. Even the intense cobalt blues and ruby reds of the tall, stained-glass windows along the nave don't intrude on the sense of visual intimacy. Indeed, they help enfold visitors in the sanctity of the place.
“The eye is drawn inexorably here, which is the way it's supposed to be,” Dominican Father Boniface Ramsey told me as we stood in the sanctuary. He had the privilege of growing up as a parishioner of St. Vincent's.
Lined with choir stalls, the deep sanctuary gives the place a theatrical effect, he said, and I could see exactly what he meant. The high altar, carved with exquisite designs and accoutrements, left me slack-jawed.
My eyes feasted on the magnificent details before me in marble, lapis lazuli and pearl. Then there's the huge tabernacle — one of the most magnificent one in the world, according the Father Ramsey. Its intricate details, not easily seen from the pews, boast goldwork ornamented with enameled Old and New Testament scenes that anticipate or directly present the Eucharist. A Crucifixion scene with angels tops the tabernacle.
Next level up, the paintings on the soaring reredos portray St. Vincent Ferrer leading a procession of friars. The flame above his head reminds visitors of his Pentecostal gift: His preaching was said to be understood in many languages. The trumpet he holds here is associated with the angel announcing the Last Judgement — the Second Coming was a favorite homiletic theme of St. Vincent.
A dazzling icon-like Christ, seated in majesty, crowns the reredos. Higher still, the great east rose window depicts the seven angels of the Apocalypse, St. Vincent (who's often called the angel of the Apocalypse) and Christ.
You can't possibly catch every detail of the perfectly balanced art, let alone absorb all its messages. There's just too much visual stimuli; your eyes won't rest on any one spot for long before being tempted away to something else. The display just never seems to end.
The Dominican nuns who staff the parish school got daily close-up views when they used the nuns' gallery high in the sanctuary. It was modeled after St. George's Gallery in Windsor Castle.
The Dominicans chose the most outstanding people of the day to build the church, Father Ramsey explained. Everything was custom-made by the best artisans; nothing was “store-bought.”
Medieval in Manhattan
Bertram Goodhue, considered the greatest neo-Gothic architect of his time, designed the church. Even with such high-profile works to his credit as the chapel at West Point and St. Bartholomew's Church, he stated in a 1920 letter, part of this parish's archive, that he considered this his finest work.
Goodhue was a dogged craftsman who had his hand in everything. It was his unique idea to have the Stations of the Cross painted to look as if they were done by different artists at different times and then collected by the church.
So we see them in the style of Giotto, for example, and Eastern iconography, even though they were created by people with names like Telford and Paullin.
The sets of tall triple lancets lining the nave present Dominican saints in elaborate patterns. If you didn't know better, you would think they'd been lifted straight out of medieval European churches. Look for more of this flavor in the friars' chapel to the right of the sanctuary.
The west rose window is similarly rich in detail. St. Dominic is in the center, surrounded with six trefoils featuring Dominican saints. More saints appear in the five lancets below. Like firm foundation layers, the 15 mysteries of the rosary in three rows underline them.
Mary is prominent — four shrines honor her. The latest one blends seamlessly with the original interior. The elaborate, colorful Rosary Altar, almost fully restored, has a very carefully carved reredos around Mary, presenting the rosary to St. Dominic.
I found two other peaceful side chapels that have an old-world Gothic appearance. They're distinguished by ironwork of grilles and silhouette-like scenes by Samuel Yellin. One of the chapel is dedicated to St. Joseph; the Pieta opposite his statue was displayed at the 1939 World's Fair.
Outside, I noted that the church property comprises several buildings, such as a priory, convent, Holy Name Society building, and school. All are visually tied together with Gothic lines. A walk around the neighborhood gives the Catholic traveler a seldom-appreciated perspective on Manhattan.
“It's not a well-known church, maybe because it's off the beaten path,” Father Ramsey observed. Here's hoping it stays that way — I like having this place all to myself when I'm in the neighborhood.
Joe Pronechen writes from