A trip up the Hudson River is a voyage into Catholic America’s history. The river has been blessed by the presence of many holy men and women who have sailed into New York Harbor and labored upon the river’s shores. Some of them are recognized by the Church, while the holiness of millions of others is known only by God.
The waterway’s original European name was the St. Anthony River. A century before Hudson sailed up the river — 400 years ago this year — the Catholic navigators Giovanni da Verrazano (1485-1528) and Estêvão Gomes (1483-1538) piloted their ships along its shores and placed it under the patronage of St. Anthony of Padua. More likely than not, Verrazano and Gomes brought priests with them, so Mass was offered in New York City long before Europeans actually settled there.
In 1655, Jesuit Father Simon Le Moyne sailed down the river to New Amsterdam to minister to French Catholic sailors. In 1684, when the duke of York claimed New York as an English colony, the city’s Catholic governor, Thomas Dongan, enacted the first law in the colony establishing religious liberty. It is believed that the first nonclandestine Mass said on Manhattan Island was on Oct. 30, 1683, in a chapel Dongan opened about where the United States Custom House now stands (i.e., One Bowling Green), which is very close to where Mother Ann Seton set up shop to assist new immigrants.
St. Isaac Jogues (1607–1646), the Jesuit martyr and apostle to the Iroquois and Huron, was the first priest recorded to celebrate Mass in Manhattan. He gave up an academic career in order to evangelize the Huron Indians of the Hudson River and beyond. He traveled to them by boat up the Hudson. After being tortured, Jogues escaped his captors and returned to France minus several fingers, which the Iroquois had cut, chewed or burned off. At the time, a priest with mutilated hands couldn’t celebrate Mass, but Pope Urban VIII gave the Jesuit special permission to do so saying, “It would be shameful that a martyr of Christ be not allowed to drink the blood of Christ.”
As soon as he was rested and healed, Jogues requested to return to the Hurons; so once again he sailed up the Hudson — but this time to his martyrdom. Seven other Jesuit missionaries from Sainte-Marie, France, ministered among the Hurons and were martyred.
Starting in New York
New York City dominates Hudson River history, as it is the first stop for European immigrants. In 1830, Bishop John Dubois (1764-1842), the city’s third bishop, estimated that there were 35,000 Catholics in New York City and 150,000 throughout the rest of the state and in northern New Jersey, mostly made up of Irish emigrants.
St. Peter’s on Barclay Street was the first Catholic Church in New York City. John de Crèvecoeur, the French consul, secured an act of incorporation on June 10, 1785, for the trustees of the Roman Catholic Church of the city of New York. Thomas Stoughton, the Spanish consul, helped purchase the land from nearby Trinity Church on Oct. 5, 1785.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774–1821), St. John Neumann (1811–1860), St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) and Mother Mary Angeline Teresa McCrory (1893-1984) all stood at the piers on the Hudson waiting for immigrants. Mother Seton founded the Sisters of Charity and the city’s first private charitable organization.
St. Veronica’s in Greenwich Village, located at 149 Christopher St., was built by and for longshoremen who worked at the piers along the Hudson. The parish was established in 1886.
At the very northern tip of Manhattan Island lies The Cloisters, which is essentially a Catholic museum. It overlooks the Hudson atop Manhattan’s second-tallest peak and contains some of the finest sacred art treasures of European Christendom from the 12th through 15th centuries.
Just beyond the Bronx is the city of Yonkers, the home of St. Joseph’s Seminary and College, also known as Dunwoodie, the major seminary of the Archdiocese of New York. St. Joseph’s is considered to be one of the more prestigious and orthodox Catholic seminaries in the United States.
A bit further up the Hudson, one comes across Our Lady of Cold Spring chapel. It was built in 1834 to serve the West Point foundry workers on the other side of the river. Catholic cadets at West Point would row across the river every Sunday to attend Mass. When Bishop Dubois consecrated the Greek Revival chapel, it became the first Catholic church in the Hudson area and the first one beyond Manhattan. When the parish moved in 1906 to its current building a few blocks away, it changed its name to Our Lady of Loretto. The old chapel was decommissioned and is now used as an interfaith wedding chapel.
Immediately north of West Point, in the town of New Windsor, is the grave of Father Charles Uncles, American’s first black priest. His ordination in 1891 attracted the attention of The New York Times. In 1893, Father Uncles, along with five other priests, founded the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the Josephites. Their mission was to work with the 4 million newly emancipated slaves in America. Father Uncles taught at Epiphany Apostolic College in Baltimore. In 1925, the college was relocated to New Windsor. At the age of 74, on July 20, 1933, Father Uncles died at the college and was buried there. Once the property was sold, his remains were moved to nearby New Windsor’s Calvary Cemetery.
Though the Maryknoll mission society only has a small numerical presence on the Hudson River, its presence is felt very far away, including in India, Burma, China, Japan, Korea, Latin America and Africa. Their headquarters is located in Ossining, a short distance from the banks of the Hudson.
Midway to the river’s source, in the Adirondack Mountains, near where the Erie Canal begins, is the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs. The shrine was founded in 1885 and dedicated to the Jesuit missionaries who were martyred at the Mohawk Indian village of Ossernenon between 1642 and 1646. Though Auriesville is technically located on the south bank of the Mohawk River, that waterway empties into the Hudson River and is therefore a natural extension of it. The first recitation of the Rosary in what is now New York state took place here on Sept. 29, 1642. Also, it was where Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman, was born in 1656. She converted to Christ and was baptized in nearby Fonda.
From beginning to end, the magnificent Hudson River is steeped in Catholic faith and history. Immigrants, converts, martyrs, saints, confessors and missionaries all touched the river in one way or another. I often find myself standing on many spots along the river and recall its initial dedication to St. Anthony. I’ve dipped my hands into its waters, which bless me because countless saints have already blessed its waters with their faith, their service and, in some cases, with their blood.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.
St. Peter’s on Barclay Street
St. Veronica’s in Greenwich Village ArchNY.org
The Cloisters MetMuseum.org
St. Joseph’s Seminary and College ArchNY.org/seminary
National Shrine of the North American Martyrs MartyrShrine.org
Father Uncles’ Gravesite Josephites.com