Amid the concrete and glass mountains and valleys of New York City lies a wonderful artistic, spiritual and historical treasure.
Walking into the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, one feels the magnificent weight of the Church’s history. It was from here that Servant of God Father Isaac Hecker (1819–1888), founder of the Paulist Fathers, envisioned a day when all of America would convert to the Church.
The parish will not only celebrate the Jan. 25 feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (with a Mass to be celebrated by Cardinal Edward Egan), it will also draw to a close its own 150th anniversary year. The church also has been designated as a special place of pilgrimage during this Year of St. Paul, marking the 2,000th anniversary of the apostle’s birth.
After spending many years of seminary studies in Europe, Father Hecker toured the great cathedrals of the continent and came to believe that a monumental basilica would be a clarion call to American Protestants to convert.
Father Hecker was himself a convert. In a day when anti-Catholic nativists perpetrated violence against the Church, he saw the Church as the singular hope for the American people and for the world.
Close to Lincoln Center, home of the Metropolitan Opera, as well as the Manhattan campus of Fordham University, the parish is home to a congregation with many actors and artists. A recent bulletin lists an upcoming Mass for the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev (requested by his fans).
Nearby apartment towers easily dwarf St. Paul’s, the mother church of the Paulist Fathers, but none is as lovely or as profoundly moving. Two architects were responsible for this magnificent edifice. Father Hecker first communicated his vision to Jeremiah O’Rourke, who was largely responsible for the building. Paulist Father George Deshon, Father Hecker’s colleague and a West Point-trained engineer, later took over and completed the church in 1885.
Everything about St. Paul the Apostle is built to impress. The Great East Doors are 30 feet high and 16 feet wide, about five times the height of an average person and wide enough to allow two trucks to drive in side by side. The 13th-century Gothic towers are uncommonly tall for New York City. The very open and airy church is built on the basilica plan with a richly decorated interior. It is a colorful mélange of 4th- and 5th-century Byzantine design, reminiscent of basilicas in Ravenna, Italy, mixed tastefully with Moorish, Baroque and rococo elements.
Who’s Who of Art
The interior of the church was decorated by a veritable Who’s Who of American artists. Among the names the parish engaged were John LaFarge, William Laurel Harris and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The American artists’ work is augmented by the work of a half dozen European sculptors, painters and other artisans.
Stanford White designed the high altar, and three gilded bronze angels set above the altar were designed by Frederick MacMonnies of Saint-Gaudens’ studio. Beautiful mosaics adorn the front of the altar, including representations of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Four Evangelists and the Lamb of God.
The original baptismal font, designed by LaFarge, was moved to the center of the church (“in the spirit of Vatican II,” says the parish website) and surrounded by an immersion pool and parts of the church’s original communion rail.
Found in the northeast corner of the building is the church’s principle attraction: Father Hecker’s imposing, marble tomb. This Lumen Martin Winter sculpture depicts the Angel of the Resurrection enfolding Hecker and St. Paul the Apostle.
Father Hecker was a native New Yorker, the son of German immigrants. His family owned a very successful bakery and flour business in what is now Little Italy; he was put to work even at a very young age. But he was more attracted to spiritual commerce.
He was raised a Methodist but abandoned the religion to explore several other denominations, including spending time with the New England Transcendentalists. He even befriended Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson (the latter denounced him when Hecker decided to convert to Catholicism).
After seminary studies in Belgium, he was ordained a Redemptorist priest. His superiors ultimately dismissed him as being incompatible with the order. Pope Pius IX, recognizing Father Hecker’s extraordinary zeal and piety, encouraged him to establish a congregation of priests dedicated to evangelizing North America. In 1858, New York Archbishop John Hughes gave a parish to Father Hecker and his Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle.
Father Hecker was convinced that if America’s founding principles of freedom and democracy were combined with Christ’s teachings, as exemplified and embodied by the Catholic Church, America surely would become a light to the nations.
The Paulists minister exclusively to Americans. The community’s mission is evangelization, ministering to the unchurched, the unreconciled, the marginalized and the alienated. They also work toward the eventual reunification of the body of Christ.
A year ago, Cardinal Egan formally opened Father Hecker’s cause for canonization here. St. Paul’s commemorates Father Hecker’s death each Dec. 22.
The Church of St. Paul the Apostle offers a magnificent respite from the daily grind. It’s a perfect reminder of God’s perfect love for us.
To sit quietly and uninterrupted in the presence of God in a church like this is joy itself.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from Queens, New York.