There aren’t many churches in Christendom where the person sitting next to you is likely a star of stage, screen or television.
St. Malachy’s Church, located on 49th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, founded in 1902, is a little jewel box of a church and an essential and important aspect of New York City’s theatrical community.
Because of its location in the midst of the Theatre District — and the number of actors who have graced its precincts — it has come to be known as the Actors’ Chapel.
Prior to 1920, St. Malachy’s was a working-class Irish-Italian parish. When the Theatre District established itself in Midtown, actors, producers, playwrights, dancers, musicians, craftsmen and a lot of out-of-town theatergoers began to fill the pews. Jimmy Durante, Pat O’Brien, Don Ameche, Fred Allen and Cyril Ritchard were altar boys here.
St. Malachy’s parish register is a veritable Who’s Who of the entertainment world. Douglas Fairbanks married Joan Crawford at St. Malachy’s. Rudolph Valentino’s funeral was celebrated here, and Herb Shriner’s children were all baptized here. Other stars who have worshipped at the church include George M. Cohan, Spencer Tracy, Perry Como and Florence Henderson, a great supporter of the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Ind. Other churchgoers have included Bob and Dolores Hope, Rosiland Russell and Danny Thomas.
Over the years, St. Malachy’s has adapted itself to meet the needs of its parishioners. Masses were rescheduled so as to better accommodate the hectic and demanding schedules of people involved in the theater. In fact, the parish instituted an 11 p.m. Mass on Saturdays so that actors and stagehands can fulfill their Sunday obligations.
The Church has always been dedicated to the arts. In fact, there are many patron saints associated with the stage performances, including Lawrence (comedians), Don Bosco (magicians), Nicholas Owen (stage illusionists), Vitus (dancers), Cecilia (musicians), Lidwina of Schiedam (figure skaters), Simeon Salos (puppeteers) and Julian the Hospitaller (jugglers).
The chapel is dedicated to St. Malachy (1094-1148), archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, and the first Irish-born saint to be canonized by a pope. He reformed and reorganized the Irish Church, especially its clergy and monks, and brought it into union with Rome. He is credited with having re-established Christianity after it had been largely wiped out by Viking invaders
Though St. Malachy was said to possess the gift of prophecy and miracles, he is incorrectly associated with a supposed list of the last 112 popes. Despite being found out to be a forgery, the list has persisted in the popular imagination.
When one steps into St. Malachy’s, one is struck by an electricity that permeates the building and can best be described as an almost mischievous cheerfulness.
The building is a delightful structure that mirrors the Irish heritage of its original neighborhood community, but the unique and most attractive feature is its long-standing association with and support of the city’s entertainment community.
St. Genesius’ Chapel includes icons of St. Vitus, Blessed Fra Angelico, patron of painters, and Blessed Dina Bélanger, patron of concert pianists. (She studied at the Conservatory of Music in New York before becoming a nun.)
The chapel’s set of four icons were painted by Ken Jan Woo, a New York artist born in Shanghai. A convert to Catholicism, he finds the full flower of his spiritual expression in his dedication to icons.
“The icon isn’t complete until it has been blessed and installed,” said Woo. “To make the icon ‘active,’ it needs to be blessed. The art isn’t a sacramental until God imbues it with his holiness, until it is sacramentalized by being dedicated to him.”
Father Richard Baker, St. Malachy’s pastor, plans to add an icon of St. Clare, patron of television, to the chapel.
And, if Pope John Paul II — who in his youth was an aspiring actor and playwright — is canonized, the parish has plans to include his icon as patron of playwrights.
Producers, directors, dancers, playwrights and actors still make an appearance at St. Malachy’s on opening nights to light candles for the success of their respective shows.
The parish celebrates a blessing of artists at the end of August on the Monday closest to the 25th, St. Genesius’ feast day. Recently, however, parishioners have requested that the feast day be celebrated in September, when the actors and their families are back in town.
St. Genesius made the laudable mistake of converting to Christianity in front of one of ancient Christianity’s worst enemies, Diocletian. Genesius was a very popular comedic actor at the time and, like many pagans, ridiculed Christ and his followers. The fateful play in which he turned to Christ coincidently had a scene that mocked the sacrament of baptism.
He had infiltrated the underground Christian community in order to learn of their sacraments so as to better mimic them during his performance.
The irony of the situation was greatest for the emperor himself. The play was specifically written to honor his persecution of the Christians. It was in the midst of the play when St. Genesius realized his faith in the Savior. As the words of the baptism were spoken and the water fell upon his head, the actor realized his faith. He forsook his patron and, instead, turned to his real Patron. Immediately, the new Christian professed his faith.
At first, Diocletian, along with the rest of the audience, roared with laughter. It was, after all, a satirical play about Christians and their sacraments. But it soon became apparent to everyone present: St. Genesius offered to catechize the emperor. “There is no king other than Jesus Christ, and even if you could kill me a thousand times, you could not take him from my lips nor tear him from my heart,” announced the actor, sealing his fate and his faith.
In a town and in a profession where a public witness to the faith is perhaps needed more than ever, the dedication of this parish to St. Genesius is vital.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.