At the junctures of Manhattan’s Little Italy, Chinatown and Soho is a tiny jewel box of a chapel that many people would mistake for an Orthodox church.
In actuality, St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Chapel is a community very much in union with Rome.
Named for one of the three archangels whose feast is celebrated Sept. 29 in the Western Church, St. Michael’s is located in the heart of old New York. The tiny, peaceful church epitomizes the meaning of the word “serene.”
The chapel is the home of the Byzantine-rite Community of the Holy Archangel Michael Russian Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church has 21 rites besides the Latin, representing an entire planet’s worth of cultural and liturgical uniqueness. The Byzantine is one of the larger rites in the Church and is practiced by millions of Eastern Catholics.
Historically, the parish has served the Russian community liturgically, but has opened its doors pastorally to all in need. The chapel is immediately outside Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s historic wall. The brick wall saved the lives of many Catholics during Nativist/Know Nothing Riots against poor Irish immigrants and Catholics in general. The Church had always been on the forefront, sometimes single-handedly, fighting for human rights, but nowhere more clearly and poignantly than on Mulberry Street. The street where the chapel is located saw some of the bloodiest riots in American history, which were made famous in Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York.
Sense of Home
With many Russians fleeing their homeland in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, Father Andrew Rogosh arrived in New York on Christmas Day 1935 in order to serve the needs of Russian Catholic immigrants on the Lower East Side. Russians had emigrated following the Bolshevik Revolution.
Almost immediately, Father Rogosh started raising funds for a chapel dedicated to Russian Catholics. It was built and dedicated the following year.
World War II brought a new wave of Russians to New York City. Father Rogosh sought out the new immigrants, converting many to Catholicism. The Russian Catholic rite, which was reminiscent of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, gave immigrants a sense of home and of their own ancient tradition.
New waves of immigration hit New York in 1974 and 1989, at the end of the Cold War.
St. Michael’s has been visited by several prominent Catholics over the years, including Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Catherine de Hueck Dougherty, founder of Madonna House, and Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain. Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek, the Polish-American who clandestinely ministered in the Soviet Union, was one of many Byzantine Jesuits who served at St. Michael’s from their base at Fordham University’s John XXIII Center during the 1970s. In fact, Father Ciszek’s first visit to St. Michael’s was on the first day he returned to New York after his release from a Soviet gulag in 1963. He recounted his experiences in With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me.
Windows Into Heaven
There are no pews at St. Michael’s: There’s no need for them, as standing is the norm throughout the Divine Liturgy. St. Michael’s is built on a square basilica plan, albeit on a tinier scale.
As soon as one walks in, one is struck by the beauty of the iconostasis, or icon screen, which separates the church’s nave from the sanctuary in Eastern churches. The screen is covered with icons of Christ and his Mother and various saints, including St. John the Baptist and the patron saint of the church, in this case, St. Michael. In the East, icons are seen as windows into heaven.
Contrary to popular belief, the iconostasis does not separate the nave from the sanctuary. Instead, it unites the two, just as it unites this world and heaven, thus making it a symbol for Christ himself. He is the connection and unifying force between the two worlds (Luke 11:9-10, Revelations 3:20). By his death, by giving up his own body, we are given access to him (Hebrews 10:19-20).
The iconostasis has three sets of doors: the Beautiful Gates, also known as the Royal or Holy Doors in the center, and the Deacons’ Doors to either side. The doors are opened only when Divine Liturgy or vespers is being celebrated, and the priest, deacon and acolytes process through them several times.
Divine Liturgy is celebrated with great, billowing waves of incense. One feels transported to a different place and time. The Eucharist is distributed, body and blood together, on a small golden spoon. One feels as if one is truly being fed by the Church.
Bridging the Gap
St. Michael’s reaches out to immigrants and the great unchurched masses just as it has over the past 70 or so years. In addition to reaching out to immigrants, the poor and the marginalized, an important part of its ministry is bridging the gap between the Latin Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. As both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have often said, “The Church breathes with two lungs” (East and West). St. Michael’s works on a grassroots level toward Christian unity and the full communion of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
St. Michael’s Chapel is in the midst of plans to accommodate its growing community. Not everyone who worships at St. Michael’s is Russian. Worshippers may come for the uniqueness of the liturgy, but they stay for the profundity of the spiritual experience and the warmth of the parishioners.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.
St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Chapel
266 Mulberry St.
New York, NY 10012
Planning Your Visit
Vespers is sung on Saturday at 6 p.m., preceded by confession. Divine Liturgy is on Sundays at 11 a.m. During Lent, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, a vespers-like service with Communion, is offered on Wednesdays at 6 p.m.
While at St. Michael’s, stop in at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral next door and nearby San Gennaro’s Chapel at Most Precious Blood Church.
St. Michael Chapel is located at 266 Mulberry St. between Prince and Houston Streets in Manhattan. By subway, take the S and F train to the Broadway/Lafayette St. Station, N and R trains to the Prince St. Station, or the 6 train to the Spring St. Station. Walk east from any of those stations to Mulberry Street.