In the Heart of the Metropolis
After two centuries, New York's first parish still draws the faithful
BY Joseph Pronechen
February 14-20, 1999 Issue | Posted 2/14/99 at 2:00 PM
St. Peter's Church in New York has seen it all, from farmland to financial district.
Lower Manhattan is a series of narrow streets that originated with the Dutch settlement at the southern tip of the island. The British and, later, the Americans lengthened those lanes to reach farmlands that would someday be the site of the World Trade Center's twin towers.
In the late 18th century, New York City was small but not unimportant. It was the temporary capital of the new republic and therefore served as host to the diplomatic community assigned to the the fledgling nation. This was fortunate for the city's Catholics as they were able to gather for Mass at the home of the Spanish Ambassador, one of several Catholic emissaries and businessmen recently arrived in New York.
On Oct. 5, 1785, these Catholics saw a dream of their own church come closer to reality as the cornerstone for St. Peter's Church was laid at the corner of Barclay and Church streets.
Today, less than a half-mile from Federal Hall, the site of George Washington's first inauguration in 1789, St. Peter's continues to occupy the same spot on which it was founded. It wears the venerable mantle of being the first parish in New York state.
Of course, early parishioners wouldn't recognize the rows of neighborhood high-rise buildings, City Hall and Park a block away, and the Wall Street district, a short walk away. But they would still feel right at home before the magnificent painting “The Crucifixion” that has always been the structure's artistic and spiritual centerpiece.
A gift to the parish from the archbishop of Mexico City in 1789, it was painted by Mexican artist José Vallejo. At the beginning of the 19th century, the painting of the suffering Lord was a favorite of St. Peter's best-known parishioner, Elizabeth Ann Seton, who would become the first native U.S. citizen to be canonized a saint. Today, it remains above the tabernacle, centered on the reredos, a major inspiration for prayer for over 200 years.
“How that heart died away, as it were, in silence before that little tabernacle and the great Crucifixion above it,” wrote the future saint of her first visit to St. Peter's. She would return throughout her days in New York, meditating before the painting for hours at a time.
A native of the city and a member of the Protestant gentry, Seton worshipped at St. Paul's Episcopal. Dedicated in 1766, it is the oldest standing church in the city. She began worshipping at St. Peter's even before becoming Catholic. Following her husband's death, she wrote to a friend about a visit to St. Paul's: “I got in a side pew in which I was positioned in such a way that I was facing St. Peter's … in the next street. And I found myself speaking to the Blessed Sacrament in the Catholic Church, instead of looking at the naked altar where I was.”
On March 14, 1805, the young widow and mother made the longest journey of her life, leaving the Episcopal Church and going the two blocks to St. Peter's to become a Catholic.
Like St. Elizabeth, Pierre Tous-saint revered “The Crucifixion.” As a parishioner for 66 years, however, he knew both the original church and the present edifice that replaced it in 1836. The decision to build a new church was made to accommodate the growing congregation.
Starting when he was brought to New York in 1787 as a slave from Haiti (then called Saint Domingue by the French), he attended Mass daily at St. Peter's, where he also recited the rosary.
Declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1996, Toussaint must have been present at some of the Masses also attended by Seton. While they were from different backgrounds and neither mentions the other in writings, they must have known of each other. As foundress of the Sisters of Charity, Mother Seton sent nuns to help in an orphanage that Toussaint supported.
Toussaint might also have known Adelaide O&APOS;Sullivan, baptized as an infant at St. Peter's. She became Mother Adelaide of St. Theresa, a Carmelite prioress in Spain — another parishioner whose cause for sainthood is under consideration in Rome.
Toussaint, who lived just blocks north of the church, was a one-man charitable organization for the poor. He worked to buy the freedom of his sister and his future wife, Juliette. The couple became like foster parents to orphaned boys, raising and educating them in trades, then finding them jobs. This freed slave also brought to his home many victims of the yellow fever epidemics and nursed them back to health.
A top hairdresser always in demand by rich ladies, Toussaint was a tireless fund-raiser for many building and charitable projects, including the first St. Patrick's Cathedral in lower Manhattan and St. Patrick's Catholic Orphan Asylum. He was even confidant and counselor for many of the city's leading families. Some even called him “Our Saint Pierre.”
Another milestone: St. Peter's founded the first free Catholic school in New York in 1800, predating the public system, during a time when only the children of the wealthy were educated, and then by means of private tutors.
By 1831, children at St. Peter's Free School were being taught by Mother Seton's Sisters of Charity. This school was the root of the Catholic education system in the state. It closed in 1940 following the shift of the centuries-old residential neighborhood to what remains the capital of American business and finance.
The present church is a classic Greek revival edifice that includes a stately column-lined portico. The interior was renovated in 1905 with added marble, and again in 1989 for the parish bicentennial when the church was painted white, light mint green, with gilded highlighting that accentuates the Greco-Colonial architecture. Classic Greek detailing in scaled size even surrounds the tabernacle.
On the reredos, Ionic columns in contrasting marbles frame statues of Sts. Peter and Paul, and “The Crucifixion” painting.
To either side of the altar, intricate, arched white marble shrines honoring St. Patrick and St. Thérèse were added in this century. No less beautiful are side altars that honor the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph with the Child Jesus.
The church includes three notable murals. The elaborate ceiling above the main altar depicts the crucifixion of St. Peter. To either side, the nave depicts St. Peter in chains and St. Peter healing the beggar.
Groupings of Renaissance-style stained glass windows present four scenes connected with the Incarnation and Holy Family, and four from the Last Supper through the Ascension. Tall windows also honor our Blessed Mother and the saints. Their Renaissance look uses brilliant, flowing colors for images and medallions on the gold-white background.
Since Msgr. Robert M. O'Connell arrived as pastor in 1981, Sunday Mass attendance has increased as residences have reappeared in the neighborhood. The church now has St. Joseph's Chapel, a mission just blocks away at newly developing Battery Park City. Weekdays, the church has long since functioned as a parish away from home for thousands who work in the financial district. Six Masses, six hours of confessions, and nearly four hours of Eucharistic adoration are held every weekday.
The parish was established in tandem with the founding of a nation that would stretch far to the west. While all that surrounds the church at 16 Barclay St. has changed from farmland to finance, St. Peter's Church has become a local and federally recognized landmark. Through it all, the church remains the area's Catholic anchor and the parish church of American saints.
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