A Sign of Contradiction in the City That Never Sleeps

In the heart of Manhattan's business district, St. Agnes Church has few resident parishioners.

Yet the seven Masses each weekday are filled with midtown workers — and Sunday worshippers come from the area's many hotels and from all parts of the city's five boroughs plus Long Island and Westchester County, N.Y., and New Jersey.

They come for the reverently offered Masses, homilies that reach the head as well as the heart, a regular confession schedule, traditional devotions including the rosary twice a day and Sunday celebration of the Latin Tridentine Mass. On the first Friday of each month, the local Knights of Columbus council conduct an all-night vigil before the Blessed Sacrament. Year-round, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen are run out of the church's basement.

“It's exciting being a part of this parish,” says Father William Elder, who lives in the rectory and works as a judge on the archdiocesan tribunal. “John Paul II called New York City the capital of the world, and St. Agnes is in the heart of New York. For a priest, there is a great opportunity to preach the Gospel in the heart of what the Pope calls the culture of death. Yet you also get to see so many signs of life and light in the hearts of the people who come here.”

At 43rd Street between Third and Lexington Avenues, St. Agnes is famous for more than its location. Irish patriot Eamon De Valera was baptized there. Archbishop Fulton Sheen preached his “Last Seven Words” sermons on Good Friday from the church's pulpit, with crowds filling the upper and lower churches and spilling out onto the street to hear the famed preacher over loudspeakers. That street is now named in honor of the archbishop, though few New Yorkers use the name, preferring the simpler “East 43rd Street.”

The church in which the archbishop preached is no longer there because of another well-known, albeit sad, event. On Dec. 10, 1992, a five-alarm fire blazed through the century-old church, leaving only charred wood, parts of the marble high altar and the red-brick exterior. The New York Daily News headlined the “agony” of St. Agnes as news traveled around the globe about the homey little church that was loved seemingly by millions who stopped into St. Agnes while passing through New York.

The fire, traced to a faulty wire, broke out shortly before the weekday evening rush hour, when fortunately few people were in the church. Then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, nearby when he heard the news, rushed into the church and made sure people got out safely. A sacristan and priest removed the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle. Thousands of people missed their trains and buses home that evening to stand in the cold, hoping the beloved church, dedicated in 1877, could be saved. Homeless men and women, who had sought shelter and solace there, were turned away for once, and some of them sat on the sidewalk, weeping.

Five years later, after haggles over insurance and questions over design, a new St. Agnes Church rose from the ashes, anchored by the two brick towers from the old structure. The new church, with an Italian Renaissance façade, was something of an anomaly, drawing breath from the past and looking, as many remarked on first sight, unmistakably like a church.

The interior is graced with many traditional elements, including marble floors; an altar rail where communicants may kneel while receiving the Blessed Sacrament; a large, gold tabernacle resting at the center aisle; a panoply of saints in wood and paint; a raised pulpit located outside the sanctuary; confessionals; and real wax candles that burn and melt. Carved above the sanctuary are the Latin words of consecration: “Hoc Est Enim Corpus Meum … Et Calix Sanguinis Mei.”

The centerpiece of the sanctuary is a three-panel mural depicting the young St. Agnes, a third-century martyr — feast: Jan. 21 — being led by the Blessed Mother into the heavenly court. Other panels contain images of saints of the early Church, including St. Augustine (being baptized by St. Ambrose), St. Irenaeus, St. Christopher (carrying the Christ child) and St. Sebastian. To name just a few of the many statues, there are ones of St. Thomas More, the Irish martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries, St. Pius X, New York's own St. Elizabeth Seton, the Jesuit North American martyrs and Pierre Toussaint, whose cause is being advanced.

No Place Like It

Cardinal John O'Connor dedicated the new St. Agnes Church on Jan. 17, 1998.

Msgr. Eugene Clark shepherded the parish through the fire and rebuilding before being reassigned to nearby St. Patrick's Cathedral. The new pastor, Msgr. Anthony Dalla Villa, served only a short time when he collapsed and died of an apparent stroke while offering Mass. The pastor now is Father Richard Adams.

“There is no place else like St. Agnes,” says Madonna Guevarra, president of the parish's Legion of Mary. “It is like a sanctuary in the middle of Manhattan. I know any time I go there, we will have good priests to guide us and set a good example. And so many people go there just to find a little peace and sit in a nice church.”

The heart of St. Agnes for the past two decades, she says, has been Father William Shelley, parochial vicar. More than 50 years ordained, he still goes strong, overseeing the homeless shelter, working with the Legion of Mary, praying in front of abortion sites and in the nearby Grand Central subway station and writing the weekly bulletin.

A stickler for history, Father Shelley wrote recently, “With the help of a total of 42 volunteers Friday night and Saturday morning, we had the 1,092nd successive [soup kitchen] since Dec. 11, 1982 … feeding the 183 homeless and hungry who could get through last weekend's snowstorm.”

A bookstore is located in the rear of the church, selling many traditional volumes as well as more popular books and periodicals, an array of rosary beads and other sacramentals.

Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.