The Most Beautiful Church in New York?
St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church in New York City anticipated the Year of the Eucharist by more than a century: It has held daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament since 1900.
Dedicated in 1913, the church is practically pure classic Italian Renaissance. It didn't lose a note of that when it got a decade-long renovation and restoration completed in 1997.
The results are a regal palace for our Eucharistic King. All the sumptuous Renaissance-inspired art and architecture has one purpose — to bring honor and glory to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. All day every day except during Mass, Our Lord is enthroned for adoration in a gold monstrance on the altar.
Lessons on the Eucharist are everywhere, from stained glass to statues to the cornucopia of carved and painted symbols in filigreed grapes, wheat, ciboria, pelicans and angelic faces in finest Renaissance manner. It takes a book to describe them all. Indeed, a beautiful pictorial book about the parish is available.
Take the original, ornate high altar rising 50 feet above the sanctuary. (The dome above the front sanctuary rises 175 feet.) The breathtaking combination of marbles, mosaics and gold shape everything from the tabernacle that looks like a miniature Renaissance church to the images of Our Lady and saints devoted to the Eucharist, including Thomas Aquinas, Clare and Margaret Mary.
Below the tabernacle there's a high relief of Da Vinci's “Last Supper.” Above it, St. Michael the Archangel stands in a vibrant mosaic.
Inside the dome, a brilliant mosaic of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament looks down upon a six-foot gold sunburst monstrance. For years this monstrance, hand-carved in Paris, was the focal point for daily exposition. Now it's used only on the feasts of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) and Christ the King.
Looking around, it's easy to understand why the late Cardinal John O'Connor said of this place: “This may be the most beautiful church in the archdiocese.”
Close to the King
Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament Father Anthony Schueller, the pastor, told us the church is following Vatican directives to enthrone the Blessed Sacrament not too distant or too high, hence the new location on today's front altar. This old white marble altar is intricately carved; it includes a large host placed in the center and the inscription “IHS.”
“We've tried to promote a greater sense of intimacy and connection or relationship between the Eucharist and the liturgy, and its extension in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament,” Father Schueller says. “I'm amazed with the number of people who come up on the steps and kneel (close to the monstrance).”
With the church near a subway and Lenox Hill Hospital, upwards of 1,000 people pray daily before the Blessed Sacrament. As they do, they're surrounded by other celestial reminders, like the superlative stained-glass windows that capture events prefiguring the holy Eucharist and presenting major Church events centering on the Blessed Sacrament.
The Lorin Studios in Chartes, France, crafted all 38 major windows and many minor ones between 1914 and 1919. Alongside such key scenes as the glorious Wedding at Cana, we found significant highlights like the Eucharistic Procession at Lourdes, in which a priest carries the monstrance among the sick while Our Lady looks beseechingly toward heaven.
Once we learned of the parish's history, none of its exceptional attributes were any wonder. The parish began in 1882 to serve many French Canadians living and working nearby. Ten years later, the church became a pilgrimage center when a Msgr. Marquis, carrying a bone of St. Anne given by Leo XIII for the saint's shrine in Quebec, stopped overnight. People quickly crowded the church to venerate the relic.
The monsignor had to remain three weeks while 300,000 people streamed in from many states, sometimes waiting hours outside in driving rains. Shortly after, the priest obtained another relic for this church's spontaneous shrine — soon named a national shrine to St. Anne.
Cures were countless over the years. No telling how many still are. Even Babe Ruth came here to pray.
Today, the shrine's original statue of St. Anne shows her as Mary's encouraging teacher. Her daughter smiles, pointing to her mother. The sculptor took a full year to carve it from Carrara marble.
Today the thumb-sized bone fragment from St. Anne's arm is presented for veneration in a gold reliquary.
In 1900, the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament was invited to administer the church, and on Dec. 12 the never-ending daily exposition and Eucharistic adoration began.
St. Peter Julian Eymard founded the congregation in 1856 to promote daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, frequent holy Communion and daily confessions.
In May 1868 he gave our Blessed Mother the title Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament (patroness of the congregation), later used by Pius X. Her feast day is celebrated on May 13, same as Our Lady of Fatima.
The left side altar again depicts Mary as Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament with a magnificent Carrara statue carved in 1913 in the Vatican studios. She presents the Child Jesus to us, and he presents us with the host and the chalice.
Pope John Paul II reminded us of this awe-inspiring, simple, yet deeply profound message in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church). “Mary is a ‘woman of the Eucharist’ in her whole life. The Church, which looks to Mary as a model, is also called to imitate her in her relationship to this most holy mystery.”
St. Joseph raises thought of his relationship to our Eucharistic Lord at the other major side altar. John the Baptist does the same with a lamb at his feet in a statue original to the church.
There's a smaller side altar honoring St. Peter Julian Eymard. Ever dedicated to our Eucharistic Lord, he stands in a white marble statue holding a monstrance. Below it, the humerus from his right arm, an arm that so many times held the Eucharist, can be venerated.
It's little wonder this church calls itself the Eucharistic heart of New York. That heart beats loudly and clearly for us in this Year of the Eucharist. God willing, it will continue long after.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
Planning Your Visit
Sunday Masses are 9 and 10:30 a.m., plus noon, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Daily Mass is at 7:30 a.m., and 12:15 and 5:30 p.m. Confessors are available daily, as is exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. For more, go to sjbrcc.org or call (212) 288-5082.
The church is on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 76th St. From mid-town, either stroll the 25 blocks up Lexington or take a bus up Madison Avenue and walk east a few short blocks to the church.
- August 21-27, 2005