Faith and the City: Opus Dei Assumes Responsibility for St. Agnes Church

Cardinal Dolan has invited the prelature to take over pastoral care and administration at the historic New York church, where Archbishop Fulton Sheen frequently celebrated Mass.

NEW YORK PARISH. St. Agnes serves commuters and visitors alike at its location near Grand Central Terminal.
NEW YORK PARISH. St. Agnes serves commuters and visitors alike at its location near Grand Central Terminal. (photo: Angelo Stagnaro )

NEW YORK — No torture chambers. No grand conspiracy theories. No badly written prose. And definitely no albino monks running amok.

Just renewed piety and commitment to orthodoxy at St. Agnes Church: The prelature of Opus Dei has accepted Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s invitation to assume responsibility for the pastoral care and administration of St. Agnes — the well-known parish serving the area around New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.

St. Agnes is probably best known as the church where Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen would often celebrate Mass. In fact, the block of 43rd Street between Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue is officially known as Fulton Sheen Place.

In a statement, Cardinal Dolan said of the transfer, “I warmly welcome the prelature of Opus Dei as a partner in serving the people of God of this archdiocese. The parishioners of St. Agnes, I am sure, will quickly come to know and appreciate their apostolic zeal in preaching the Gospel and serving the religious and sacramental needs of the people entrusted to their care.”

St. Agnes, located at 143 East 43rd St., was founded in 1873. The original church was destroyed in a 1992 fire. The current building was constructed on the same site and was consecrated in 1998.

Though the parish only has 350 parishioners on its register, it offers six Masses a day to serve the business and commuter population in the vicinity. The parish has offered a traditional Latin Mass on Sunday mornings for many years. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is offered every afternoon until 5pm, and Communion is received kneeling.

This is actually the second parish church in the United States to be entrusted to Opus Dei. The first was Chicago’s St. Mary of the Angels, done at the request of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1991.

Father Michael Barrett, 63, will begin his pastorship at St. Agnes on July 1 and will be assisted by other Opus Dei priests. A native New Yorker, he graduated from Columbia University in 1974 and subsequently worked on Wall Street as an account executive for Merrill Lynch, before being ordained a priest in 1985 by St. John Paul II. Since 2013, he has served as theological adviser to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez.

Said Father Barrett, “[St. Agnes] parish is a way to serve the Church by helping all the faithful in Midtown Manhattan who have a particular role in helping the rest of the world in NYC, New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and around the country — because many who visit NYC to carry out their work tasks or to tour come to St. Agnes to attend Mass and receive the sacrament of reconciliation.”


Opus Dei

Opus Dei is an international Catholic organization known as a “personal prelature” — the first such prelature in Church history. This is a canonical structure comprised of a prelate, clergy and laity organized for specific pastoral activities. Unlike dioceses that cover a specific physical territory, a personal prelature — like a military ordinariate — is responsible for its members regardless of where they are.

St. John Paul II canonized Opus Dei’s founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá, in 2002, calling him “the saint of everyday life.” Pope Francis described St. Josemaría as a “precursor of the Second Vatican Council” for placing emphasis on the universal call to holiness: the idea that holiness is not something just for priests and religious, but for laymen and women, as well.

Opus Dei provides a variety of activities to help people in their efforts to live their faith in their everyday lives, including weekend retreats, classes in Catholic teaching and spirituality and opportunities for spiritual direction and sacramental confession.

Lay members of Opus Dei are either “supernumeraries,” who can be married, or “numeraries,” who commit to remaining celibate. The movement also includes “cooperators,” who support the work of Opus Dei and participate regularly in its activities.

Though this is Opus Dei’s first parish in New York City, it already has a strong local presence. It opened its first center there in 1964, and members of Opus Dei, along with others, run a pair of educational programs for youth in the Bronx, Rosedale Achievement Center (for girls) and Crotona Achievement Center (for boys). As well, the national offices of Opus Dei are in Manhattan, only a few blocks away from St. Agnes, on 34th Street and Lexington Avenue.


Distinct Parish History

Though Fulton Sheen, America’s historically best-known Catholic and a current Servant of God whose cause for canonization continues, never actually lived at St. Agnes, he was the parish’s most famous preacher.

He was best known for his homilies delivered during the traditional “Three Hours’ Service” of Good Friday. So many people came to St. Agnes for his sermons that the block was closed off, and huge speakers were set up to accommodate the overflow.

In the 1990s, the parish became known as a beacon of orthodoxy under the leadership of then-pastor Msgr. Eugene Clark, with a number of well-known priests in residence, including Father George Rutler.

Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a U.S.-based research institute that monitors the activities of the United Nations, is a supernumerary member of Opus Dei and enjoys a longtime association with St. Agnes.

“[I’ve] attended St. Agnes with varying degrees of regularity for more than 25 years,” Ruse told the Register. “I say ‘varying’ because I’ve never lived within its boundaries — it has never been my parish. Even now that I live in northern Virginia, I have an office near St. Agnes in New York and find myself [at the parish] on a regular basis.”

Ruse said, “Those unfamiliar with Opus Dei will find our priests are rock solid and keyed to the layman and his spirituality. That’s the thing about Opus Dei — it’s in business to help laymen live constantly in the presence of God, [showing] that the layman’s encounter with God is equal to that of the religious; and where this encounter takes place is in his everyday life, in the home and the workplace. The commuters to Grand Central will come to know this.”

Ruse discussed the parish’s character during the 1990s, in a 1998 article titled “Risen From the Ashes.”

“Why do people flock to St. Agnes?” Ruse asked near the conclusion of his article. “For more than convenience: They come for the faith, for the faith delivered in a solemn, no-nonsense manner.”


No Major Changes Planned

Administratively, the changeover to Opus Dei responsibility shouldn’t represent a huge change for St. Agnes. “Just as any diocesan priest, the priests of Opus Dei will run the parish as it has always been run and help it to develop, as any pastor wants to accomplish,” Father Barrett commented.

But Father Barrett and the Opus Dei community intend to infuse the parish with their charism — one that seems closely attuned to St. Agnes’ legacy.

“We would like everyone to see we are here to serve Church teaching: what was central to Vatican Council II, the universal call to holiness,” he said. “Everyone should discover that his or her work is a way to pray to God, even in the ordinary tasks we have to do every day that might even seem boring. Opus Dei has no particular way of helping the faithful, except what the Church teaches for all.”

Monica Almonte, a cooperator of Opus Dei who is married to a supernumerary member, lives and works near St. Agnes and often goes there for Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation.

“I’m very excited to know that Opus Dei has been entrusted with St. Agnes,” said Almonte. “I’ve known Opus Dei priests to be good confessors, so I’m looking forward to having them there with the generous confession schedule St. Agnes has.”

Predicted Ruse, “The commuters coming and going from Grand Central will find the Opus Dei priests will continue the grand tradition of orthodoxy that has been [part of] St. Agnes for many, many decades. The liturgy will be solemn, the sermons pedagogical, the spiritual direction precise and helpful, with confessions for hours daily.”

Angelo Stagnaro writes

from New York.