|The building sits within the Calvary Cemetery grounds. To the right through the trees Old St. Patrick's Cathedral can be glimpsed -- photo by Alice Lum|
St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street was already nearly three decades old in 1843 when the first marble blocks were laid for James Renwick, Jr.’s masterful Grace Church. The 23-year old engineer had no formal training as an architect; but the resulting structure, completed three years later, was spectacular. The lacy carved stone tracery, soaring steeple and majestic interior of the Episcopalian church vied challenged the Roman Catholic St. Patrick’s. King’s Handbook of New York City would say of it “Few if any of the churches surpass Grace in beauty of interior design and decoration. It is impressive and magnificent.”
Exactly ten years after construction of Grace Church commenced, the powerful and aggressive Archbishop John Joseph Hughes considered a new and magnificent cathedral. He chose the block of land on the still-unpaved Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st street, directly south of the newly-completed Catholic Orphan Asylum. Some might have thought the location was a strange choice. Nearly ten blocks north of the Croton Reservoir (where the paved section of the Avenue stopped), the area was almost completely undeveloped.
Hughes chose Renwick to design his monumental cathedral. Renwick was assisted by William Rodrique who, by coincidence or not, was the Archbishop’s brother-in-law. By now Renwick was responsible for several notable Gothic Revival structures—including the Smithsonian Institution, the Free Academy on Lexington Avenue, and brooding civic buildings like the Small-Pox Hospital on Blackwell’s Island. As he did with Grace Church, Renwick would turn white marble into lace as St. Patrick’s Cathedral began rising.
In 1858, the year that the cornerstone for the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral was laid, Hughes saw the need for a Chancery Office for the growing administrative staff. As the Catholic Church had rapidly expanded in New York, proper office facilities were necessary. The Chancellor of the diocese was responsible for granting matrimonial dispensations, supervising the financial condition of the parishes, and overseeing spending, charities, and such fiduciary activities.
The Archibishop turned again to Renwick and Rodrique. A plot of land on the old St. Patrick’s ground was relegated for the new building, where it would become part of the cathedral complex including a convent and school. While the block-encompassing cathedral uptown would take decades to build, the Chancery Office was completed within the year.
Renwick once again drew on the Gothic Revival style. But the administrative building would not be of intricately carved white marble. While it harmonized with the nearby church and showed elements of religious architecture; it would be nearly fanciful. Renwick ornamented the red brick structure with miniature buttresses, quatrefoil carvings, and accented the openings and capped the buttresses with white stone. A projecting cornice, supported by deep brick corbelled arches, was crenellated like a castle wall. Calvary Cemetery surrounded the Chancery Office and the cathedral behind the tall brick wall that enclosed the property.
|With no chance of other buildings crowding in, the location allowed for windows on all sides. The tall brick wall see at right originally ran the length of the property. -- photo by Alice Lum|
Along with the Chancellor the building housed the offices of the treasurer and the secretary of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylums, the offices of Calvary Cemetery, and other administrative offices. On the night of January 24, 1869 the expectation of cash in the cemetery offices proved tempting to thieves.
The crooks scaled the brick wall and landed unseen in the churchyard. They determinedly broke through the side wall of the Chancery Building and gained entrance. Inside, they found the cemetery office safe. “The desired valuables being locked up in the safe, the marauders attacked that receptacle with a heavy sledge and finally demolished it by dint of hard blows,” reported The New York Times the following morning. The burglars made off with $5,000 in bonds “and a small amount in greenbacks.” The haul would amount to about $82,500 today.
When cemetery officials opened the office the next day the crime was discovered and police were notified. Civil War period forensics were primitive at best and the crooks were never found. “Inspector Walling and Detectives Elder and Irving visited the scene of the exploit,” said The Times, “but failed to find any clue to the thieves, except the heavy sledge and a piece of fine paper, which had evidently been wrapped around a ‘jimmy’ or small crowbar.”
The building was also the scene of Church trials. One of the most publicized was that of the liberal-minded Father Thomas Farrell of St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue. During the Civil War he pushed for political rights for freed blacks and aggressively supported emancipation. It was Father Farrel’s involvement with “the Accademia” that caused him problems with Cardinal McCloskey, however. (Cardinal Hughes had died in 1864, never to see his new cathedral completed.)
The Accademia was a group of priests who regularly met at St. Joseph’s and openly discussed radical modifications in the Church such as discarding the tradition of priestly celibacy and the Latin liturgy, questioned the infallibility of the Pope and, among other things, wondering aloud how nuns were capable of instructing future wives and mothers. Despite letters and meetings between the two, Farrell continued his activities and outspoken views.
After the Cardinal removed him as pastor of St. Joseph’s, Farrell demanded a canonical trial. “Let it not be said of our Church in the nineteenth century that she allowed a priest to be hung without a trial,” he wrote. On February 3, 1871 his trial played out in the Chancery Office. The six priests who were charged with judging Father Farrell unanimously agreed that his activities justified his removal.
The indomitable priest expected as much and informed the Cardinal that neither he nor the priests had found “a single falsehood” he had spoken. McCloskey, on the other hand, called Farrell’s teachings “filthy, vile and stupid balderdash of false doctrine.” Although the priest resolved to appeal to Rome; the Cardinal won out in the end.
Among the issues that led to Father Farrell's troubles was his vocal opinion that Catholic children should be allowed to attend public schools. The Church’s strong stance regarding public schools would be seen again in 1889 when Theresa Kelly died. Although she owned a plot in Calvary Cemetery, she was, according to The New York Times, “one of the most active members of Dr. McGlynn’s Anti-Poverty Society.” Like Father Farrell, Father Edward McGlynn was highly controversial for his progressive ideas; one of which was the belief that Catholic children should attend public schools.
In reporting the 48-year old Sunday School teacher’s death from a stroke, The New York Times noted “When the Anti-Poverty Society was formed she joined it, and was a regular attendant at the meetings of the Anti-Poverty Society, but at the same time was not negligent of her Sunday school duties, and remained a devout Catholic and a regular communicant.” The newspaper added “The question that is interesting the members of the Anti-Poverty Society is whether the deceased can be buried as a good Catholic.”
While officials considered the issue, Theresa Kelly’s body was held in the receiving vault of Calvary Cemetery. Two weeks passed and her parish priest, Dr. Burtsell, issued a written certificate saying, according to The Evening World on November 14, 1889, “that Miss Kelly was a good Catholic, notwithstanding she was a member of the Anti-Poverty Society, and entitled to Christian burial.” Nevertheless the officials in the Chancery Office building refused to issue a burial permit.
Friends and family held little hope, despite Theresa Kelly’s owning the burial plot in Calvary. A year earlier another Anti-Poverty Society member, John McGuire was refused burial there. Affadavits and pleas did not move the cemetery officials and on November 14 the undertaker gave up, telling reporters “I shall bury her this afternoon or to-morrow in Woodlawn.”
The Parochial School Board had its offices in the building by 1892 when Archbishop Michael Corrigan told every priest in the archdiocese that he expected “the celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus with religious pomp and ceremony,” as reported by The New York Times on August 24. The School Board reacted swiftly, and met to discuss a parade of school children on October 12 and 13. The Archbishop’s expectations were not taken lightly. A committee was appointed “for the purpose of securing floats for the use of the girls who will take part in the parades.”
|Church offices were still in the building in 1929 when this photograph was taken -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The building would also be used as the Parish Hall and for a period was the annex to the nearby St. Patrick’s School. But by 1936 the old structure was no longer viable as either an administrative or school building. It was converted to a chapel for Russian Catholic services.
On December 19, 1936 The New York Times reported “Special Christmas services according to the Russian divine liturgy will be held at a new Russian Catholic church that has been established in Mulberry Street near East Houston Street and next to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The building the new congregation is using was the old chancery office.”
The building became St. Michael’s Chapel. Nearly eight decades later the Russian Byzantine Rite congregation remains here. The Russian population of New York swelled following World War II; and another wave of immigrants began in 1974. Nevertheless, according to the St. Michael’s Chapel Association, “St. Michael’s has always attracted not only Russians seeking to maintain their spiritual roots while finding their way in American society, but also many non-Russians who were attracted to the richness and beauty of Russian spirituality.”
James Renwick’s charming Chancery Building is easily overlooked in the tangled web of downtown streets. Along with Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, however, it is well worth a special expedition.