Catholic New York

Photo: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City. Erected 1878.

I was in my early twenties. I do not recall the day or the year, only that I must have been somewhere between 22 and 24 years old, likely on the younger end of the age range. I was in my undergraduate years, studying history at CUNY Queens College, working afternoons and weekends with my father for his landscaping company while I took classes in the evening. When people would ask “what do you do?” and I would tell them that I am a landscaper, they always assumed I mowed lawns in suburban Long Island where I’ve lived all of my life and continue to live to this day. That is, until I would tell them: “no, my father and I actually work in Manhattan.” I’d then go through a spiel about how we would plant trees, flowers, and things of this sort. My father had owned the business since he was 23, after the passing of his own father, my grandfather John whom I had never met. He will retire soon, but I too spent hours either with him, my brother, my friend, or by myself doing this same work. Some understand the unique, and in some sense, uncouth beauty and splendor of the setting that is New York City (NYC). Others cannot and will not, that is just as well. It was on a particular day in the springtime of my early twenties that the doors opened to a church while I had already been falling in love with the Church, and I began to understand the magic of what tourists might call “the big apple,” but what we just call “the city.”

If the reader lives in New York (NY), I urge you to make the trip to the city and take a subway or taxi to 76th street & Lexington Ave. There you will see St. Jean le Baptiste Roman Catholic Church. My father, my brother, and I had worked at the church some years ago and as an enthusiastic young Catholic, when I saw the interior of this place, I could only think of the title of C.S. Lewis’s autobiography: Surprised by Joy. Indeed, the imposing beauty of the place was quite literally staggering. Speaking with the priest, whom I will not name, I recall my father asking him “where’s your collar?” and the priest telling us how good of a kid one Lady Gaga was when she went to school there in some half-hearted and frankly pathetic attempt at appearing “normal.” We, not only as Catholics but as New Yorkers, have witnessed the decay of two of the world’s most beautiful and mysterious institutions and places: The Roman Catholic Church and the City of New York, and this little anecdote illustrates well the general theme of this article. I will forever be in love with both the Church and the city and consider both “home,” in many respects. I intend to do the same thing that the author “Griffin Hasbury” had done when writing the book Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, and that is write a piece that is a love letter to the once beautiful and Catholic NYC, yet also a lamentation for what it has become, though I will show the reader that it has not entirely been dealt its death blow.

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Words from Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus. More widely known than the poem itself and the poet herself are where the words can be found, that is, on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. As I write this, it has only been three days since the passing of Alice von Hildebrand. She was born in Belgium, on March 11, 1923, and the place of her passing was New Rochelle, NY, a northern suburb of NYC. In the early summer of 1940, Germany invaded Belgium while Alice von Hildebrand (then Alice Jourdain) was only 17 years old. That same year, young Alice Jourdain crossed the Atlantic ocean and she arrived in the United States, where she would study at Manhatanville College in Purchase, NY. It is here that she would meet eminent philosopher and her future husband, one Dietrich von Hildebrand. This meeting would turn into a marriage of two refugees of the Second World War.

Walking around the East Village, I just want to cry at the state of it all… it’s like a frat house everywhere… where are the real weirdos? The real outcasts? They’re a vanishing breed here.[1]

This was a quote given to the Daily Beast by the indie film actress Chloë Sevigny, referenced in Hasbury’s Vanishing New York. Hasbury and I, while differing ideologically, grieve over the same place and same thing: a NYC once overflowing with character and life, now a wasteland of multi-billion dollar corporations and big banks. Where there were once Pastrami and coffee shops, there are now Duane Reades and Chase Banks. “Gentrification” is the enemy named in Vanishing New York, however, Hasbury is nostalgic for the NYC that was home to beatniks, poets, artists, and revolutionaries.  In my estimation, the true artists and revolutionaries (or perhaps counter-revolutionaries) are best represented by men like Dietrich von Hildebrand and his wife Alice von Hildebrand, among countless other good and always unique NY Catholics.

In the summer of 1934, Adolf Hitler nominated Franz von Papen to be ambassador to Austria for the Third Reich. Here’s how Von Papen spoke of his greatest ideological foe in the country of Austria: “that damned Von Hildebrand is the greatest obstacle for National Socialism in Austria…. No one causes more harm.”[2] Von Hildebrand himself had been in Vienna, the capital of Austria, since 1933, a year prior to Von Popen’s comments. Von Hildebrand’s time in Austria would not be permanent. He and his then wife Gretchen von Hildebrand, who passed in July of 1957, left on the last train for Pressburg, the capital of Slovakia. This would be the last train to depart before the Nazi invasion of Vienna, indeed the Gestapo arrived at Von Hildebrand’s home looking for him shortly after his departure! It would not be until the year 1940 that Dietrich Von Hildebrand finally arrived in NY, where he would teach at Fordham University and live out the remainder of his life.[3]

Perhaps it’s a mere accident of history, maybe it is no coincidence at all, or maybe it is both, but the history of NYC could give the reader and the author an understanding of why this notoriously liberal state would provide a home and a refuge for the sort of man Von Hildebrand was, and why one might argue that it is men like him in whom the spirit of this place lives. NYC was and is not quite like its northeastern counterparts. The operative term here is gedoocultuur, that is, “Dutch tolerance.” NYC was settled by the Dutch in the seventeenth century who, though Calvinist, were not as puritanical as the English settlers of Massachusetts and the rest of New England were. Habsury quotes Russel Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World who explains that “the Dutch Republic in the 1600s was the most progressive and culturally diverse society in Europe.” As Hasbury aptly puts it, the city provides “a safe harbor for exiled intellectuals and authors.”[4] None could fit this description better than Von Hildebrand!

In what sense is New York “vanishing” from a Catholic standpoint? Is the NYC that was once home to Von Hildebrand, and even the Venerable Fulton Sheen, Archbishop John Hughes, and even Thomas Merton gone? We can look to an article in the New York Times written in 2015 for something resembling an answer to the question. The article describes the scene of two parish closures on the upper east side and lower east side of Manhattan, the former of which being Our Lady of Peace parish, where parishioner Ms. Dooner Lynch is quoted as saying “This is the beginning of our crucifixion, our Good Friday, the nails driven into the coffin of Our Lady of Peace.” Our Lady of Peace has since “merged” with St. John Vianney parish and the building which was the former home of Our Lady of Peace was leased to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of New York & New England and is now the Coptic Orthodox parish of St. Mary & St. Mark. Though the Coptic Orthodox are formally Monophysite heretics, they are at least liturgically orthodox, and this one instance is exemplary of how the hollow shell of the mainline Catholic Churches are often displaced by those who have not lost their soul or heart, by trivializing their liturgical praxis. Of the Roman Rite Liturgical reforms which occurred after the Second Vatican Council, Dietrich von Hildebrand had this to say:

Truly if one of the devils in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape letters had been entrusted with the ruin of the liturgy, he could not have done it better.[5]

The correlation between the reforms which occurred after the council and the exodus out of the Church is stark and its impact on the Church, broadly speaking, has been negative, it will be useful, though, to assess statistics on a larger scale and see how they also apply to the subject of this missive, that is, my beloved New York.

“No change will get past the Statue of Liberty!” exclaimed Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York from 1939-1967. As is obvious to most, if not all, who will read this, Cardinal Spellman was unable to make good on his promise, as he died before the Second Vatican Council closed and, indeed, the implementation of the reforms of the council were as far reaching in NY as they were anywhere else. Though some raise questions about Cardinal Spellman’s past, that is not the subject of this piece, so I will leave it unaddressed and appreciate the statement for what it is: a wonderful example of New York bluster and rhetoric.

What is the grim reality of the situation in the Church broadly and here in NY? Consider some statistics: Kenneth C. Jones’s Leading Catholic Indicators poll showed that by 1999, 77% of American Catholics did not believe one must attend Mass on Sunday to be a good Catholic and only 17% of young Catholic males believed in an all-male priesthood.[6] The most damning statistic, however, came from Pew Research in 2019, which found that only one-third of American Catholics believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist.

We now refer back to the article in the New York Times to see that such unprecedented changes preceded unprecedented collapse in Catholic New York. When that article was written 7 years ago, the Archdiocese of New York was undergoing “the biggest overhaul of parish structure” in its history, which included the closure of “nearly 40 church buildings.” The church closures were a part of a “reorganization plan” – a fancy and euphemistic way of saying “damage control” – on the part of the Archdiocese, which would reduce the number of parishes by twenty percent. The two main reasons cited as the catalyst for the “reorganization plan” were demographic changes and a declining number of priests. Echoing again Chloë Sevigny’s lament: “where are the real outcasts?” Where is Von Hildebrand? Must men like my father experience a Church gentrified by the mainstream and priests that attempt to pander by referencing Lady Gaga? In many respects, this is what we are left with here in NYC, indeed the statistics bear it out. We can be rest assured, though, that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church globally, or even here in my home state.

Ostensibly, we do not seem to have Von Hildebrands left in this once great city, making enemies of tyrants to the point of narrowly escaping their murderous rampages. This absence, however, is only an ostensible one. I’ve seen the spirit of Catholic New York alive and even thriving, but like Our Lord in the manger, it may not always be where you expect to find it and it is not obvious unless you follow the star above the creche which leads you there.

To what do I refer then?

I refer to the spiritual direction I receive from Father John Wachowicz, right here on Long Island. I refer to meeting men like Charles A. Coulombe after Solemn Vespers in the East Village Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. I refer to shaking hands with the priest who put on the event at that same church on that same night.

In Hasbury’s book, there is a picture of a street mural in which is written “the East Village is dead.” A place described as “an uncommon space… a long sought after refuge for those who never quite felt at home anywhere else. Reclusive misanthropes… poets, punks, activists.”[7] Indeed, the author gives other examples of less than savory types of characters, but I maintain that the true activists, the true poets, and – since the broad reaching NYC vaccine mandate that was announced days after Mr. Coulombe’s visit – the true outcasts can be found giving talks and book signings in church basements. Perhaps these same outcasts can be found in a cassock or vested and chanting a high Mass, the same Mass which is now an outcast from church bulletins everywhere. The spirit of NY lives truly in our counter-revolutionaries. Those who love the poetry of the psalms and the music of the chant, that you may just hear echoing from a downtown church while strolling down a city sidewalk, whispering “come and see” to the passerby.  While the author of Vanishing New York and myself were both tempted to write NYC’s obituary, I only know that the strange beauty that is NYC is not dead, you just need to know where to look and whom to ask in order to find it.


Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

[1] Jeremiah Moss, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul (New York, NY 2017), 22.

[2] Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler (New York: Image, an Imprint of the Crown Publishing house), introduction.

[3] Alice Von Hildebrand, The Soul of a Lion (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2000), 295.

[4] Moss, op. cit., 33-34.

[5] Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Devastated Vineyard, trans. Crosby and Teichert (Roman Catholic Books: 1973), 71.

[6] Father Matthias Gaudron, The Catechism of the Crisis in the Church (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press 2014), 4.

[7] Moss, 15.

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