History

 

Old St. Peter's Parish

 

The original church was used for worship until 1834 when it was replaced by the present structure.

The present church has been declared a landmark by Federal, State and City agencies.

Among its most important qualities, St. Peter's Church is an outstanding example of Greek revival architecture that closely follows the tradition of Classic monumentality of so many of its predecessors in Rome.  The extreme simplicity of the smooth masonry walls and fine six church portico present a temple-form building of excellent proportions, lending an air of great dignity to the building.  The architects of the new church were John R. Haggerty and Thomas Thomas.

Over the main alter is The Crucifixion painting by the Mexican artist Jose Vallejo.  The painting was given in 1789 to St. Peter's by Archbishop Nunez de Haro of Mexico City.

The stained glass windows are conceived in the rich Renaissance tradition, of brilliant flowing color in medallians and figures, against a delicate luminous background of gold and white.  The left window group is devoted to four subjects connected with the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ - the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, and the Holy Family.  The windows on the right are concerned with the closing scenes of Our Lord's ministry on earth - the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension.

St Peter's, the first Roman Catholic Parish in New York, was established in 1785 on the site it still occupies at 16 Barclay St., New York City, predating the first Bishopric in the United States, which was later founded in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1789.

History

New York City's position as temporary capital of the newly independent United States following the Revolutionary War helped to bring about the founding of St. Peter's.  As the nation began to establish diplomatic ties with other countries, it welcomed into its capital a number of foreign ambassadors and businessmen, some of whom were Catholic.  Also, several members of Congress were Catholic.  A small group of Catholic residents in the city had been attending Mass privately at the home of Don Diego de Gardoqui, the Spanish ambassador.  Encouraged by the arrival of more Catholics, they launched their plan to build a church of their own.

With Father Whelan, a member of the Capuchin Order from Ireland as pastor, the Catholics of New York sought the help of the French consul, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur.  He made a formal request to the Common Council of New York City for a suitable piece of land which the Catholic congregation could lease as the site for its church.  He received a reply from the Corporation of Trinity Church, stating that three lots belonging to "the Farm of Trinity Church" had been leased to several parties, and that the church would permit the leases to be transferred to the trustees of St. Peter's.

The Catholic congregation eventually leased at the corner of Barclay and Church five lots from Trinity Church.  The cornerstone was laid on October 5, 1785, with Ambassador de Gardoqui conducting the ceremony.  In the cornerstone he placed Spanish coins minted during the reign of King Charles III of Spain.

By the Spring of 1786, with the help of donations such as one thousand silver dollars from King Charles III of Spain, the congregation had collected enough money to begin construction.  And, on November 4, 1786, a Solemn High Mass was offered in the new church.

In 1792, the Corporation of Trinity Church voted to cancel part of the back rent which St. Peter's owed.  Three years later, with St. Peter's still in debt, Trinity Church again came to the aid of the struggling parish.  It cancelled all back rents and transferred ownership of the land to the trustees of St. Peter's for the sum of one thousand pounds.

Father William O'Brien, the first pastor, meanwhile earned the gratitude not only of his parishioners, but of all the citizens of New York for his tireless devotion to the victims of the yellow fever epidemics that swept New York in 1795 and 1798.

When yellow fever struck again in 1805, Father O'Brien was aided in his ministry to the sick by two assistants, Father Matthew O'Brien and Father Michael Hurley.  The priests of Saint Peter's were commended by the secretary of the Board of Health for their courageous care of the sick.

St. Peter's made history in 1800 by establishing the first free Catholic school in New York State.

The system of Catholic education in New York thus traces its roots to St. Peter's, the first school founded in the state to teach both secular subjects and Catholic doctrine and mortality.  The staff of St. Peter's Free School was composed entirely of lay persons until 1831, when three Sisters of Charity arrived from Emmitsburg, Md. to take charge of the girls' school.  In 1873, the Christian Brothers began teaching the boys.

It is especially significant that the first sisters who taught at St. Peter's Free School were Sisters of Charity.  In 1805, their foundress, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, had been received into the Catholic Church at St. Peter's.  This young Episcopalian widow who liked to meditate on Vallejo's painting of the crucified Christ over the main altar, was to become St. Peter's most famous convert and the first native citizen of the United States to be elevated to sainthood.

Another parishioner of St. Peter's known for his sanctity and charity was Pierre Toussaint.  Although a contemporary of Elizabeth Seton, Pierre began life in very different circumstances.  A black slave, he was born in a area of Santo Domingo now know as Haiti about 1766 and was brought to New York by the wealthy Berard family.  Before her death, Mrs. Berard gave Toussaint his freedom.  He was also able to purchase freedom of his sister and his future wife, Juliette Noel.

Toussaint devoted most of his time to works of charity.  He was particularly interested in the St. Patrick's Catholic Orphan Asylum, and collected funds for it regularly.  Yet he did not limit his good works to the support of institutions.  Whenever possible, he gave direct, personal assistance to individuals in need.

During the yellow fever epidemics, Toussaint entered barricaded areas to reach the sick and brought many victims into his home, where he nursed them back to health.  Over the years, he and his wife took in poor black boys, raised and educated them, and made certain they learned trades that would enable them to earn a living.  His cause for sainthood is being reviewed in Rome.

In 1817, an infant named Adelaide O'Sullivan was born in the parish and baptized at the church.  She was to become the saintly Carmelite Mother Adelaide of St. Theresa, Prioress of the Carmel at Grajal del Campo in the Diocese of Leon, Spain.  Her cause for sainthood is also being reviewed in Rome.

By 1836, the congregation of St. Peter's had grown so large that some of the parishioners who came to hear Mass had to stand outside.  On October 26th that year, the cornerstone for a larger church was laid.  A little over a year later on September 3, 1837, the first Mass was celebrated in the basement of the new church.

One of St. Peter's most solemn moments occurred in 1885, a hundred years after the founding of the parish, when the second church became eligible for consecration because all debt had been paid.

Some parishioners thought the neighborhood was changing from a residential to a business district and that it would eventually be more profitable to sell St. Peter's and build a church elsewhere in the city.  John Cardinal McCloskey declared that St. Peter's would "never be alienated," and instructed the pastor to proceed with his plans for consecration.  The solemn ceremony took place on November 22, 1885.

The dissenting parishioners were wrong about St. Peter's staying power but right about the neighborhood.  Homes gave way to stores, and stores to tall office buildings.  The ethnic background of the parishioners reflected changing patterns of immigration.  At a celebration in 1921 for the 137th anniversary of the parish, the pastor - by then Monsignor McGean - told his audience, "When I came to St. Peter's, I had a flock of some 25,000 souls, most of them Irish.  It has dwindled to 7,000 souls of twenty nationalities, most of them Polish Ruthenian."

Not all of the new Catholic immigrants belonged to the Latin rite.  Monsignor McGean offered the use of St. Peter's lower church to Greek-rite Syrian Catholics.  They attended services at St. Peter's in their own rite from 1899 to 1916.

St. Peter's faced a sad moment in history when the parish school closed in 1940 after 140 years of continuous service.  It succumbed to the same forces that were to close many parish schools two or three decades later; a changing neighborhood, few residents, fewer Catholics in the area and mounting costs.  In one sense; however, the parish continued to fulfill an educational mission.  On all Saints Day in 1943, it launched St. Peter's Catholic Lending Library, offering a wide selection of literature, philosophy, theology, social science and history.  At one time, the library had over 4,000 volumes in circulation.  After closing for several years, it re-opened in 1983.  It is now a valuable source for researchers and readers in general.

By the 1940's, St. Peter's had become what it continues to be today - primarily a service church, a kind of parish-away-from-home for thousands who fill the area each workday.  The present pastor, Father Robert M. O'Connell, describes St. Peter's as a daytime parish active from 7:00AM until early evening, Monday through Friday.  Mass and confession are also available each day at St. Peter's new mission chapel, St. Joseph's in Battery Park City, across from the World Trade Center, and of course, services are held each Sunday for the ever increasing resident members of the parish.