It was erected in 1851 by priests of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorist Fathers, whose mission was to minister to German immigrants throughout the world. An enormous church, it has often been called "the German Catholic cathedral." Originally built in the ornate German Baroque style, with a 250 foot tower containing 15 bells (said to be the first bells in the world to be rung by means of electric switches), it was by far the largest building in the area. The exterior was stripped of its ornament and the tower was shortened in 1911, bringing it more in line with the popular neo-Gothic style. The interior, however, was left untouched. It is a veritable riot of decoration, with marble everywhere, even marble wainscoting, and plaster decorative work, although much of that is in pretty bad shape now. There are eight small side chapels, one of which is a reliquary chapel holding the earthly remains of St Datian (one of only three saints whose whole bodies repose in the United States). In addition, the chapel holds relics of Jesus' manger, the pillar at which he was scourged, the True Cross, the girdle of the Virgin Mary, the mantle of St Joseph, and other relics of St Ann, St Lazarus, St John the Baptist, and St Anthony of Padua, all under a stained-glass dome.
There is no website and no bulletin was passed out, so I'm not in a position to write about what the church as a community has to offer. Let me instead say a few words about St Datian, who was the jailer and torturer of St Vincent of Sarragasso, martyred in 304 for refusing to throw pages of scripture into the fire. As Datian roasted Vincent on a gridiron over hot coals (or was that St Laurence?), a beam of light suddenly blew the doors of his cell open and angels attended Vincent as he died whereupon Datian immediately embraced the Faith.
The church is located on East Third Street between Avenues A and B, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Anti-German sentiment in the war years has largely erased German immigrant history, so many people don't realize that the East Village was once very wealthy and almost exclusively German (both Protestant and Catholic). This was the most important church in "Kleindeutschland", and its grandeur is a testament to the wealth and importance of the community, which rivaled the Irish in size. But as the Germans moved away over time, the neighborhood first became a working-class enclave of Poles and Ukrainians, and later a Puerto Rican slum and a haven for artists and musicians, including many poets of the Beat Generation. Gentrification at the millennium, however, has displaced the poor and the hip, and now Alphabet Town, as the lettered avenues are called, is one of the most "in" and trendy areas of the city.
I'm not really sure, since it wasn't announced.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass in English
How full was the building?
There were about 200 in the congregation, but the church can comfortably hold many, many, many more. It was a surprisingly diverse crowd: I noticed an old Puerto Rican lady sitting next to an Asian couple, who were sitting in front of an obviously gay couple, and a yuppie family with four kids.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. It was a pretty standard pew with kneeler.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived at the end of the Spanish service, which was being celebrated by a bishop from Honduras, and it was a pretty lively affair. Things didn't really settle down until noon, and the mass started about 15 minutes later.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Thank you for coming!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Celebremos!, a Spanish/English missal, and Gather!, an English hymnal found in many Catholic churches.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and a cantor. The church's organ, a grand instrument by the Fenton Organ Company of Nyack, New York, has (alas) been silent for over 30 years.
Did anything distract you?
The building has so much going on its hard not to have sensory overload. The quartet of frescoes that frame the altar depict scenes from the life of Mary, which I thought a little unusual, and the stained glass throughout was pretty amazing. I'm also guessing that they need a new roof. There was a section of wall that was missing plaster. Many of the side chapels had flaking plaster on the floor and there were several bald patches on the ceiling. I found myself wandering off on the disrepair.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Novus ordo with a twist, I think. Someone had obviously thought about liturgy, as the setting seemed original, like something you'd hear currently on Broadway. It was really interesting. But I had a real beef with Celebremos!, as the gospel reading was cut to the point where it made no sense. Communion was distributed under both kinds, something I've never seen in any other Roman Catholic church in the city.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – The priest tended to shout, which was pretty loud when he was amplified. But he kept walking away from the microphone in the pulpit, and then, even when shouting, he couldn't really be heard.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In a nutshell, I guess it would be "Read, Ponder, and Pray". The sermon ostensibly started out as an explication of the day's gospel reading, Matthew 21:23-32 (the authority of Jesus is questioned). He began by explaining that Jesus was not calling the chief priests and elders out for their hypocrisy, but was instead charging them with a failure to "read, ponder, and pray", a phrase he then repeated dozens of times. Then he brought out a giant picture of Padre Pio, spending some time pointing out his stigmata, and used him as an example of someone who was able to read, ponder and pray. Next he brought up the exemplary life of the Venerable Solanus Casey, an American Capuchin priest currently in the beatification process, as someone humble, i.e. just like us, who was also able to read, ponder and pray.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The mass setting was rather interesting and certainly far more compelling than what is ordinarily on offer. And the windows it was noon on a bright, sunny day seemed particularly luminous.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Hmmm... it's not every day that I get Padre Pio's stigmata pointed out to me in such graphic detail.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a chance. The music director gave a very charming speech at the end of mass detailing plans to start a choir, and he asked those interested to contact him. But after that there was a mad rush for the door.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – Its a little far from home, and I'm not sure I could handle a sermon like that every week.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, very much so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The unexpected diversity in the congregation.