Until we return to our usual schedule Jan. 3, enjoy this daily series of longer pieces in which we unravel the mysteries and the histories of storied addresses.
On cold days when I walk between Cooper and Union Squares, I find myself turning from Fourth Avenue onto East 12th Street to gaze in a sort of reverence at the façade of St. Ann’s Catholic Church. The first time I saw it, I was struggling to drag a Craigslist couch down four flights of stairs in the adjacent apartment building. Cushions in hand, I looked in awe and confusion at the strangeness of the 166-year-old stone façade, which seemed to be a trick of architecture, until I realized there was no church behind it, only long metal rods to prop up the wall and a 26-story NYU dorm casting the tower in dreary shadow.
Rich Williams has never experienced the perplexing moment of stumbling upon St. Ann’s that many East Village newbies have – nor did he watch its dismantling in 2005, as many older residents did. But in his basement in Schenectady, he still sees sunlight illuminating the dazzling colors of the early 1920s stained glass that once shone in the panes of the now-demolished church.
In September 2012, the Catholic-raised stand-up comedian became the owner of thousands of fragments of stained glass from St. Ann’s. His friend, fashion archivist Michael Gallagher, had first purchased them when the lot developer Hudson Companies Incorporated tore down all but the 1847 stone façade. “The idea of all the different moments in life, the births, the baptisms, the funerals, that these windows have experienced,” Williams said, “the joy and hope that they see… just life. It’s pretty fascinating to me.”
The windows have seen less life these days.
Elizabeth Langwith former co-chair of the St. Ann’s Committee, says the site is now “just totally static and dead.” She remembers her apartment’s view of the church and watching snow collect on the eaves, transporting her back into a 19th century landscape. Now, there isn’t even a plaque to remind passersby that white flakes once fell on a church top there for more than a century and a half.
After the church closed in 2004, the St. Ann’s Committee, alongside the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, failed to curb the impact of NYU’s construction plans. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission never granted St. Ann’s landmark status, and calls to save the building in the name of history went unanswered. Hudson Companies toppled the sanctuary in 2005.
Many East Village residents know the story of the battle with NYU, but the history of St. Ann’s is less apparent. Save for short accounts in a few local blogs, the details of the church’s past are largely stowed away in a few manila folders at the Archives of The Archdiocese of New York. A dive into the records can help rebuild the memory of the lost church, its history of outstanding beauty, incredible resilience, impressive connections, and tenacious faith.
Much of the history of St. Ann’s is recounted by Catholic scholar Henry J. Browne in a booklet published by the church in 1952 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the parish. As Browne tells the story, St. Ann’s (once spelled with an “e”) was first established in 1852 in an entirely different location: the corner of what was once Lafayette Place and East Eighth Street, just about where the Kmart stands today. The East Village was an ideal location for a new church, Browne writes, because it was “a part of the city that has been able to offer some slight resistance to the leveling influence of a giant industrial municipality which uproots God-given trees and man-made ornaments alike.” Of course, the area would not remain a haven from development.
St. Ann’s would eventually move to East 12th Street in 1870, taking over a site that had once been home to two congregations. The building first opened on May 2, 1847 as the Twelfth Street Baptist Church and only seven years later became Temple Emanu-El, which repurposed the former church interior for its reform Jewish services. The temple moved to Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in 1868 and to its current 5th Avenue location in 1927.
Here’s another irony, from Browne’s little history: when the church moved from East Eighth Street to its current site, the parish bought out the properties directly behind on East 11th Street to accommodate the size of the new church and school. That involved tearing down all but the original 1847 façade – truly – of the Twelfth Street Baptist Church. The façade, then, has actually survived two demolitions.
The new church — with the exception of the façade — was designed by architect Napoleon LeBrun, who would go on to plan the now landmarked Metropolitan Life Tower. Construction crews took less than a year to complete the buildings, finishing on January 1, 1871. Trustees like J. F. Navarro, the entrepreneur behind an 1880s luxury apartment complex called the Navarro Flats at the corner of 7th Avenue and Central Park South, signed off on the extravagant expense, noted in financial records at the Archives of the Archdiocese of New York. The new St. Ann’s project cost $178,866.24, not including the new property purchase, which totaled another $143,340.31.
The parish — hoping, as Browne writes, to accommodate a congregation twice the previous size — was quite lavish with money from the start. As part of the new church, it spent $1,300 for an organ built by Henry Erben, who had done work for St. Ann’s since its inception on East Eighth Street. He constructed 146 organs in New York City, including work on another for Trinity Church on Wall Street.
Over its 152-year lifespan, St. Ann’s amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, starting with $18,000 by the end of 1857, noted in the first of many hand-scrawled fiscal confessions on the yearly financial reports. By 1891, the debt had risen to over $93,000, and although records shortly thereafter began to show collections from the new Church Debt Association, the response group would never raise enough to save St. Ann’s on its own.
To pay its debt, St. Ann’s would take out loans: in 1899, Browne writes, St. Ann’s signed a $135,000 mortgage from Mutual Life Insurance, and financial reports became standardized to include the typed sections “Loans” and “Indebtedness.” The monetary struggles were further confounded by concern about the size of the Catholic population in the area; in a letter to the archbishop from the winter of 1895, the Rev. Thomas F. Myhan estimated only 2,000 Catholics lived in the area, and the 1,000 he said attended mass each Sunday were not enough to keep St. Ann’s afloat.
As Browne and the financial records chronicle, it would take decades and a combination of diligent pastors and annual fundraising events before St. Ann’s would be reborn debt-free in 1923. In 1915, John J. Southwick, assistant to then pastor, the Rev. William J. Sinnott, devised a particularly profitable new way to fight the feared financial collapse: an annual novena that earned St. Ann’s over $18,000 in 1924. As droves of believers streamed to the fledgling church’s gates year after year, the novena was a sign of life for a parish that, despite its money problems, was often quite alive with the faithful in those years.
The novena at St. Ann’s, a nine-day Roman Catholic event of prayer for specific invocations, was highly publicized and, Browne submits, was one of the church’s most successful endeavors. An article in the July 18, 1919 New York Sun describes the event with great fanfare, claiming 40,000 visitors had come to St. Ann’s novena the previous year.
Crowds flocked in hopes of healing their illnesses with a precious relic that had been entrusted to the church, a bit of St. Anne’s bone that Warwick would hold dutifully in a small case, hours on end, “for the lips of petitioners to touch.” A mother who brought her tuberculosis-stricken child to the novena in 1919, The Sun writes, was a profound believer in the bone’s miraculous powers, which she believed had cured her older son of the same illness the previous year: “If faith can heal, there was enough in the face of that forlorn mother to make a well baby of the whimpering little creature.”
The novena on East 12th Street was not the only one of its kind in Manhattan, nor was it unique in its worship of St. Anne. Another popular novena, which had also centered on relics of St. Anne since they were first brought to the church in 1892, had been drawing masses of the hopeful and sick for decades to the Church of Saint Jean Baptiste on East 76th Street. A joint announcement about the upcoming novenas at the two churches in a 1921 edition of the New York Times is evidence of their success, a new burst of strength filling St. Ann’s with more worshippers than the worried Father Myhan could probably have imagined nearly 30 years before.
It could only have helped novena attendance that St. Ann’s was a splendidly beautiful space. As devotees waited for their chance to kiss the lifesaving bone, they would have had time to gaze in awe, Browne says, at decadent groined ceilings, two spacious galleries adjoined to an aisle lined with hardwood pews and Gothic arches, and a marvelous marble altarpiece that Tony Zunino, who became a parishioner in 1970, still remembers well. St. Ann’s, he said, “sort of had that mystery-type atmosphere that allows one to experience their own spirituality.”
Although St. Ann’s watched its assets rise to a peak of over $1 million in the 1960s, by the time Zunino started attending mass, he noticed hints of the impending collapse: “It was not a social church. . . . It was sparsely attended.”
In his decade of worship at St. Ann’s, Zunino did not find the sermons particularly inspiring nor does he remember ever hearing Erben’s black and gold organ. The quiet decline of the church, the financial problems it still faced, was not unprecedented. Despite the 1923 triumph over debt, St. Ann’s had not become particularly frugal with funds: a 1924 financial report shows over $19,000 spent on “Improvements and Extraordinary Expenses,” including furniture, sacred vessels, oak floors, and stained glass windows, the fragments of which now litter Williams’ basement upstate.
The exact details of the financial deterioration of St. Ann’s, though, won’t be public for years to come: the Archives of the Archdiocese seals parish records for 50 years, making the finances from 1964 the earliest available. But even without the numbers, it’s clear something had been going wrong.
In St. Ann’s final attempt at change, the Armenian Catholic Eparchy of the United States and Canada acquired the church from the Archdiocese of New York in 1983, making St. Ann’s one of only 11 Armenian Catholic-affiliated centers in the country. But this rebirth would not be enough. When St. Ann’s was closed just over two decades later, the then Bishop Manuel Batakian moved the Eparchy to a new center in Brooklyn, which closed too. He now works in Lebanon.
By the time St. Ann’s closed in 2004, there were at least seven other Catholic parishes in the East Village alone and at least eight more in other neighborhoods within walking distance. That must have been stiff competition for donations, particularly at a time when the Archdiocese had been closing and consolidating several of its parishes. The area was “overchurched’” and some speculated that financial issues within the Archdiocese of New York would force St. Ann’s to close. But as Father Michael Morris, the Archivist at the Archdiocese of New York pointed out, parishes have been closing and opening since the 19th century.
Still, however typical, these operations can be painful for parishioners who have devoted decades to their churches. And the façade of St. Ann’s, humbled by the modern mega-dorm behind it, can fill one with retroactive hope that it will somehow be an exception to these rules. In certain ways, it still is. Without Michael Gallagher and Rich Williams, the stained glass that belonged to St. Ann’s would be gone.
“When I saw them in such disrepair, I wanted to save them,” Williams explained, saying that growing up an orphan, more than growing up Catholic, drove his interest. Before Williams had purchased the glass from Gallagher just over a year ago, the windows, which were infused with color — not painted — had been crushed, stepped on, forgotten again, beneath planks of plywood in a barn 27 miles away at Gallagher’s summer retreat in Westerlo, New York.
Williams is no expert. “I don’t know anything about stained glass,” he said. “I used to write for MTV and Disney.” But since buying the windows for “far less than they’re worth,” he’s been conducting his own research, both to learn the history of the glass and methods for restoring it. “I want to save things,” he laughed. “I want to save beauty.”
And unlike the Erben organ, which gathers dust in storage, the stained glass, Williams says, will not sit in his basement. Although he sold one small piece on Ebay for $10, Williams would much rather send the pieces back where, he believes, they belong: “Every item has its home, and so if I’m able to return this to its home, that would be great.”
Williams wonders if that home might be with St. Ann’s former parishioners and neighbors. But they don’t entirely agree that what’s left of St. Ann’s is a place where history is so easily restored. Roz Li worshipped at the church for decades, sitting in the same pew during every mass. The wooden bench that Li shared with her mother and, after she died, her daughter, is a treasure Li will never see replaced.
And when Elizabeth Langwith looks at her new view of a dorm, at the rivers of students flowing past the church wall where her son saw his first snowfall, she finds nothing of comfort: “I see it as a very cynical confession to the neighborhood,” she told me. A feeble attempt by NYU to preserve a history and a home that will never exist in the same way.
But can some part of St. Ann’s be revived? I can hear the smile in Zunino’s voice as he remembers the day his young son wandered up onto the pulpit, determined to reach the altar, only to be interrupted by a quick nun who brought him back to his father.
Though Zunino, like most East Village residents, is unhappy with the NYU building that replaced his former church, he strongly believes a wall that evokes a great church is better than none: “I have to say that there have been people that have ridden their bikes by that church and still think it’s there, don’t realize there’s nothing behind that façade.”
And for a brief moment in September, when my eyes shifted with first-time curiosity from my new couch to St. Ann’s, I could easily have been one of those bike riders.
In 1867, Thomas S. Preston, a revered pastor of more than three decades, the first to see St. Ann’s 12th Street home erected, delivered his Lectures on Reason and Revelation. And unlike the other unfortunate coincidences of St. Ann’s history that foreshadowed its demise, Reverend Preston had a more auspicious prediction: “There is no one whose sphere of influence is so limited that he may not be of some service to his fellows, especially in a day like ours, when questions of the most vital nature are agitating mankind.” It seems St. Ann’s still retains that influence, even for the few, who are struck with that spark of wonder at what the gloomy glass windows, once bright, once saw.