One of the things I love to do in New York City is leading walking pilgrimages to the most beautiful churches in Manhattan.
I take friends from out of town, interns and staff of the Holy See Mission, young adults associated with the Leonine Forum, and others interested on a workout of body and soul.
It’s a fun journey of faith, in which we see Christian truths beautifully displayed in so different styles of architecture, sculpture, painting and stained glass.
It’s an inspiring trek in which we discuss and witness in action the virtue of munificence — which many, even the brightest, can no longer define but which was considered during the Middle Ages one of the most important virtues: to do something lavishly generous out of love for God.
It’s a Sacred excursion during which we not only pray at the stations along our path but are strengthened on the journey of life as the “pilgrim Church on earth.”
The route can vary, depending upon the interests and stamina of the participants, but normally I like to start at the beautiful nine-ton bronze doors opening to the nave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, “America’s Parish Church,” where, with the help of sculptor John Angel, we are able to do a brief history of the Church in New York.
On the transom we see John the Baptist and Mary pointing out and inviting us to adore as we enter, the Lamb of God and the fully-grown Fruit of her womb, respectively. Jesus in turn is giving the Great Commission to the Apostles, sending them forth to preach the Gospel to all nations, representatives from most of which pass by every day on Fifth Avenue.
On the door itself are six beautiful sculptures. The top two are of St. Joseph, the patron of the Universal Church, and St. Patrick, the patron of the cathedral and the archdiocese.
Underneath them are four saints associated with New York: St. Isaac Jogues, the first priest ever to set foot in Manhattan in 1643, who was eventually martyred in Auriesville three years later; St. Kateri Tekakwitha, born 10 years after Jogues’ death in the very village sanctified by his blood; St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the Italian born missionary who arrived in New York City in 1889 and quickly became a mother for thousands of orphans, students, and hospital patients in the New World; and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Manhattan native, convert to Catholicism, and one of the most important figures in the history of Catholic schools.
Those four orient us to the Catholic history of New York and to the fact that along our path we will be following not only in their footsteps, but also those of St. John Neumann, ordained in New York in 1836, St. Francis Xavier Seelos, who arrived in New York in 1843, and many others — including, for example, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Paul VI, and St. John Paul II — who have spent time on the streets and in the churches of this city.
At the door of St. Patrick’s we can also consider a brief overview of the early history of the Church in New York: how from 1700-1784, Catholic priests were prohibited from entering the city; how in 1785, there were about 200 Catholics and one priest among 230,000 inhabitants, when the first Catholic church, St. Peter’s, was built; how Catholic New York grew so quickly that in 1808, the Diocese of New York, encompassing New York State and eastern New Jersey, was established and the first cathedral, now-Old St. Patrick’s, built; and how the visionary and bold Archbishop John Hughes determined in 1858 that the population and geography of New York City would continue to grow exponentially and “foolishly” decided to build an enormous new cathedral — then, the largest church in the country and the nation’s second tallest building — three miles north of where most of the people lived, correctly presaging that the site of the cathedral would eventually occupy the heart of New York.
Visiting the recently renovated St. Patrick’s at the beginning of our odyssey allows us to orient ourselves in the living history of the Church in New York, putting on display its sources of vitality and showing the perennial attraction to the tens of thousands who enter every day to glimpse its beauty, say a prayer, attend Mass or Confession or adore Jesus exposed in the Chapel of Our Lady. Last Saturday, we witnessed a diaconal ordination, as many men were ordained in the image of Christ the servant and sent forth.
From St. Patrick’s, we normally journey three blocks north to St. Thomas the Apostle Church, an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish where the beauty of the world’s largest and most beautiful marble retablo, focused on St. Thomas’ declaration of Jesus as his Lord and God and featuring 60 sculptures, leaves pilgrims in awe.
Next we head to St. Vincent Ferrer, on 65th and Lexington, where the neo-Gothic church’s extraordinary stained glass windows envelop you much like pilgrims experience in Paris’ Sainte Chapelle or Chartres Cathedral. Run by the Dominicans, this parish is thriving with young people and families and is one of the city’s most prayerful spots.
Ten blocks north is the Church of St. Jean Baptiste, run by the Blessed Sacrament Fathers and totally oriented — Sanctuary, stained glass, and church encompassing inscriptions — to celebrating the mind-blowing reality of Jesus’ real presence in the Holy Eucharist. This French-Canadian gem also features a shrine to St. Anne with half of the relics of the grandmother of God originally destined by Pope Leo XIII for the Church of St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec. Out of all of the churches in the city, it’s my favorite.
From there we walk another 10 blocks to the Church of St. Ignatius, run by the Jesuits, which is so rich in symbolism, materials and beauty that it’s overwhelming. My favorite element of all are two stunning bronze doors, one dedicated to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and another to the Beatitudes, featuring bas reliefs of saints who have enfleshed those gifts and paths to Christ-like happiness. Designed by Father Patrick O’Gorman, S.J,. pastor of St. Ignatius from 1924-29, these resplendent doors are the most powerful visual depiction of holiness I know.
After that, we make a long trek to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest Gothic cathedral and sixth biggest church in the world. Like the great cathedrals in Europe, it’s taken centuries to build, only two-thirds completed since construction started in 1892. From an architectural point of view, it is extraordinary and a reminder of the soaring aspirations that built the Medieval cathedrals; from the perspective of faith, the church is sadly operated more as a museum, concert hall, and center of ecological spirituality than a house of prayer.
Next we journey from the top to the bottom of Central Park to visit the majestic St. Paul the Apostle, founded by Father Isaac Hecker and run by the Paulists. It’s inspired by elements of the early Christian basilicas in Ravenna and features the work of some of the greatest 19th-century American artists.
After that — for most groups with the help of the subway — we head to the Church of St. Francis Xavier, designed by the famous Patrick Keely, and filled with 50 stunning murals, several series of marble sculptures of saints, and breathtaking architecture. The huge paintings of the Stations of the Cross in the nave are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen adorn a church.
We conclude by heading to the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s and, for those who are not exhausted, the Church of St. Peter, where, in New York’s first two churches, we are able to focus a little on the Lord’s parable of the Mustard Seed. From 200 Catholics and one priest in 1784, a great and munificent Catholic legacy was built where, in some sense, immigrants and visitors from the whole world have been able to take refuge.
Retracing and reliving that history, and following in the footsteps of saints celebrated and unknown, we are strengthened not only for the pilgrimage of life but also challenged and emboldened to recapitulate that parable.
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at email@example.com.