The first wholly traditional Catholic parish structure
built since Vatican II could not be situated in a more central location, at a
more opportune time. New York is enjoying an astounding 1990s rejuvenation,
bulging with tourists and new business. St. Agnes Church is at the center of it
all, in midtown Manhattan, near Grand Central Station.
Only at St. Agnes in New York City can an orthodox churchman be attacked from
the right. Yet there they were, a dedicated band of angry young people picketing
Msgr. Eugene V. Clark at Mass only one week after St. Agnes had burned nearly to
the ground in late 1992. Their charge? That the good Monsignor intended to
replace the old brick Gothic structure, now ruined, with what they called a
"Swedish-Igloo-Modern." Monsignor Clark never gets mad, but he got mad
that day - although today he looks back on the incident with amusement. He even
saved one of their flyers and is considering having it framed.
Did those excitable young men and women actually live within the parish
boundaries of St. Agnes? No. But then hardly anybody actually lives in the East
40s. St. Agnes has maybe 100 to 150 residential parishioners. Nobody really
cares, either; and this is one of the charms of St. Agnes. It is a commuter
church located next to one of the busiest ports of call in the world, Grand
Central Station. St. Agnes Church is a place that is searched out, discovered,
chosen. To many it seems that St. Agnes chooses them.
But there was that awful day when many thought it might close.
It was an unseasonably warm December 10, about 2:30 in the afternoon, when
office workers on the 32nd floor in the nearby Pfizer Chemical building first
heard the insistent scream of fire engines. The sirens didn't stop. A thick
smoke poured down the big avenue, down Second and Third, down 42nd Street, all
emanating from the side street where St. Agnes has stood since 1873.
At 2:30, Msgr. Clark was planning a benefit with two ladies over lunch, and
they were lingering over dessert. Walking through Grand Central a few minutes
later, he noticed the fire engines' incessant whine. the sound drew him to his
home of many years. It was a four-alarm fire; firemen were everywhere. They
allowed Msgr. Clark to dash inside to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament. There he
found a most unlikely sight: Rudy Giuliani (now Mayor of New York), then
working as an attorney in a nearby building, was wandering up and down the
aisles looking for anyone who might have been overcome by smoke. He had already
prevented two looters from stealing silver-plated candelabras.
Monsignor Clark, along with Carlos Arias, a worker at the church, then waded
through two feet of water in the lower church to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament.
Afterward, he stood outside with hundreds of others and watched the flames lick
and then puncture the 120-year-old roof of the church. Only two days before,
this church had been one of the busiest in Manhattan, perhaps the country, when,
as for all feast days, she celebrated 36 Masses for the Feast of the Immaculate
Conception. Some 15,000 Catholics had jammed St. Agnes that day. Now they would
have to go elsewhere.
The St. Agnes fire was news all over the region. The major New York papers
covered it extensively for two days. It was on all the local television stations.
The commuter parishioners and much of the city grieved. Monsignor Clark told the
Daily News three days after the fire that he expected to have Mass in the
lower Church by Christmas Day, but his hopes were dashed when the building
inspectors told him that no one would be allowed back into the dangerously
There was only one more Mass said at St. Agnes Church. Nearly a year after
the fire, right before the final demolition, Clark, the other priests of St.
Agnes and a few favored altar servers gathered in the ruins of the church one
last time. It looked like a wartime scene: robed and kneeling figures gathered
against a backdrop of charred and ruined walls.
With Mass attendance down, a burned Catholic church has a slim chance of
being rebuilt in New York City. On the day of the fire, however, two men vowed
to rebuild St. Agnes. While the fire still burned, Cardinal O'Connor hurried
from a meeting in Yonkers to join Msgr. Clark. Together they stood outside the
smoking church and pledged that she would rise from the ashes.
The demolition cost two million dollars; the new building cost six. The
parishioners decamped to the Daily News' Patterson Auditorium. For months
New Yorkers watched Fr. William Shelley, Fr. John Perricone and others in their
cassocks leading parishioners down Third Avenue to the Daily News building
for Sunday Mass. After several months, a chapel was built within a gymnasium in
the old St. Agnes School around the corner on 44th Street. Eight Masses a day
were celebrated in that cramped space, sixteen on feast days, until the new
St. Agnes opened on January 17, 1998, five years after the fire.
What is so important about this relatively small church located in a
commercial area of New York?
St. Agnes is not the oldest church in Manhattan, having been built in 1873
by the same European immigrants who erected Grand central Station, half a block
away. These were poor men and women, who cobbled together their pennies and
built St. Agnes themselves; they also built a school next door. From the very
beginning, a strong and loving community sustained the church.
A visible testament to their original generosity still exists in marble: the
names of those hard-pressed people who managed to give $100 in support of the
school so that "no poor child would ever be turned away." Several
distinguished Protestants also contributed.
The popular history of St. Agnes begins with her pastor in mid-century, Msgr.
Chidwick, one-time rector of the archdiocesan seminary and a U.S. Navy chaplain
assigned to the U.S.S. Maine and cited for heroism. For decades he was
considered a premier speaker in the city; when he died the newspapers said his
funeral was the largest ever held in New York.
A few years later, even the fame of Msgr. Chidwick was eclipsed by the
arrival of the best-known Catholic in America, Msgr. Fulton Sheen. Sheen never
actually lived at St. Agnes, as many believe, but he was her most famous
preacher. Millions tuned in to his radio and television broadcasts. For years he
even outpaced the man who came to be known as Mr. Television, Milton Berle.
Fulton Sheen was best known by New Yorkers, however, for his homilies
delivered during the traditional Three Hours' Service of Good Friday. So many
people jammed into St. Agnes for those sermons that the block out front was
closed and giant speakers put up to accommodate the overflow. Today the block of
43rd Street between Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue is officially known as
Fulton Sheen Place.
Building on the work of his predecessors, Msgr. Clark turned St. Agnes into
what it is today. Clark has the bearing of a senator, a captain of industry or a
professor. He never thought of any calling but to the priesthood. He grew up in
New York, attended the archdiocesan seminary and was ordained in 1951. He worked
in a series of New York parishes until he came to the attention of Cardinal
Spellman, to whom he became private secretary and general gatekeeper. Upon the
Cardinal's death, Clark served his successor, Cardinal Terence Cooke, by
creating a modern, professional communications office in the chancery. He also
became a very efficient fund raiser, creating at the Cardinal's request a
committee to assist the Vatican Museums - for which it raised many millions.
It is not geography that brings people to St. Agnes. Parish selection is a
fairly modern phenomenon. "Some people pick a parish and a great many
people are almost forced to pick one," says Msgr. Clark, "mostly
because they have strong feelings about certain things." Anger, he says,
"is not the compelling force for most people"; they generally seek out
a parish "because something has been missing for them, something they want.
" Most often people are looking for a respectful liturgy and sound
catechesis. "There was once a great uniformity of practice. If you left an
adverb out of the Beatitudes, everybody noticed. Even the altar boys held their
hands in exactly the right way. That is not the scene today."
In many parishes these correct practices will be found only in books,
waiting to be brought to life by men. And this is why St. Agnes shines: the men
who live here.
>Through the back office of the St. Agnes rectory walks a spectacular private
parade. Between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. the march begins: the priests going down to
a cocktail and dinner. Ambling through the office come Fr. George Rutler, writer
and Catholic celebrity; Fr. John Perricone, fiery preacher with a great
following in orthodox circles; Msgr. Florence Cohalan, resident historian of the
Archdiocese; Msgr. James Reinert, the Nebraskan assigned to the Holy See's
Mission to the United Nations. On a given evening ten or eleven priests walk
through the back office, and any one of them can stop and lucidly answer
questions of the Faith, or of Church or even secular history. Laymen are allowed
almost everywhere in the St. Agnes complex, but generally not in the dining
room. It is hallowed ground where visiting priests from all over the world sit
agape at the fast and often uproarious dinner-time debate - always lofty, and
occasionally in Latin.
All over Manhattan huge and luxurious rectories stand virtually empty, but
there is often a waiting list to live in the small, cramped, dingy rooms of St.
Agnes. Each man there fits into the mix of holiness, intellectual prowess,
liturgical precision and orthodox belief. "The group of priests living in
this house still adhere to certain basic principles, certain basic evangelical
goals and a certain pastoral zeal," says Msgr. Clark.
Occassionally Msgr. Clark's guests flee the dinner table. "One fellow
came here a few years ago," he says, "and at dinner someone brought up
St. Francis de Sales. Monsignor Cohalan remarked that it was quite extraordinary
how de Sales saw through and handled so many of the problems of his age, and how
he handled the Calvinists and even converted a few of them. In a few
well-executed sentences Cohalan had compassed de Sales. Then another of our
priests compared de Sales to Pascal, who had mishandled some of the same
problems. Two or three others then made references that advanced the
conversation. And all of a sudden our guest said, 'I had no idea people like you
really existed.' Now this fellow was not saying we were all bright, but that we
were crazy. And you should know that very few of the men in this house are
academics, just men with general habits of reading. They are truly literate men
who are genuinely interested in the Church." It wasn't exactly the kind of
conversation their guest was used to in his own rectory.
These are the men at the dinner table at St. Agnes, the men in the pulpit,
the men in the confessional. Some of them make speeches. Some teach. Some write
books. All of them are truly Catholic, and truly priests.
The number-two priest at St. Agnes, and running the day-to-day operations, is
the beloved Fr. William Shelley, 73 years old. Father Shelley was once pastor of
St. Malachy's, "the actors' church," across midtown in the theatre
district. He tells stories about hearing regular confessions there at 3:00 a.m.
so that the late-night theatre crowd could attend the 4:00 a.m. Mass. Father
Shelley ministered at St. Malachy's to many Broadway luminaries. It was at St.
Malachy's that he came to love Broadway theater, which remains one of the few
luxuries he ever allows himself.
Father Shelley came to St. Agnes 25 years ago. He even remembers the exact
date. "March 3, 1973," he says without hesitation. And he quickly
became a much-beloved figure. A straightforward mix of practicality and
holiness, he seems to know more about the people and the history of St. Agnes
than anyone else. "Traditionally," he says, "there were four
types of people who came to St. Agnes: the few people who live in the
neighborhood, the many people who work here (including those who work in bars,
restaurants and hotels on Sundays), visitors and then the people who just choose
it. But a fifth group was added in 1989 - the Latin Mass people who come every
Father Shelley guides the soup kitchen at St. Agnes, which has fed thousands
of hungry people each Saturday for thirteen years. Dozens of volunteers arrive
Friday night to prepare the Saturday meal, and by early morning a long line of
guests winds down 44th Street. The kitchen has missed only two days in all the
years it has run. A few years ago, when Los Angeles rioted over the Rodney King
verdict, fear spread to New York that rioting would start here. All New Yorkers
remember the panic that Friday afternoon as the city closed down, and people
literally ran home in the middle of the afternoon. "Even on that day, the
volunteers showed up to get the soup kitchen ready for the next morning,"
says Fr. Shelley proudly.
Father Shelley also shows up nearly every Saturday morning at the local
abortion mill to lead a small band of faithful protesters in the Rosary.
Whenever he arrives you can see the air go out of the clinic "escorts"
who are there to keep the young women away from the pro-life witnesses at the
Recently, after the new church was completed, Msgr. Clark moved into quarters
in the rebuilt church area. As number two, Fr. Shelley was offered Monsignor's
old rooms. They are larger and more convenient than the ones he has occupied for
many years in the second rectory on 44th Street. Shelley declined, even though
his current rooms require him to climb painful stairs going to and from the
church. He likes those stairs, he told Monsignor, and is used to them. Typical.
There is a story going around that he didn't want the larger rooms because he
has so few possessions that he couldn't fill them. Father Shelley has spent his
life giving things away - his money and his possessions and his love. To many
parishioners, this man, sometimes hobbling, always holy, is St. Agnes.
It would be easy to write whole books about each of the priests at St. Agnes.
Father Matthew Farrelly, an 84-year-old Holy Ghost Father, gave up his teaching
post in Ireland in 1943 and traveled by ship through submarine-infested waters
to start what would be years of ministering to the people of Nigeria and Gambia.
In Nigeria he was given food and a canoe and sent alone upriver, where he
stayed for over fifteen years. He came back with an enormous respect and love
for the African people. He knows some Africans so well that he can recognize
facial characteristics of certain tribes even in American faces. He has
surprised many New York cab drivers from Africa by speaking their native
One day Fr. Farrelly had had quite enough with the loud and vulgar uproar
that frequently went on next to the temporary chapel at the homeless shelter,
called St. Agony, that used to be St. Agnes' boys' school. This elderly
white-haired priest was a vision of Shakespearean righteousness as he stormed
into the shelter and shouted to the men that they should be ashamed of
themselves, that they had a magnificent history and traditions and that the
people of Africa would be embarrassed to call them brothers. He was successful.
After Africa, where for years he had been secretary to Archbishop Marcel
Lefebvre, at the time a singularly effective African bishop, Fr. Farrelly was
assigned to represent his order in Rome. Monsignor Clark says he is one of the
most well-liked and well-connected persons who have served at the Vatican.
Father Farrelly is a quiet and holy man who spends his days instructing
converts, offering Mass and praying. Each morning he can be found in the church
at 6:00, kneeling over his breviary.
Monsignor Florence Cohalan lives on the third floor of the rectory; despite
his wheelchair and his blindness, he appears at every meal in the rectory
dining room. Cohalan spent much of his life teaching history at the archdiocesan
minor seminary. It was during his tenure at Crestwood that Msgr. Clark began
keeping his vow always to have a home for this man who was so important to his
own intellectual and spiritual formation. In the 1960s Msgr. Cohalan, Msgr.
Clark and Neil McCaffrey (Image Books; founder of Arlington House and the
Conservative Book Club), served in William F. Buckley, Jr.'s brain trust. These
days Msgr. Cohalan frequently forgets what he had for breakfast, but, just as
easily, remembers intricate details of seventh-century Church history. And
Buckley, noted Catholic author Malachi Martin, and countless judges, librarians
and old friends can still be seen sprinting up the back stairs of the rectory
to see the great teacher on the third floor.
Father Venant Lalonde, a Franciscan now in his seventies, spent World War II
on a submarine, among the most dangerous posts in the war. After the war he
became a captain in the merchant marine; to this day he attends meetings of sea
captains in New York city. Five years ago he finished a thirty-year stint in the
mission fields of Bolivia and came back to New York. "His submarine service
is greatly appreciated at St. Agnes," says Msgr. Clark, "since it
taught him how to fix just about anything. This is particularly helpful in a
house where a simple videotape machine baffles everyone else."
Father Lalonde is a benevolent presence as he walks the sidewalks around St.
Agnes in his brown habit and sandals. He opens the Church with Fr. Farrelly at
6:00, and prays his Office.
Father Kazimierz Kowalski was dean of the Lutherans in Brooklyn ten years ago
when he perceived a call to the Catholic Church. He is a bear of a man,
well-loved, a type of man's man that is too rare in the Church today. As do Frs.
Shelley, Farrelly and Lalonde, Fr. Kowalski serves St. Agnes full time. He came
to St. Agnes only a few years ago and is number three to Msgr. Clark.
It is a thirty-year tradition that some members of the Holy See's Mission to
the nearby United Nations live at St. Agnes. Today there are two. Monsignor Carl
Marucci, attachè and personal secretary to apostolic nuncio and Permanent
Observer Archbishop Renato Martino, is an acomplished musician, and manages an
orchestra with his wheelchair-bound brother, who is also a priest. Monsignor
James Reinart, another attachè at the Holy See's Mission, is also young -
not many years off the farm, in fact, serving from the Diocese of Bishop Fabian
Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Father Gerald Murray, tall and Irish, and a chaplain in the Naval Reserves,
is the most recent addition, just having completed many years of studying canon
law in Rome. He got straight As from Dartmouth on. He was sent to a poor Spanish
parish in tough upper Manhattan, where he served for several years before moving
to St. Patrick's Cathedral. Cardinal O'connor sent him to study canon law at
Rome's Gregorian University, and he now serves on the Matrimonial Tribunal of
the Archdiocese of New York.
The firebrand of St. Agnes is a young priest from New Jersey, Fr. John
Perricone, whose pure orthodoxy keeps the Tridentine Mass at St. Agnes jammed to
the rafters whenever he is celebrant. Father Perricone is considered one of the
leaders in the promotion of the ancient Latin Mass. (Thanks to Cardinal O'Connor,
who himself made the request of Msgr. Clark, St. Agnes was the first parish in
the Archdiocese to offer the Tridentine Mass after papal permission was extended
Among a minority of priests these days, Fr. Perricone also gives spiritual
direction. People going to him quickly find themselves scaling heights they
never thought possible - nothing overly grim, but daily exercises, or what he
calls "norms of piety."
Father Perricone is just 48, but he has much priestly gravitas. As do most of
the priests at St. Agnes, he wears a cassock when on church grounds. He has made
it a personal project to rescue magnificent vestments discarded after what he
calls the "revolution" of thirty years ago. His Masses are examples of
liturgical and rubrical precision.
Father Perricone created a personal apostolate many years ago called
ChristiFideles, which prepares its members intellectually and spiritually to do
battle in society and in the Church. "ChristiFideles was a constructive
response to the increasing crisis in the Church," he says. "We teach
Catholics about their faith from a theological and philosophical perspective,
but also from a more traditional view of the spiritual life."
ChristiFideles presents frequent lectures from political, legal and academic
leaders. It publishes a hard-hitting newsletter that has doubled in circulation
in less than two years, and has published original work from Joseph Sobran and
Malachi Martin, as well as nurturing the talent of half a dozen young writers.
There are nearly 1,000 members of ChristiFideles, but the core group of twenty,
mostly in their 20s and 30s, meets every other Monday evening for an intensive
three hours on the Baltimore Catechism and the Summa Theologica.
An intrepid band of these traditionalists attends local lectures by liberals
and modernists and, having prepared intelligent and incisive questions in
advance, fire them off one after another. It never fails to jolt the other side
to see polished professionals in the opposition.
Father George Rutler looks like a nineteenth-century English saint. He
probably sounds like one, too, as unlikely as it seems that a boy raised in
Patterson, New Jersey would have an Oxbridge accent; it's a consequence of many
years of study abroad. Father Rutler us by far the best-known priest at St.
Agnes, probably one of the most famous in the U.S. He is the author of half a
dozen books. He has made his own program on Mother Angelica's Eternal Word
Television Network. Tapes of his lectures sell as well as those of any figure in
the Catholic world. He is also the chaplain of Legatus, an organization of
Catholic CEOs founded by Domino's Pizza Chairman Tom Monahan.
Father Rutler used to be an Anglican priest; a distinguished career lay ahead
of him in the Episcopal Church. But the Anglican's growing resemblance to the
Democratic Party, in addition to theological and spiritual reasons, sent him to
Rome in 1980.
Father Rutler says Catholics come to St. Agnes for several reasons. "They
come because there is a solid commitment to the solid Gospel here," he says.
"And the time constraints of saying so many Masses in a single day keep out
the luxury of preaching frills. Also, there is the location in midtown
Manhattan. But there is also the presence of regular confession, several hours
each day. We preach conversion here; and the surest sign of conversion is
repentance and confession." At St. Agnes confessions are heard in the
morning from 7:30 to 8:45, over lunch from 12:35 to 1:45 and in the evening from
5:00 to 5:45. Although many parishes claim to need only 30 minutes of confession
a week, St. Agnes seems always to have a line whenever the confessional is open.
Father Rutler sees no problem in the lack of registered parishioners.
"We have parishioners like John Wesley had parishioners - the whole world
is our parish," he says. "You can go all over the world and meet people
who have been here. People come here for the orthodoxy, certainly, but also for
the sacramental services. There is a deep level of serious supernatural worship
Father Rutler is known for many things. He is known for a wicked sense of
humor; at an elegant Manhattan fundraising dinner that he emcees every year, he
once referred to Msgr. Clark as "the Mother Teresa to the rich." He is
a fine prose stylist; his column appears monthly in Crisis magazine, and
his wit has often been compared to G.K. Chesterton's. He is an especially gifted
homilist; many people track down his wildly fluctuating Mass schedule in order
to be present at one of his three-minute sermons. His programs on EWTN are among
its most popular. He is even an accomplished landscape artist.
What Father Rutler is best known for around St. Agnes and New York are his
Good Friday sermons. He has inherited the mantle of orator of St. Agnes from
Fulton Sheen, who presided over four Good Friday services. Father Rutler has
done twelve. Before the church burned, people used to arrive at St. Agnes early
in the morning to make sure they got a seat. After the fire, the service was
moved to the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which has been a
godsend. It holds over 1,200 people, and it is standing room only. Starting at
12:00 and ending at 3:00, Fr. Rutler takes the parishioners through the death
of Christ on the Cross in his own particular way. One year it was "The
Seven Last Words of Christ and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World."
Another compared the seven last words with the seven deadly sins. He delivers
seven sermons in those three hours without a note; and then they are published
almost verbatim in book form. Hugh Carey, former governor of New York State,
recalls: "I was there one year, and it was such a wonderful experience that
I ran outside to a pay phone and called all my sons and told them to meet me
immediately. They all came. Father Rutler is an amazing priest."
Father Rutler says St. Agnes is important for the atmosphere it creates.
"When people enter St. Agnes they know immediately they are entering a
sacred space," he says. "But it isn't a stuffy or exclusive place. It
is like the Catholic Church as a whole. The Catholic Church leaves room for
casual and anonymous curiosity. You can come in, stand around, and get
comfortable with it. I am reminded of a sign that Ronald Knox spotted in a
Catholic Church: 'Mind Your Umbrella.'" Father Rutler explains that
Catholicism is so open that anyone can come in, but that that freedom also
includes the thief, or a street person. "A bag lady came up to me one day
and quoted something I'd said in a Good Friday service." That's St. Agnes,
Father Rutler travels almost constantly for Legatus, and is away from St.
Agnes for long stretches of time. He has a new book coming out from Ignatius
Press this spring. Entitled The Confessions of an Anglican Choirboy, it
is his reflections on a hundred old and favorite hymns. Webmaster note:
the book is now in print but was renamed 'Brightest and Best'.
So there are the church and the men. Why do people flock to St. Agnes? For
more than convenience: they come for the Faith, for the Faith delivered in a
solemn, no-nonsense manner. Many Catholics the world over grit their teeth
through banal sermons, silly music and profane liturgies. At St. Agnes,
parishioners get the real thing. Each sermon is a real lesson about the Church,
an aspect of the Faith, the life of a saint. The sermons are delivered by
saintly men who would bridle at the label of saint. This church is open from
6:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night; it has Adoration of the Blessed
Sacrament every afternoon until 5:00. In this church Communion is received
kneeling. Above all, in this church the priests and the laity can be seen saying
their prayers on their knees at all times of the day.
Austin Ruse runs a pro-life/pro-family lobbying group at the