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You are here: Articles > Art & Architecture > Risen From the Ashes  Back one page.
Risen From the Ashes
(Sursum Corda) Summer 1998

Austin Ruse

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.

Exterior of the new St. Agnes churchOnly 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.

Main altar in the new churchIt 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 weakened structure.

Last Mass offered in the ruins of the church, 1993 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.

Tridentine Mass offered by Cardinal Stickler in old church, 1992 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.

Rededication Mass, 1998 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 Sunday."

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 curb.

Altar servers in procession 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 language.

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.

Painting of St. Ambrose in the new church. 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.

Fr. Perricone preaching from the new pulpit. 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 in 1988.)

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 here."

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.

Fr. Rutler blesses a statue of Mary.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, and Catholicism.

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 United Nations.

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2019
The Catholic Liturgical Library