New York City Parish Marks 175th Anniversary

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

St. Francis Church on West 31st Street in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Jim McIntosh, OFM)

NEW YORK CITY – It isn’t every week that a famous structure turns 175, but it seems like there’s a weekly event celebrating the century-and-three-quarter-year-old Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street.

Next up in the year-long jubilee commemoration – which began with a special Mass on Oct. 4, 2018, appropriately on the feast day of St. Francis – is a three-week summer lecture series, the latest in a schedule of events and programs celebrating the 175th anniversary of the icon affectionately known as “the church on 31st Street.”

The 12-month celebration will come full circle later this year when on Oct. 4 Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, will preside at a Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church to close the jubilee year.

A number of other events are being planned between now and the concluding Mass, among them a Sept. 20 dinner gala, whose details have yet to be announced.

From the opening jubilee Mass, to the Christmas concert last December, to the upcoming lecture series and other events on the horizon, Andrew Reitz, OFM, pastor at St. Francis of Assisi, says parishioners and the thousands of visitors who come through the doors weekly have enthusiastically embraced the 175th anniversary of the beloved church.

“Thus far, there has been a lot of excitement and participation, and we expect the same at our upcoming events,” said Andrew, now serving in his ninth year as pastor at the church.

The enthusiasm and support come as no surprise because St. Francis Church has been a spiritual beacon to millions who have walked through its doors since 1844.

“The church on 31st Street has always been a light in Midtown Manhattan. People come here for many different reasons and with various needs because they find it a place of welcome and an atmosphere of closeness to God,” Andrew said.

“While this is a year of celebration, our jubilee anniversary reminds us of our commitment and responsibility to continue and build for the future,” said Andrew, who is overseeing his second jubilee – having the good fortune of serving as pastor at Sacred Heart Church in 2010 when the Tampa, Fla., parish celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Parish and Shrine
For decades, St. Francis has mostly been a shrine church, drawing “transient” worshippers – business professionals, laborers, commuters, immigrants, shoppers and tourists from across the U.S. and every corner of the globe – and, of course, New Yorkers throughout the state, from Montauk to Buffalo.

While tens of thousands from among these groups annually continue to attend daily Masses and come for confession and other sacraments and services, in recent years, according to Andrew, St. Francis has evolved into a combination shrine church-parish church. It has amassed more than 2,000 New Yorkers who call it their parish and hundreds of volunteers who are part of dozens of ministries – from church greeters and Breadline workers to youth, immigration assistance and LGBT programs.

The parish also has a database of more than 30,000 – individuals who at one time lived or worked in Manhattan and worshipped at St. Francis, and have since moved but continue to support the church.

“We are grateful for the continued support of these wonderful people because, frankly, without them, we would be unable to sustain these ministries at the high level we provide,” Andrew said. “This is a very unique situation that few churches and parishes enjoy – to have 30,000-plus people continue their support after they have moved elsewhere and belong to other parishes.”

Statue of St. Francis of Assisi at the church’s West 32nd Street entrance. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Not bad for a small church whose cornerstone was laid in 1844 in a then-residential neighborhood of Manhattan at a time when dirt roads and modest frame houses were the landscape for 330 families residing between the boundaries of 23rd Street and Times Square. (To put things into perspective, 175 years later, those 330 families would fit into a single high-rise.) Then a mostly German and Irish immigrant population, St. Francis has become a haven to multi-cultural worshippers.

“At any given Mass, you can look out to the congregation and probably see 50 to 100 countries represented,” Andrew said.

He noted that thousands of people flock to St. Francis for confession because “we (Franciscan friars) have a reputation for being compassionate confessors. People just feel at home and at peace with the Church when they come to St. Francis. Besides being welcoming, it’s convenient especially for people who commute to the city,” he said, adding, “and people know that our ministries and services – for example, adult religious education programs, spiritual direction, and counseling – are open to everyone.”

Spiritual Oasis for All
The concept of catering to the needs of the transient population – workers, shoppers, tourists – was born at the turn of the 20th century when St. Francis became the first church in New York City to offer a mid-afternoon and a “night worker’s” mass, the latter for night shift laborers, actors, newspaper employees and travelers out of Penn Station who had a long wait between connecting trains.

Whether it’s people running in for a Mass card or spiritual bouquet, purchasing Rosary beads, a book or a 175th anniversary commemorative Christmas tree ornament in the lobby shop, or attending Mass at the end of the workday before catching a commuter train home, or coming to confession or Mass during their lunch break, St. Francis continues to be that spiritual oasis on Manhattan island.

“To the people of New York, the Church of St. Francis of Assisi continues to be a place of prayer and peace 175 years later,” said Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM. “In the Franciscan world, St. Francis on 31st Street is synonymous with Holy Name Province. The friary is known as a place of hospitality and welcome, with guest friars visiting from around the country and abroad calling it their second home.”

“The church’s outreach to people in need – the poor, homeless and migrants – is the stuff of legend – and recently, it isn’t only the friars who do this work, but thanks be to God, our many lay partners in ministry who help bring healing and comfort to those in need,” Kevin said.

“Without their generous commitment of time, talent and treasure, we would be unable to sustain these vital ministries. As friars, we give thanks to God every day for the generosity and support of our donors and fellow workers,” the Provincial Minister added.

The summer lecture series marks the anniversary and features several topics. (Graphic courtesy of St. Francis Church)

Commemorative Book and Lecture Series
As part of the jubilee year, the parish is producing a 175th Anniversary Commemorative Book – a keepsake that will contain a history of St. Francis of Assisi Church and brief descriptions (and photographs) of all ministries that capture the life of the parish and church community. Opportunities to support this journal through business, congratulatory and memorial ads can be found on the parish’s website. In addition, the church is coordinating a 175th-anniversary raffle. Ticket information can be found on the same website.

Sponsored by the St. Francis Adult Education Center, the upcoming three-week summer lecture series – titled “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place: St. Francis of Assisi Parish at 175” – will take place from July 17 to 31 at San Damiano Hall (129 W. 31st St.), next door to the church.

The series is a case study in what it means to be an oasis of spirituality in a secular urban environment. It will provide a stimulating and comprehensive exploration of the church and parish, dating back to its founding in 1844 to the present, from four distinct perspectives: biblical, historical, and theological and artistic.

Raffle tickets are available in the parish office. (Photo courtesy of Jim McIntosh, OFM)

On July 17 and 18, William Beaudin, OFM, will kick off the lecture series with a presentation on biblical perspectives, addressing how a biblical understanding of temple helps to nourish an understanding of the relationship between parish, church, and community.

Week two of the lecture series takes place from  July 23 to 25, when historian Dominic Monti, OFM, will trace the history of the church and its longtime status through generations as a place of refuge, welcome, healing and reconciliation.

In the third week of the series, on July 30 and 31, Timothy Shreenan, OFM, and Joseph Nuzzi, director of evangelization at the parish, will approach the 175th anniversary from a theological and artistic perspective, including an exploration of the church’s magnificent art and architecture.

Additional detailed information on dates, times, theme descriptions, presenters, cost and registration (which is recommended since space is limited) can be found online, or by contacting the Adult Education Center at 212-736-8500 ext. 277.

What St. Francis of Assisi Church has meant to the Big Apple over its 175-year history may best be captured in an anecdote offered by Kevin: “Father Joe McShane, S.J., the president of Fordham University, has told me that he frequently brings visitors to our church on 31st Street so that they can witness and experience ‘the heart of the Church in New York City!’”

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.