NEW YORK – The iconic St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street concluded a year-long celebration of its 175th anniversary in spectacular fashion last month, fittingly on the feast day of its patron saint.
The historic church reverberated with the joyful sound of blaring trumpets and voices lifted in song – appropriately, on the feast of St. Francis, singing “Let All Creation” as participants processed through the aisles waving colorful, kite-shaped banners that depicted creatures of the sky, land, and sea at this special Mass celebrated by the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
On Oct. 4, friars, parishioners, visitors, friends, supporters, volunteers and staff members packed the 5:30 p.m. Mass that was concelebrated by Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, and pastor Andrew Reitz, OFM.
Even the vaulted ceilings were no match for Cardinal Dolan’s presence, greeting the congregation with his broad smile and booming voice.
Truly touched by the honor of celebrating 175 years of what he called “this great church,” Cardinal Dolan, in his homily, said, “If someone said to me, ‘show me where God is alive,’ or ‘show me that the Church is still growing,’ I’d take them to the entrance of St. Francis of Assisi Church. I am so proud of this parish.
“If you doubt how much I love you, I’ll tell you,” he said with a wide grin. “I gave up tickets to the Yankees game tonight to be here.”
Cardinal Dolan, who comes to the church almost every Ash Wednesday to work on St. Francis Breadline, added, “This parish means a lot to me and to the archdiocese. I find myself here quite a bit. When I walk the streets of New York, as I like to do, I pass by and I often come here for confession.”
Andrew, who has served as pastor since 2011, said the festive, joyful celebration was the perfect conclusion to the anniversary year – which saw 12 months of varied festivities to suit the multicultural 31st Street community.
“Cardinal Dolan was very complimentary and praised the work of our church – sacramentally and for its outreach to many groups of people,” said Andrew, noting that the archbishop attended a parish reception following the Mass, as well as a private reception at the friary.
The music and pageantry were part of this special Mass because it was also a celebration of Francis and creation, according to Meredith Augustin, director of music at the church, who says that for occasions like this, she tailors the celebration and music to suit the occasion and participants.
“People of many ethnic backgrounds frequent St. Francis of Assisi Church,” said Augustin, who has been working with the Franciscans for 22 years, including 12 at the 31st Street parish. “The energy that people give strengthens my energy for music and for the liturgy. The parish is such a melting pot of worshippers that it’s important to include varied types of music to enhance the experience.”
Augustin believes the Church of St. Francis is popular for several reasons.
“People come here because they love the friars – the brown robes are a draw – and they love St. Francis and St. Anthony. Our accessible location is also a draw,” said Augustin, noting that Cardinal Dolan’s presence and style provided a human feeling to the Mass.
To parishioner Ben Simpson, the commemorative Mass highlighted the vibrancy and strength of the family that is the St. Francis community.
“To be such a center of faith for nearly two centuries is a testament to God’s providence and the community’s embrace of the Gospel,” said Simpson, a parishioner for more than seven years. “It is a true blessing to be a part of the Franciscan family – which, in my opinion, embodies the Gospel life in a unique and powerful way.”
With St. Francis a special advocate and influence in his own life, Simpson said that to celebrate the saint’s ministry and intercession with the parish community is always important to him.
“I am especially humbled and honored by the cardinal’s words of support and love for our community. I confess to a helping of pride for our community in that moment,” said Simpson, a Eucharistic minister and altar server, and who volunteers with the Young Adult and LGBT ministries at the parish.
“The spirit of not only radical welcome, but also inclusion – inspired by Francis’ ministry in direct imitation of Christ – is what helps make St. Francis of Assisi a particularly special parish within our Church,” Simpson said. “From the poorest to the most marginalized, everyone has a place not only to pray, but to participate as a member of the family.”
Year of Celebrations
A Christmas choral anniversary concert last December was the first in a series of major events of the 12- month celebration, said Andrew. Other events included a musical program, “Encounter,” held during Lent and the summer months.
The Adult Education Program sponsored the lecture series, “How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place,” which consisted of talks about the history of the Church, in general, and St. Francis Parish, in particular, in New York – as well as presentations on the architecture and interior artistry of the 31st Street church, and evangelization at St. Francis. Over the past year, the parish also published in its Sunday bulletins descriptions of its history, which were adapted from the writings of the late Flavian Walsh, OFM.
The most recent account, titled “The Friars at Thirty-First Street, Part 21,” described the early1960s and included photos of friars Cronan Kelly, OFM, Philip Lavere, OFM, Finian Kerwin, OFM, and Cosmos Timlin, OFM. https://secureservercdn.net/188.8.131.52/fj5.138.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/bulletin_100619.pdf
On Sept. 20, the parish held a gala with music and refreshments, but rather than a sit-down dinner, according to Andrew, the event was meant to be more informal, giving people a chance to meet each other and share friendship in a relaxed atmosphere.
For John Felice, OFM, pastor at St. Francis Church from 1973 to 1982, the heart of the celebration of the 175th anniversary was the warm and welcoming presence of Cardinal Dolan.
“He understands how important this church has been to the Archdiocese of New York. The people who come here each day are rich and poor, black and white, with a wide variety of ethnic minorities that enliven the spirit of the church,” said John, who believes that after the celebration of Mass, one of the most important daily realities at St. Francis is the confessional.
“Men and women of all ages are here day after day to heal and renew their spirits. We are humbled by the people looking for hope, renewal, mercy and forgiveness. For me, this is the heart of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, and this is what will carry us forward for generations to come,” John said.
Timothy Shreenan, OFM, the parish’s director of liturgy, expressed his sentiments, saying, “I think every friar who was at the feast day Mass felt that the cardinal did a great job of capturing the essence of Francis and this place, and everything that it has meant to New Yorkers – and New York – over the past 175 years.”
A commemorative journal produced during the summer was presented to Andrew at the September gala, and to Cardinal Dolan at the Oct. 4 Mass. Timothy – who has been stationed at 31st Street since 1986, produced the 124-page softcover book, which Andrew said was a fitting keepsake for the 175th anniversary. It describes the parish’s history in a section called “Humble Beginnings and a Hopeful Future.”
The colorful journal provides information (with accompanying photos) about the mosaics of St. Francis throughout the church, friars who have served as pastors, the celebrations of feasts and seasons, and photos and descriptions of the parish’s various ministries and culture groups – such as adult religious education, LGBT outreach, migrant center music, the Korean and Filipino communities, Secular Franciscans and the Young Adult Ministry.
The cornerstone of St. Francis of Assisi Church was laid on May 9, 1844, at a time when dirt roads and modest frame houses – with a few hundred families – comprised the neighborhood of Manhattan’s west side, then known as Bloomingdale. By 1890, the city’s extraordinary growth in population raised the need for a new and larger church, according to the journal’s historical overview of the parish. It also brought great social and economic change, transforming the neighborhood of working-class families into an urban district.
To keep up with the changes of losing parishioner families that moved away from the neighborhood, the Franciscan friars – who already had a reputation of bringing the Gospel to people in diverse and creative ways – introduced the concept of “service church” tailored to the needs of a more transient worshippers – such as commuters, shoppers, tourists, laborers and the business population. Their first initiative was the “night worker’s Mass,” a Eucharistic celebration for night shift workers that included actors, newspaper employees, and other workers and travelers passing through the Penn Station hub either late at night or with a long wait between connecting trains.
St. Francis soon became the first church in the U.S. to receive permission from the Roman Catholic hierarchy to celebrate a daily Mass as late as 12:15 in the afternoon, as the Franciscans saw the need to respond to daytime workers seeking spiritual nourishment. Soon afterward, the friars began the practice of hearing confessions daily throughout the day. Throughout this growth, innovations were introduced to address the poor, marginalized and immigrant populations – one of the first outreach ministries being St. Francis Breadline, which opened in 1930 as a response to those who fell on hard times during The Great Depression.
To keep up with societal changes and to live the ideals of St. Francis in caring for all creation, the church on 31st Street, over the years, became more than a house of worship. Today, tens of thousands of Catholics and those of other religions enter its doors knowing that the friars are sensitive to the diverse ethnic population in an environment that is always a place of welcome, joy, compassion, inspiration, comfort, education and nourishment. In recent years, St. Francis has once again become a church with a strong parish base while continuing to cater to the transient population of worshippers as a service church.
The journal, which also contains greetings from various churches, organizations, individuals, supporters, and well-wishers, can be purchased at the parish office.
A message in the journal from Kevin Mullen, OFM, who has been the Provincial Minister of Holy Name Province since 2014, emphasizes the peaceful nature of the church and the pride of place that it holds in the hearts of the Franciscan friars.
“It is no surprise… that St. Francis of Assisi Parish has often been described as a spiritual oasis by those who have found their thirsty heart and souls watered by the service and fellowship offered there,” Kevin said in his message. “And what a diversity of people have passed through the doors of St. Francis over these 175 years – workers, shoppers, commuters, tourists, night-shift workers, actors, newspaper employees. The list is endless and brings to mind the famous quip of James Joyce about the Catholic Church: Here comes everybody!”
Kevin’s message continued, “For the Franciscan friars, St. Francis Church holds definite ‘pride of place’ in our hearts. As the motherhouse of our Province, it symbolizes the evangelizing presence and work of our friars since the very foundation of Holy Name Province. The friary is also known as a place of hospitality and welcome, with guest friars visiting from around the country and abroad, calling it their second home.”
Labor of Love
Tim, who was asked in the spring to design the journal, said he enjoyed working on the project because of his affection for the church and his long association with the parish.
“It was a labor of love because I have come to love this wonderful church and its many ministries over the course of my 33 years here,” said Tim, a native of Buffalo, N.Y. “Bringing the book to life was a lot of fun, and I tried to do justice to the many facets of the parish and its people. I was delighted to know how well it was received when it debuted at the anniversary gala party.”
During his presentation at the gala, Tim mentioned that he had looked at the previous anniversary journals of 1944 and 1969 for ideas and inspiration.
“I noted that one person appeared in both the 125th and 175th journals – our current pastor, Andrew Reitz, who was a choir member at the anniversary Mass in 1969 when he was a young cleric from Holy Name College,” Tim said.
“Having been at the 31st Street church since 1986, I was here for the parish’s 150th anniversary year in 1994, so it wasn’t difficult to know what to expect when our 175th milestone came along,” said Tim, who designed a logo and a handful of banners to display inside and outside the church in the fall of 2018, when the anniversary year began.
As the year-long anniversary celebration drew toward a close, Tim was heavily involved in the planning and execution of the celebratory Mass that coincided with the feast of St. Francis. Like others in the Franciscan fraternity, Tim found Cardinal Dolan’s homily at the Mass to be exceptional.
“Cardinal Dolan was a delight to work with. He touched all the rights points about Francis of Assisi – the man and the church named after him,” said Tim, who along with Fr. Stephen Ries, a diocesan priest, served as masters of ceremony at the Oct. 4 Mass – of which a video can be found on YouTube (see above).
– Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.
- History section of St. Francis of Assisi Church website
- “New York City Parish Marks 175th Anniversary” – July 10, 2019, HNP Today
- “Jesuit University Recognizes NYC Church for Partnership, Ministry” – Nov. 2, 2008, HNP Today
- “Midtown Manhattan Church Completes Renovation” – Sept. 24, 2008, HNP Today
- “St. Francis Breadline Marks 80th Anniversary” — Oct. 13, 2010, HNP Today