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Hells Kitchen’s Church of St. Michael Towers Above its Skyscrapers by Fr. George W. Rutler



April 2, 2017
by Fr. George W. Rutler


When the original and lamented Pennsylvania Station designed by McKim, Mead & White was under construction in the first decade of the last century, our parish was not in a salutary area. The New York Tribune described it as a “whirlpool of slime, muck, wheels, hoofs, and destruction . . . a waterfront as squalid and dirty and ill smelling as that of any Oriental port . . .” The president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Alexander Cassatt (brother of the impressionist painter Mary Cassatt), in competition with the Vanderbilts’ New York Central, secured property from our parish which then was parallel to our present church, fronting on 32nd Street. While Mr. Cassatt was an astute businessman, he was outmatched by the second pastor of St. Michael’s, Father John A. Gleeson (pastor from 1890 to 1919), who drove a hard bargain. After negotiations that were the most costly and lengthy of all the Railroad’s hundreds of real estate dealings, the corporation paid for the re-location of the church, convent and school to their present location.

Our “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood is far different from what the New York Tribune described, although there still are many social problems: just a few days ago a young man was stabbed to death near the church, and Father Gleeson’s present successor regularly deals with violent addicts and all sorts of unmannerly folks. Nonetheless, this parish is witnessing the most intense real estate development in the history of the nation, and skyscrapers are going up all around us.

This Lent there is something parabolic about the scaffolding going up to repair the cross on the roof, which was in danger of falling. It will be standing tall by Easter. A heating system over a century old sometimes failed this winter, and is in constant need of repair, the most recent work costing over six figures. Our faithful people were without complaint on recent winter Sundays when there was no heat at all, while I had the advantage at the altar of warming my hands over the heat of the thurible. None of this is a complaint, since we rejoice in the tremendous potential of our neighborhood, already manifest in the growing number of impressive young adult Catholics assisting in many ways.

While a parish is by definition parochial, it is part of the wider Church which Christ has made universal. It is gratifying, for example, that missives from our parish now reach more than seven thousand readers, many of whom correspond from different states and foreign countries. I try, though not always well, to answer them, but they are a welcome part of our extended parish family. A pastor is humbled by the generosity of so many friends of his parish, especially since we very rarely speak of financial matters. But Lent in particular enjoins all to draw closer to God through prayer, to grow stronger in ourselves through discipline, and to unite more closely with each other through almsgiving.
Father Rutler’s book, The Stories of Hymns – The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns, is available through Sophia Institute Press (Paperback or eBook) and Amazon (Paperback or Kindle).
Make a Donation, of any amount, to the Church of St. Michael.

Our website is http://www.StMichaelNYC.com

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