Tour de Church: Tale of Two Churches, New York City
by Susu, Rosie, RuntEkwesh

St. Patrick's Cathedral
On Fifth Avenue and 50th Street is St. Patick's Cathedral, New York's primary Catholic house of worship. It's that largest decorated Gothic Catholic cathedral in the United States, taking up a whole city block. In photos from previous years, you can see the exterior was brown to black in color. Restoration in the 1980s revealed the church to be made of white river-deposited limestone. The decorative stonework (both inside and out) and the many pieces of statuary swamp the stained-glass windows, which are really high up; walk in and the interior just goes on and on. There is a main altar, and a few smaller altars to the side and behind.

You've seen this church in many movies probably, the most obvious and famous being the final scene in the Judy Garland / Fred Astaire musical Easter Parade. As light and latticed as this style of church is compared to other more traditional Gothic structures, its still a huge, impressive set of buildings and gates. The art within is staggering and impressive -- the Stations of the Cross won first prize in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the rose window over the west-facing doors was designed by Charles Connick, considered to be the 20th century's formost creator of stained glass art.

On the sides of the cathedral are altars to various traditional and modern saints, complete with confessionals, statues, votives, and alms boxes. In the service booklet, announcements were made regarding which confessionals were in use at the moment. So the listing "Michael, 7-9pm" meant the chapel of St. Michael (third down on the left), in the early evening. That large, bright white "La Piétà" showed shiny, polished areas particularly over Christ's stigmata, where many faithful had rubbed and touched the classical sculpture for luck and as an act of devotion. You really have to reach to get to the stigmata -- this Piétà is three times larger than the Michelangelo piece in Rome. We also found the spot from which you can peer into the vaults where the Archbishops of New York were buried. Their hats -- called galeros -- are suspended from the ceilings of their tombs. We don't know why.

It's an impressive and beautiful space, filled to the brim during major holidays. It's 400 foot long, 250 foot wide space seats over 2,200, but its still a major squeeze during busy season. There is a gift shop selling everything from medallions to bibles to gift cards to the over 3 million annual visitors. Right next to the store is the holy water dispenser, held in a modified coffee urn.

Inspired, we sat in the pews of the main chapel and had a very civil conversation about how Vatican II affected the Catholic worship experience. It was enacted in 1966, and we agreed in the end that this act ruined the Catholic mass, at least for us. Prior services were recited in Latin, meat on Fridays was not allowed, the altars were right up against the reredos so the priests had their backs to the congregation, and communion was taken at a common railing. Many of the rituals that made Catholicism so appealingly catholic to us were heavily modified or changed completely, while other things -- like absolutley no female clerics or lifestyle changes for priests -- became more deeply entrenched. To us, anyway, instead of making the Church ceremonies more lively or liberal, it made them more sterile. This was at odds with the rich interior of this beautiful building, a sort of conflict of heritage.

So much for not discussing religion or politics! It was fun, and we left there spiritually refreshed, and even got some holy water for a buck! (What a unique souvenir!)

Church of the Incarnation
In contrast was the Church of the Incarnation, an Episcopal parish on 35th Street and Madison Avenue, down the block from the Morgan Library and the New York Public Library. This is a pink-stoned Neo-Gothic structure, once the chosen place of worship by the likes of the Delano-Roosevelts, the Farraguts ("Damn the torpedos, full steam ahead!"), the Constables, and the rich and famous of the previous century. The most unique and beautiful feature of this relatively small church are the stained glass windows. The building suffered a fire sometime after America's Civil War, and to rebuild within two years, subscriptions were taken for window sponsorship. The winning sponsors were assigned a part of the biblical narrative, but otherwise could choose any glass designer and manufacturer they wished. The result is the finest collection of 1880's-era stained glass anywhere in the United States; it was the heyday of that industry. The church boasts windows by British manufacturers Heaton, Butler and Bayne, William Morris and the only known Edmund Burne-Jones window on this side of the Atlantic, as well as four Tiffanys and two LaFarges. To the vestry's great credit, they decided early on to deliberately decorate to enhance the windows, rather than cluttering the church with too many other things that detracted.

On the other hand, excellent sculptures were sponsored and installed; Chester French, Auguste Ste. Gaudins, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and other sculptors of note (and some forgotten) graced the interiors. It was partially based on the unique collection of sculpture that Incarnation received landmark status in the 1980s. It's a nice "free" thing to look at on a hot afternoon, and far less formidable than trying to work our way through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And like St. Pat's, this place is air-conditioned, too!

In contrast, this church is small and was in danger of shutting down in the 1980s. the present rector decided on a "tough love" approach, streamlined procedures, fired staff, did away with many long-term traditions of the wealthy, and brought the parish back from the brink. During that time, a church on 6th Avenue was sold to a private entrepreneur, who did not knock down the building as planned. Instead, he refitted the holy building itself and re-opened as the notorious Limelight nightclub. The faithful were furious, causing the ouster of the Bishop of New York. Don't piss off the parishioners!

We also admired the rituals and ceremonies at this church; being Anglican (Episcopaleans have re-joined the mother church of England), they were not affected by Vatican II, so the old Catholic-style ceremony remained intact (minus the Latin mass or the sung liturgy). It was church like it ought'a be! Later, we listened to Deborah Harry's "Communion," where she set Jesus's words of he Eucharist to music ... It was an interesting "archeological moment"!

It was so interesting spending time inside the churches that we have a list of other historically and architecturally significant houses of worship on our wish lists for next time in the big city. We also found there are other beautiful places to see for free, including the New York Public Library, bank lobbies, corporate free spaces in the Sony building, the IBM building, Citicorp, Grand Central Terminal, etc. Don't need to spend much at all -- even nothing -- on admissions! Do a little homework before you hit the Big City for the best stuff! Especially houses of worship -- just bring a broad mind, an appreciation for faith in all forms, and an eye for beauty (since you are the beholder).


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