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1st Northern Church for Black Catholics Should Be Saved, Not Sold: Board

By Maya Rajamani | September 18, 2017 12:14pm
 St. Benedict the Moor Church, at 342 W. 53rd St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues.
St. Benedict the Moor Church, at 342 W. 53rd St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues.
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DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani

HELL'S KITCHEN — A church that was home to the first black Roman Catholic congregation in the North should be considered for landmark designation to avoid the possible sale and demolition of the historic house of worship, local officials said.

St. Benedict the Moor Church at 342 W. 53rd St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues, was one of a dozen shuttered Catholic churches throughout the city recently deconsecrated by the Archdiocese of New York — opening up the possibility that it could be sold and used for “profane, but not sordid” purposes, the Archdiocese said.

Constructed in 1869, the West 53rd Street building was originally known as the Second German Church of the Evangelical Association, New York Times reporter David Dunlap wrote in his 2004 book, “From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.” 

In the late 1890s, a congregation that had been worshipping at a church called St. Benedict the Moor on Bleecker Street since 1883 moved into the house of worship on West 53rd Street, Dunlap wrote. The Greenwich Village church was "the first... in the North for black Roman Catholics," he added. 

Bishop Emerson J. Moore, who officiated the church’s centennial mass in 1983, told the New York Times that year that the building was a “steppingstone for blacks from the Village to Harlem.”

“It was the first Catholic church to welcome blacks, and was always used to call attention to racial prejudices in America,” he told the paper.

Alex Herrera, the director of technical services at the preservation-focused New York Landmarks Conservancy, confirmed the building's historical significance. 

"The history is quite compelling," Herrera said. "There's no doubt in my mind that this church rises to the significance of an individual landmark."  

In 2007, the church merged with the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on West 51st Street, leaving the West 53rd Street building out of use for mass or sacraments, Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said last week.

Father Jose Gabriel Piedrahita, pastor of the merged church, requested on May 12, 2017, that St. Benedict the Moor be deconsecrated “because of the immense financial burden to repair and to maintain the building and the lack of parochial resources,” an Archdiocese decree shows.

Father Piedrahita didn't immediately respond to request for comment. 

Sacred Heart, which now owns the West 53rd Street property, could potentially sell the building by going through a “long process” involving consultation and review with the Archdiocese, but has no current plans to do so, Zwilling said.

While the spokesman couldn’t say when Sacred Heart stopped using the West 53rd Street building for services, Father Gilbert Martinez, pastor at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle near Columbus Circle, said he believed it fell out of use four or five years ago.

A Peruvian devotional group called La Hermandad had been worshipping at St. Benedict’s before it closed and now attends a Spanish Mass at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle every third Sunday of the month, Father Martinez noted.

At a Community Board 4 land use committee meeting on Wednesday, members expressed concerns that St. Benedict's could eventually change hands and be razed, with chairman Jean-Daniel Noland saying the board should "absolutely" ask the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider it for designation. 

On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the LPC said St. Benedict the Moor was found to be “a potentially eligible historic resource” during the Department of City Planning’s environmental review process for the Western Railyards rezoning of 2009, but noted those determinations "are not part of LPC's designation process." 

“An in-depth review of the property by LPC would have to be considered in the context of the agency’s priorities in all five boroughs,” she wrote in a email.

Given the zoning the church falls under, a potential buyer could construct a building like a hotel at the site, CB4 member Joe Restuccia noted at the Wednesday meeting.

Herrera, however, pointed out that the church is a "very nice, well-preserved building." 

"Its history is fascinating, and it's a beautiful little church," he said. "It definitely, I would say, should be a landmark."