The Church of St. Vincent de Paul on West 23rd Street, long the spiritual home to the city's French-speaking Catholics, faces the sad fate of being closed by an archdiocese that has painfully had to adjust its priorities and redirect its resources in response to demographic and other changes.
While the French of Colonial New York were mostly Protestants, after the American Revolution, when New York became more welcoming to Catholics — and especially after the French Revolution, which wasn't notably friendly to the church — French Catholics began to settle in New York. The city's first Catholic cathedral, the original St. Patrick's on Mott Street, built in 1815, was designed by a French architect, Joseph François Mangin, who also designed the exterior of City Hall, in the Louis XV style. For many years in the early republic, Americans' most admired European was the French Catholic Marquis de Lafayette. (That admiration is the subject of an excellent exhibition at the New-York Historical Society through August 10.)
The French influence on American taste grew dominant from the mid-19th century on. For nearly 100 years, from the Second Empire and néo-Grec styles through 1930s Art Deco, New York architects looked to French models. In World War I, intensely Francophilic New York society women such as Anne Vanderbilt and Anne Morgan worked in French military hospitals and paid to rebuild devastated French villages. The art critic Walter Pach, among others, arranged New York studios and sales for French artists unable to work in their war-ravaged homeland, and thus began New York's 20th-century role as an international center of the arts, with a special French emphasis. Georges Simenon set one of his Maigret novels in New York. And, in 1952, Edith Piaf married Jacques Pills, in the Church of St. Vincent de Paul, situated between Sixth and Seventh avenues. The parish, founded in 1841, opened its first edifice the year following, on Canal Street. The 23rd Street church was dedicated in 1868, and the present façade dates from 1939. St. Vincent's founding pastor, Father Annet Lafont, established what may have been the first racially integrated Catholic school in America, and for many years, St. Vincent de Paul was the only fully integrated Catholic parish in the city. That's because many of New York's early French-speaking Catholics were black West Indians, among them the freed slave Pierre Toussaint, who contributed funds toward the construction of St. Vincent's on Canal Street.
Today, many prominent members of New York's French community, including Société Générale USA chief executive officer Jean-Jacques Ogier, and Deloitte & Touche partner Pierre-Henri Revault, are among the signatories to a letter, written by a parish activist, Olga Statz, to Mayor Bloomberg. It urges that St. Vincent be designated a city landmark.
Surprisingly, few Catholic churches have been so designated. Such masterpieces as Thomas Poole's St. Thomas the Apostle Church (1904–07) in Harlem, Henry Murphy's Church of St. Bernadette in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and Helmle & Huberty's St. Barbara's (1910) in Bushwick, Brooklyn, lack landmark status, yet each is architecturally more distinguished than most of the designated churches in the city. This tells us that the Archdiocese of New York has been particularly effective in forestalling the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It's interesting to ponder this in light of the visit this week of Pope Benedict XVI, who has shown a passionate commitment to art and architecture as essential props of the faith.
Architecturally, the St. Vincent de Paul is very good. The current façade, by Anthony Depace, was grafted onto the original 23rd Street building. The original façade was, like the existing one, classical, but flamboyantly twin-towered, designed by the prolific mid-century architect Henry Engelbert. His 1939 façade is quite sober, and flat, with shallow, fluted pilasters running up to the entablature. The dramatic raking cornices of the beautifully proportioned triangular pedimented top frame a bare expanse. Inside, soaring Corinthian columns define a splendid barrel-vaulted space enriched by mural paintings and opalescent stained-glass windows. It's one of too few classical churches in New York.
From City Hall to the Statue of Liberty to Restaurant Daniel, the French have shown a lot of love for New York. The French spirit so busily abroad in New York for the last century and a half has had its respite in a church on 23rd Street, and one wishes it would stand forever.