St Peter's Church
Oldest Catholic Parish in New York
22 Barclay Street
NY, NY 10007
Mother Church of Old Catholic New York
St Peter's Church was, "truly the rock upon which the present Archdiocese of New York, with its hundreds of churches, schools and other institutions were founded", wrote Le Raymond Ryan. A center of early American Catholicism, St Peter's Church was founded five years before the establishment of the present day United States government.
Old St Peter's Parish
St Peter's, the first Roman Catholic parish in New York, was established in 1785 on the site it now occupies, predating the first Bishopric in the United States, founded in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1789. The original church was built only two years after the end of the American Revolution. Old St Peter's Church was used for worship until 1836 when a portion of the ceiling gave way and the parish made plans to build a new and larger place of worship to accomodate the growing flock. By this time, the congregation of St Peter's had grown so large that some of the parishioners who came to hear Mass had to stand outside.. The present church exterior was completed in 1840 and was ultimately declared a landmark by Federal, State and City agencies.
Early New York Catholic Community
During English rule, Catholic worship was prohibited. Following the Revolutionary War, New York City served as a temporary capital of the newly independednt United States. This prominence brought many foreign ambassadors and businessmen to the city, some of whom were Catholic, including several members of Congress. A small group of city residents began to attend Mass privately at the home of Don Diego de Gardoqui, the ambassador of Spain. Father Farmer, a pioneer and tireless missionary tended to the beginning of the flock before the original church home was built. As the congregation grew, they launched a plan to build a church of their own, under the leadership of Father Whelan. Fr Whelan, a member of the Capuchin Order from Ireland, reported that the first pastor would need to know six languages spoken by the congregation of English, French Dutch (i.e. German), Spanish, Portuguese and Irish.
House of Worship
The Catholics of New York sought the help of the French Consul Hector St. John de Crevecoeur who made a formal request to the Common Council of New York City for a suitable piece of land which the Catholic congregation could lease as the site for its church. He received a reply from the Protestant Corporation of Trinity Church, stating that three lots belonging to "the Farm of Trinity Church" had been leased to several parties, and that the church would permit the leases to be transferred to the trustees of St. Peter's.
The Catholic congregation eventually leased at the corner of Barclay and Church streets, five lots from Trinity Church. The cornerstone was laid on October 5, 1785, with Ambassador de Gardoqui conducting the ceremony. In the cornerstone he placed Spanish coins minted during the reign of King Charles III of Spain.
By the Spring of 1786, with the help of donations such as one thousand silver dollars from King Charles III of Spain, the congregation had collected enough money to begin construction. On November 4, 1786, a Solemn High Mass was offered in the new church.
In 1792, the Corporation of Trinity Church voted to cancel part of the back rent which St Peter's owed. Three years later, with St Peter's still in debt, Trinity Church again came to the aid of the struggling parish.when it cancelled back rents and transferred ownership of the land to the trustees of St Peter's for the sum of one thousand pounds.
The congregation were a willful and independent group but after a tumultuous start, the capable Dominican priest, Fr William O'Brien, was appointed pastor and led a 20-year ministry (1787-1807) that saw remarkable growth. By 1836, St Peter's congregation had grown so large that some parishioners had to stand outside during Mass. On October 26, the cornerstone for a larger church was laid. This second church became eligible for consecration in 1885, 100 years after its orginal founding, as all debt had been paid. On September 3, 1837, the first Mass was celebrated in the basement of the new church. In 1893, the parish had 20,000 members.
When the mosquito borne yellow fever epidemic swept New York in waves in 1795 and 1798, Fr O'Brien earned the gratitude not only of his parishioners, but of all the citizens of New York for his tireless ministry to the sick. Hundreds of St Peter's Church parishioners perished. When yellow fever struck again in 1805, Fr O'Brien was aided by two assistants, Fr Matthew O'Brien and Fr Michael Hurley. The priests of St Peter's were commended by the secretary of the Board of Health for their courageous care of the sick.
The Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a long-time parishioner, came to aid of many with the yellow fever affliction and crossed quarentine lines to tend to patients suffering from cholera. He brought many victims into his home, where he nursed them back to health.
First Catholic Free School
St. Peter’s made history in 1800 by establishing the first free Catholic school in New York State. At the time, no public school existed in New York City. St. Peter’s Free School offered a primary education, core subjects of a secondary school as well as Catholic doctrine, Bible history and morality. In 1805, the school had 500 students and another location was opened to educate children on the Bowery.
At first, the teaching staff was composed entirely of laypersons. Then in 1831, The Sisters of Charity, an order founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, took charge of the girls’ school. Enrollment increased to 850 pupils, 350 of which where boys. In 1873, the Christian Brothers began teaching the boys at a new location at Trinity Place and Cedar Street. In 1874, the register increased to its highest point with 1,810 students.
The Free School Society was formed to dispense and administrate a common fund in 1813 and St. Peter’s Free School became eligible for city funds. After a dispute with a Baptist parish, The Free School Society transformed, by state charter, into The Public School Society (a private corporation with a non-sectarian policy). After the change, common school funds were held back from St. Peter’s Free School but Protestant schools continued to receive funding and against the rules, taught compulsory reading of the Protestant bible. “Thus sectarian influence and sectarian prejudices, which had led to the exclusion of state maintained schools conducted by religious societies, helped to bring about the formation of the present diocesan system of parish schools, of which St. Peter’s Free School was the nucleus”, Leo Raymond Ryan wrote in his historical record of the parish, Old St. Peter’s New York.
St Peter's faced a sad moment in history when the parish school closed in 1940 after 140 years of continuous service. It succumbed to the same forces that were to close many parish schools two or three decades later; a changing neighborhood, few residents, fewer Catholics in the area and mounting costs. In one sense, however, the parish continued to fulfill an educational mission. On All Saints Day in 1943, it launched St Peter's Catholic Lending Library, offering a wide selection of literature, philosophy, theology, social science and history. At one time, the library had over 4,000 volumes in circulation. After closing for several years, it re-opened in 1983. It is now a valuable source for researchers and readers in general.
Catholic New Yorkers of Note
It is especially significant that the first sisters who taught at St Peter's Free School were Sisters of Charity. In 1805, their foundress, Elizabeth Ann Seton, had been received into the Catholic Church at St. Peter's. This young Episcopalian widow, who liked to meditate on Vallejo's painting of the crucified Christ over the main altar, was to become St Peter's most famous convert and the first native citizen of the United States to be elevated to sainthood.
Another parishioner of St Peter's known for his sanctity and charity was the Venerable Pierre Toussaint. Although a contemporary of Elizabeth Seton, Pierre began life in very different circumstances, as a slave in Haiti. His cause for sainthood is currently being reviewed in Rome.
Father Felix Varela, the exiled Cuban patriot, philosopher and humanist, served on the staff of
St. Peter's ministering to immigrants of all nationalities. Through the streets walked St Francis Xavier Cabrini, ministering to Italian immigrants and St John Neumann to German immigrants. In 1817, an infant named Adelaide O'Sullivan was also born in the parish and baptized at the church. She was to become the Servant of God Carmelite Mother Adelaide of St Theresa.
Despite the large growth of the congregation in the 1830's, some parishioners thought the neighborhood was changing from a residential to a business district and that it would eventually be more profitable to sell St. Peter's and build a church elsewhere in the city. John Cardinal McCloskey declared that St. Peter's would "never be alienated," and instructed the pastor to proceed with his plans for consecration. The solemn ceremony took place on November 22, 1885.
The dissenting parishioners were wrong about St Peter's staying power but right about the neighborhood. Homes gave way to stores, and stores to tall office buildings. The ethnic background of the parishioners reflected changing patterns of immigration. Not all of the new Catholic immigrants belonged to the Latin rite. Monsignor McGean offered the use of St Peter's lower church to Greek-rite Syrian Catholics. They attended services at St. Peter's in their own rite from 1899 to 1916. At a celebration in 1921 for the 137th anniversary of the parish, pastor Monsignor McGean told his audience, "When I came to St. Peter's, I had a flock of some 25,000 souls, most of them Irish. It has dwindled to 7,000 souls of twenty nationalities, most of them Polish Ruthenian."
For many years, St Peter's had become primarily a service church, a kind of parish-away-from-home for thousands who filled the area each workday. Then, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, both St Peter's and her chapel, St Joseph's in Battery Park City, were used as staging grounds for rescue and recovery operations. "We were the first place they were bringing all the emergency equipment. Everything was in disarray," then-pastor Fr Kevin Madigan stated. "Supplies were piled six feet high all over the pews, bandages, gas masks, boots, hoses and cans of food for the workers and the volunteers, many of whom were sleeping in the pews on bedrolls." The Church celebrated Masses occasionally, but only for the rescue workers and those few others with credentials to enter the area.
The world-recognized World Trade Center Cross, a sign of hope for all the world to see in the wreckage of the buildings, was displayed outside St Peter's on Church Street until it was moved to the 9/11 Memorial. A new custom cross, commissioned to stand in its place, was installed on August 11, 2011 to represent the resurrection of the neighborhood.
Today, St Peter's Church has embraced a new role as a center for a growing residential Catholic community in Lower Manhattan, TriBeca and Battery Park City. Seven Masses are celebrated each Sunday at three locations--St Peter's on Barclay Street, Our Lady of the Rosary on State Street and St Joseph's Chapel in Battery Park City--as well as eight daily Masses. Join with the hundreds of families who call St Peter'- Our Lady of the Rosary Parish their spiritual home.