Photo by James Russiello on WikiCommons
The first Black Catholic church to open above the Mason-Dixon line has been sold for $16 million, as first reported by Bisnow New York. Located at 342 West 53rd Street in Hell’s Kitchen, the former St. Benedict the Moor church was constructed in 1869 as the only church for Black Roman Catholics. The property was sold by the Archdiocese of New York to developer Walter Wang’s JMM Charitable Foundation, whose future plans for the site are unknown, according to W42ST.
Under the terms of the sale agreement, the rectory and parish house can be redeveloped but the church must remain the same for at least 20 years. After its deconsecration by the Catholic Church in 2017, Manhattan Community Board 4 proposed that the church receive landmark status to prevent it from being redeveloped but it has yet to do so.
The parish was first established on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in 1883 to serve Black Catholics living in an area known as “Little Africa” at the time. The church is named after St. Benedict the Moor, a 16th-century Franciscan who was born to enslaved Africans in Sicily.
It was built with $5,000 in funding from Rev. Thomas Farrell, who when he died in 1880 left the money in his will as a form of reparations for Black Americans, as W42ST reports.
“I believe that the white people of the United States have inflicted grievous wrong on the colored people of African descent, and I believe that Catholics have shamefully neglected to perform their duties towards them,” Farrell wrote. “I wish then, as a white citizen of these United States and a Catholic to make what reparation I can for that wrong and that neglect.”
By the 1890s, the majority of the church’s congregations were domestic servants living in Hell’s Kitchen who had followed their wealthy employers north after they moved uptown. The church followed its congregants and moved to Hell’s Kitchen. The $30,000 move was paid for by Rev. John E. Burke who would go on to serve as the congregation’s parish priest for decades.
St. Benedict’s became a center for NYC’s African-American community, containing a library dedicated to Black literature, a drama group that performed Shakespeare, and a debating society that would discuss economic advancement. The church remained a center for Black Catholics even after the community’s mass migration to Harlem.
The church’s iconic murals were created in the 1930s using funds from the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee, which paid 14 out-of-work artists to decorate the interior. The parish was handed over to a Spanish order of Franciscans in the 1950s, as the surrounding neighborhood at the time consisted mainly of Hispanic residents.
The parish merged with the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on West 51st Street in 2007. Mass had stopped being celebrated at the church around 2012 and the rising maintenance costs eventually led the Catholic Church to deconsecrate the property in 2017.
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Neighborhoods : Hell's Kitchen