Week 1: The Church of St. Francis Xavier

46 West 16th Street

Christian (Catholic — Jesuit)


Current building
Architect: Patrick C. Keely
Constructed: 1878–1882
Exterior restored: early 2000s
Interior restored: spring 2009–fall 2010

Note: I started this blog post two and a half weeks ago when I first visited the Church of St. Francis Xavier, but I just got around to finishing it today, 25 January 2018. I’ve backdated the publishing date so it will appear in the right order with the other posts in this series.

This church is a perfect example of one of the reasons I’m undertaking this project. Over my years in New York, I’ve spent a lot of time in Union Square and the surrounding area: the greenmarket for fresh produce and other great food; the playground where I’ve spent warm afternoons with my children; Barnes and Noble on the north side of the square and Strand just to the south, where I’ve spent hours perusing books; errands at the stores on the periphery of the square; meetups with friends at cafés, pizzerias, and ice-cream shops in the neighborhood. As I think about it, much of my life in New York has centered on Union Square.

I had walked down this block of West 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, just west of Union Square, a number of times in the past. I had noticed a lovely church on the south side of the street, and I had thought that I should go inside. But I never had. For some reason, I feel intimidated and I hesitate. What if there is a Mass or other service — or, gulp, a wedding — going on and I walk right into the middle of it? And visiting churches just seems so … mundane. Who hasn’t seen a church?

But I had no idea of the treasure awaiting me inside.

For such a relatively small church, I hadn’t expected such a perfectly defined arcade, triforium, and clerestory — the ground-level columns defining aisles, the arched gallery above, and the upper portion with windows — as you might find in a much larger Gothic cathedral. Nor had I expected such ornate detail in virtually every part of the interior (though, really, the rather ornate exterior should have given me a hint).

I then realized why visiting churches and houses of worship isn’t so mundane. These places mean something to the people who build and take care of and serve and worship in them. They speak to the ideals and beliefs they hold most dear — many of which most of us, regardless of religion (or lack thereof), can agree on. You can’t help but feel something when you walk into a place like this.

My visit corresponded with the Sunday following Epiphany, the end of the Christmas season, and Christmas decorations were still up. As I walked in, music filled the space as preparations were underway for the 5pm Mass, the final celebration of Christmas. I limited my wandering around, not wanting to get in the way of the preparations (ah, that hesitation again). So this is a place I’ll have to come back to and explore some more.

Want to visit?

The Church of St. Francis Xavier doesn’t offer tours on a regular basis, but its website does offer a really well-done tour guide (PDF). You can pick up a printed copy of the tour guide just inside the main door for a suggested donation of $5. Visitors are welcome throughout the day, seven days a week.

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