22 Barclay Street at Church Street
Architects: John R. Haggerty and Thomas Thomas
On an unassuming corner in Lower Manhattan stands an unassuming, almost plain church. It is devoid of the usual markers of churches in this city — there is no steeple, no spire, no dome. Were it not for the modest gold cross at the peak of the roof, just over the pediment, the building, with granite steps that extend the entire width of the building leading from the sidewalk to a portico marked by six unfluted Ionic columns, could be mistaken for a governmental or other institutional building.
But St. Peter’s Church is like a jewel box that opens not only to a rich interior but also a rich history. For starters, the parish that calls St. Peter’s home is the oldest in New York State, founded in 1785. The current building was constructed between 1836 and 1840 and replaced an earlier church on the same site. The Greek Revival style of the present church is perhaps a bit unusual for a Catholic house of worship, but it was the predominant style of architecture in the United States for much of the first half of the 19th century. Many important governmental, institutional, and religious buildings from that period, and even some residences, are in the same style. (Consider, for example, the Federal Hall National Memorial just a few blocks away, completed just two years later as a customs house in the same Greek Revival style.)
Inside, the architecture becomes richer, more Baroque than Greek Revival, though the space overall reflects the church’s exterior simplicity: the sanctuary is not a long, cruciform nave but rather a simple rectangular box, perhaps wider than it is deep. The width is emphasized by the long rows of perfectly parallel pews, punctuated only by three aisles. The church’s website notes, “‘The pews have been restored to their original wood and refinished’, says former pastor Fr. Kevin Madigan. ‘They were installed in 1840 and made from trees that grew along the Hudson River when Henry Hudson was sailing along it.'”
The pews face three altars: the main altar in the center, with a Marian altar to the left and an altar to St. Joseph on the right. (The church’s website has a guide [PDF] to the elements of the altars.) The altars themselves bookend the history of the church. Above the main altar is an oil painting of the Crucifixion, which was donated to the church back in 1789. In the sea-green entablature above the altars is the Latin text TU ES PETRUS ET HANC SUPER PETRAM ÆDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM ET PORTÆ INFERI NON PRÆVALEBUNT ADVERSUS EAM — “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The text was added after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, just one block from St. Peter’s, which literally enveloped the church in their dust. On September 11, 2001, when a passenger jet was flown into one of the Twin Towers, a landing gear pierced the roof of the church.
Later that day, when 1 WTC (the North Tower) collapsed, a chaplain for the New York Fire Department, Father Mychal Judge, was struck by debris. After the dust settled and firefighters saw Father Judge’s lifeless body lying there, they carried him into St. Peter’s and laid him on the marble in front of the altar. His body was covered with a clean white cloth from the sacristy, and the firefighters pulled close the candles flickering on either side. He lay there until that afternoon, when two Franciscan friars carried his body to a fire station near his residence. He was the first certified fatality of the attacks.
Just the day before, on 10 September 2001, Father Judge gave a Mass for firefighters at a station in the Bronx, where he told them:
You do what God has called you to do. You get on that ring, you go out and do the job. No matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea of what God is calling you to, but God needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us. God needs us to keep supporting each other, to be kind to each other, to love each other.
St. Peter’s was an important staging and staffing area throughout the rescue and recovery efforts following the 2001 terrorist attacks.
A church this old has a long history that is difficult to summarize in a single blog post. I would be remiss if I didn’t make at least passing mention of St. Peter’s Catholic School, the first free Catholic school in New York State, which opened in 1800. Today it is hard to imagine a New York without its Catholic schools. However, due to changing demographics in the neighborhood, which commercialized quickly in the last years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the school closed in 1940.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention two of St. Peter’s parishioners of note. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized as a Catholic saint. One of her contemporaries, Pierre Toussaint, was born a slave in Haiti but eventually gained freedom and immigrated to New York. He and his wife, Juliette Noel, were involved in both civic and charitable works throughout the city, and he was the first layperson to be interred in the crypt under St. Patrick’s Cathedral, an honor normally reserved for bishops of the Archdiocese of New York. The Vatican is currently reviewing potential sainthood for him. The church has a webpage on these and other parishioners of note, mostly famous but at least one infamous.
An unassuming church at an unassuming corner — at the heart of one of the most important financial districts in the world. St. Peter’s is a sanctuary of calm and stability in a busy and loud part of this city. But its austere exterior and its quiet, dignified interior belie the key role it has played in the history of this city and the lives of those, Catholic or otherwise, who call it home.
Want to visit?
The church has information about its history and architecture and artwork on its website, as well as a visual guide (PDF) to the three altars and the elements around them. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report (PDF) for St. Peter’s, which was among the first buildings in the city be declared a historic landmark, provides some brief additional information.
Back in 2015, when the Archdiocese of New York closed and merged a number of parishes across the city, St. Peter’s merged with Our Lady of the Rosary, which is prominent not only as the shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton but also in its location at the southern tip of Manhattan, almost directly across from the Staten Island Ferry’s Whitehall Terminal. The combined parish is now called St. Peter–Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Parish, with St. Peter’s as the designated parish church, though Masses continue to be celebrated at both locations. A third chapel in the parish, St. Joseph’s, located in Battery Park City, closed in January 2018. (Unfortunately I never visited it before it closed.)