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Travel: NY Churches - East Harlem's Holy Rosary Church
Holy Rosary Church
The journey leads to an ancient church in East Harlem.
I have worked on my family genealogy for several years and made the decision to document myself through all of my records. I remembered the churches where I made my First Holy Communion and my Confirmation, though not where I was baptized, and decided to start with what I knew, and revisit the churches of my past. From Long Island, to Yonkers, to Manhattan, I never knew it would lead me to an ancient church in danger of closure.
My Confirmation record misspelled my name (Lisa), after all it is “Liza” with a “z” not with an “s.” Despite my pleas to change it (with passport, driver’s license, and birth certificate in hand), the church secretary at St. Francis Cabrini could not make the correction explaining it was because of my baptismal record, which determines my name in the Catholic Church. Likewise, I went to St. Anthony's Church, where I made my First Holy Communion, to retrieve that record, which did spell my name correctly. I glanced at my Confirmation record again looking for the name of the church in which I was baptized, which said: "Holy Rosary Church in East Harlem." The bells rang in my head; and I recalled how important that church was to my family, the generations before me.
I was determined to make sure that my name was properly spelled in the baptismal record. It sent me on an unexpected, personal pilgrimage; and I decided to bring my mother (who was pushing 70 years old) along for the trip.
The History of Holy Rosary Church
The church, formed of marble and stone, stands majestically on 119th Street between Pleasant and 1st Avenue in Manhattan. It was formed for the large German and Irish populations in 1884 because there was no Catholic church east of 3rd Avenue.
Rev. Joseph Byron was appointed to found the parish; and he and his parishioners deconstructed an unused church building (St. Cecelia's). The building materials were transported by horse and wagon to the East River, subsequently floated upstream to 119th Street, and, finally, hauled by horse and wagon again to the current location - an extraordinary feat given the times of the day. So dedicated was Rev. Byron to the building of Holy Rosary and the rectory that to be near to the work he lived in a room on the ground floor before it was ready for occupancy. Unfortunately, the conditions were poor; and Rev. Byron died from a severe cold on March 29, 1893. The Rev. Francis H. Wall created a fund for the church to continue building; and, in 1898, the cornerstone of the new church was laid.
Holy Rosary Church has a Byzantine-Romanesque architectural style with exquisite work in marble and mosaic. In 1914, the congregation numbered 5,200. The church is complete with a pipe organ, “some of the pipes more than a story high.”
By the 1930s, Italians moved into the area and “replaced most of the Irish and Jewish families.” Puerto Ricans started moving into the area in the 1950s; and by the 1970s “the neighborhood had given way to Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic groups.”
Holy Rosary became the cornerstone of the community; a community of the newly immigrated, the dispossessed, lost souls, and the impoverished throughout its history. In 1892, Holy Rosary and dozens of other churches participated in the Columbus Celebration (400 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Americas). The celebration included a musical presentation at Carnegie Hall and a parade.
Stories abound about the importance of the church to individuals in the community. Unfortunately, not all stories end well; some end tragically. In 1893, a parishioner, J.B. Dunne was “driven to suicide by lack of work…fear of insanity” and the inability to care for his aging mother. He shot himself in the head in St. Paul’s R.C. Church located at Park Avenue and 117th Street. He left a note without a date:
“To whom it may concern:
Nervous prostration and worriment have upset my mind. To avert a more dreadful fate this dreadful act is committed. I have strenuously tried to throw off the trouble, but God seems to will otherwise. Freely forgiving, I hope to be forgiven. I believe God will pardon me and help my poor old mother, which I am unable to do.
- John Baptist Dunne”
On the reverse side of the note he wrote:
“Please notify the Rev. Dr. Wall of Holy Rosary Church, One Hundred and Nineteenth Street and Pleasant Avenue.”
But there are happy memories as recalled by former members of the church. Thomas Saltarelli told the New York Times:
“Growing up in the neighborhood, I had always looked at Holy Rosary as a work of art.”
Likewise, Patti Ann Mahoney said,
"I always felt that it (Holy Rosary) was home to me…Maybe it also had something to do with the fact that me, my brothers, sisters, even my kids made their sacraments at Holy Rosary. My mother also loved that church…the church ways there for me, my family, and community…”
Inside Holy Rosary Church
My parents' wedding day
My Family History at Holy Rosary Church
My mother truly had a love for Holy Rosary Church; she relayed her sentiments to me over the years. The church that felt "like home" to her is the place where she says she "grew up." She credits Holy Rosary with forming her spiritually and intellectually.
As a young girl in the 1950s and early 1960s, she was a member of Las Hijas de Maria (The Daughters of Mary, also known as the Legion of Mary). It was in this capacity that she and the other members began to care for the community around them with community service projects and fundraising for the church by holding dances in the lower part of the church where there was a stage for whatever band would be playing. Eventually, mom became a leader of “Las Hijas”; and she always gets excited when she recalls being able to secure Tito Puente for one of their dances and expresses some dismay in turning down a very young and unknown Carlos Santana who auditioned.
My godparents (my mother's sister) were married in Holy Rosary Church; and a few years later, so were my parents. The pictures from my parents' wedding show Holy Rosary in its heyday with its magnificent altar with an alcove on each side in a Byzantine fashion. The wedding was held on April 16, 1966; and the altar was already filled with Easter lilies on her special day. Rev. Andrew Savarese officiated the wedding.
My Return to Holy Rosary Church
We arrived at Holy Rosary on a rainy and gloomy Wednesday afternoon and were “buzzed” into the rectory - a safety measure. We opened the heavy metal door only to find a glass door behind which the secretary sat. Once again she “buzzed” us in. Once I explained the reason for my visit, which was to get my baptismal certificate, I glanced at my mother. She turned her body in a slow circle taking in the dingy little office, now 50 years later, put her hand over her mouth and cried:
“You don’t understand…I remember all that this used to be…this is where I grew up.”
The offices and rectory are in disrepair; a connecting room is a makeshift chapel with three little pews. Mom sniffled:
“This was our meeting room. Las Hijas used to have our meetings here…and now it’s three little pews."
But the room was covered with statues and paintings of the Virgin Mary, donations by generations of immigrants, each new group replacing the other: Filipinos, Dominicans, El Salvadorians, etc. Despite the transformation into a chapel, the old meeting room boasts dozens of images of the Virgin Mary; oddly enough appropriate for a room that was once host to Las Hijas de Maria. One-half of a century later, the organization of the Legion of Mary continues to be an active part of Holy Rosary Church.
I asked the secretary if it was possible to visit the main church. Her face expressed disappointment as she explained it was unsafe because of the state of disrepair. The New York Times reported in 2008:
“a battered and leaky roof built nearly 125 years ago…chips have been falling for months…(the need for) structural repairs, holes in the ceiling, cracks in the walls and floors, even in some of the statutes, and a collapsed wall near an entrance to the balcony.”
When my mother asked about where masses were presently held, if not in the main church, the secretary explained that masses and sacraments are now held in the lower church, where the dances that my mother organized used to be. Masses are held in English and Spanish.
The priest spent some time chatting with us before he signed a copy of my baptismal record; and I was happy to see that my name was indeed spelled correctly in the Church. They spelled it with a "z."
New York Archdiocese Will Announce Church Closings, Mergers of Holy Rosary Church with The Church of St. Paul
2014 - Saving Holy Rosary Church
I originally wrote this hub in May 2012, but I strive to keep this as up-to-date as possible. Over the years, there have been attempts to save the church from its age but it appears there has been no follow through. As I mentioned in the original hub, I think that Holy Rosary should be on a register of historical buildings in New York City and that it should be restored to its former glory. I ponder as to whether issues regarding church and state prevent such a designation. Furthermore, given its historical value and beauty of its 1898 Romanesque Revival architectural facade, even with the interior in disrepair, and the availability of its three-story, 11,000+ square-foot, and vacant convent building, Holy Rosary has the certain potential to be financially viable.
Once an independent parish, the Catholic Church announced that Holy Rosary Church, will merge with The Church of St. Paul, which is located at 113 E. 117th Street. The decision was announced in August 2014 to the dismay of parishioners, who learned that masses and other sacraments will cease to be celebrated on a regular basis at Holy Rosary. The announcement came just two months before the 130th birthday of Holy Rosary. The Parish Council has since asked for an evaluation as a landmark from the Landmark Preservation Commission and is challenging the diocese on its merger decision made on November 2, 2014. The transition is expected to occur by August 2015.
I know that East Harlem is not exactly the place most tourists flock to see in New York, but it is worth driving through the neighborhood to see the outside of the magnificent Holy Rosary Church. Holy Rosary Church is located at 444 119th Street in Manhattan.
Sign the Petition
- Save Holy Rosary Church
Holy Rosary Church is in danger of closing. Her last hope is to have enough people sign the petition to save her. Click this link to sign the MoveOn.org petition.
Contacting Holy Rosary Church
444 East 119 Street
New York, NY 10035
Telephone: 212-534-0740 Fax: 212-534-7572
Web Site: https://sites.google.com/site/holyrosaryeastharlem/home
Administrator: Rev. Marian Wierzchowski
Associate: Rev. Antonio Astudillo, Vicar
Parish Secretary: Gladys Lopez
To offer your assistance in saving Holy Rosary, contact:
Teresa Maria Bailey, Secretary/Parish Council
Call 646-769-8733 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Site of Holy Rosary Church - zoom in to get a closer look
East Harlem's Holy Rosary Church
If you visited this place, rate your experience!
 “The Catholic Church in the United States of America.” Pg. 333-334. Catholic Editing Co., New York. 1914.
 The New York Times. “Former Flock Goes Online to Save an Ailing Church.” Vincent M. Mallozzi. July 30, 2008. Pg. B3.
 The New York Times. “Bustling Work Going On: Preparations on all sides for Columbian Celebration.” Oct. 1, 1892. Pg. 2.
 The New York Times. “Killed Himself in a Church: J.B. Dunne Driven to Suicide by Lack of Work and Fear of Insanity.” Dec. 2, 1893. Pg. 9.
 The New York Times. “Former Flock Goes Online to Save an Ailing Church.” Vincent M. Mallozzi. July 30, 2008. Pg. B3.
Otterman, Sharon. "Heartache for New York's Catholics as Church Closings are Announced." New York Times. Nov. 7, 2014.
By Liza Lugo, J.D.
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Originally written and published on May 4, 2012. Latest corrections and edits made on January 21, 2015.