056-towers.jpg (23988 bytes) New York Architecture Images-Upper East Side

St. Jean Baptiste Church (RC)

Top Ten New York Churches


Nicholas Sirracino


1067-1071 Lexington Ave., At East  76.




Italian Baroque







  Image: (British and international church architecture site)
Streetscapes: St. Jean Baptiste Church; Restoration on Lexington Ave.

Published: December 30, 1990 Copyright NYT.

THE scaffolding was supposed to be down for Christmas but the big limestone towers of St. Jean Baptiste Church, at the southeast corner of 76th Street and Lexington Avenue, are still draped in tarpaulins and staging.

The Roman Catholic church, finished in 1914, has almost completed restoration of its Lexington Avenue facade, but cold weather has delayed the unveiling until spring.

The congregation of St. Jean Baptiste was established in 1882 to serve French-Canadians in Yorkville. A modest Gothic-style building with Romanesque-style elements was completed at 159 East 76th Street in 1883.

In 1900, the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, an order emphasizing the importance of the Eucharist (Holy Communion), assumed responsibility for the parish.

Thomas Fortune Ryan, who had made tens of millions in stock, banking, streetcar and other operations, sometimes under shady circumstances, attended St. Jean. One day when he was late, according to a parish history, he was obliged to stand during mass.

Shortly after the mass, Ryan offered to pay for an entirely new church, and its current site was acquired. After some problems with holdout tenants, the cornerstone was laid in 1912 for a sanctuary accommodating 1,200 people and an adjacent parish house. Ryan was in the midst of a long alteration and enlargement project on his mansion at 858 Fifth Avenue on which he worked with the architects Carrere & Hastings. But he apparently did not insist that they be retained for the new church; he ultimately spent $600,000 on the project.

Nicholas Serracino, who had studied in Naples and designed other Catholic churches in New York, designed the building as a giant limestone structure with a temple-fronted portico and twin open towers on the Lexington Avenue front and a great dome over the crossing back along 76th Street.

The steel framework for the church towered over the smaller buildings on Lexington Avenue at the time of the cornerstone laying. The completed building is usually described as Italian Renaissance in style, but there is also an austerity and a modernity to it that suggests later work of the Baroque period or even the Neo-Classic Revival of the 18th century.

According to Andrew Dolkart, an architectural historian and specialist in church design, the early 20th century was a time when Catholics were searching for their own architectural style -- the Gothic had become firmly identified with Protestant churches -- and Catholics experimented with Early Christian, Romanesque, Renaissance, Classical, Spanish and other styles.

The completed St. Jean Baptiste, with a dome 172 feet high, rose with an abrupt elegance over a street of brownstones and modest flat buildings, rather a Fifth Avenue touch for what was emerging as a noisy subway street.

Indeed, The New York Times quoted the Rev. Arthur Letellier as saying at the time that the new church "would attempt to rival St. Patrick's Cathedral."

The church was dedicated in 1914 and soon thereafter the broad main steps were moved back as Lexington Avenue sidewalks were widened.

The interior was originally left undecorated -- a high, wide classical space, light and airy -- but was decorated and finished in the early 20's. The boxy pews are masterpieces of varnished oak.

SINCE its completion, the church building has remained largely unchanged,although Lexington Avenue has moved up a few social notches with tall apartment houses replacing older buildings, partially obscuring the limestone towers.

In 1969 St. Jean Baptiste was designated a landmark.

In 1989, some stones fell from the church onto Lexington Avenue and the church immediately had to erect a sidewalk bridge for protection.

This year work began on restoring the copper on the towers and cleaning and repointing the limestone on Lexington Avenue at a cost of "several hundreds of thousands of dollars," according to the Rev. John Kamas, pastor of the church, which has about 1,000 congregants.

A larger goal is to raise $3 million to repair the roof, dome and 76th Street facade and establish an endowment for maintenance is being raised partially through the sale of air rights and adjacent property on 76th Street to a private developer for the construction of a 31-story building.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is now considering an application by the developer to proceed on the project.

Copyright NYT.
The Reverend John Kamas
New York Landmarks Conservancy
Common Bond December 1993

Preservation Profile: St. Jean Baptiste Church
"St. Jean Baptiste Church: A Tradition of Shared Use" 

The Roman Catholic Church has a strong tradition of using church building, for a variety of religious, artistic, and pastoral Purposes, as exemplified in the great cathedrals of medieval Europe. However, this tradition has been somewhat de-emphasized in the past four centuries. At St. Jean's Church, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, we are striving to recover this tradition of shared use as a vital part of our parish, and our buildings are packed, sometimes to overflowing, with all manner of activities. Some of the programs and groups that use our buildings have been in place for decades, others have come but all of them into existence only in the past few years immeasurably enrich our life and our mission.

Walk into St. Jean's any day of the week and immediately the variety of activities housed there will be evident. The main church, with its magnificent Baroque Interior, is usually quiet and reverent, with passers-by kneeling in adoration before The Blessed Sacrament exposed at the main altar. It is not unusual to find choirs, organists, or orchestras rehearsing for liturgies or for concerts, although we try to limit their rehearsals to times when fewer people are at prayer. A step behind the scenes will show that far more is going on. Toddlers and seniors vie for space in the church's cavernous undercroft. One is likely to encounter a vocalist warming up for a rehearsal or audition, in the men's room. Behind another closed door a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous or a counseling appointment might be in session. The presence of high school girls, of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, is a constant reminder of the vital educational role our parish plays in this city.

History of St. Jean's Parish

L'Eglise S.Jean Baptiste was founded in 1882 to serve the needs of a large group of French Canadians who had settled in Yorkville area of Manhattan. The city's only French-speaking Roman Catholic Church at the time was located on Canal Street in lower Manhattan. The trek downtown was just too arduous for these folk, so they received permission from the Bishop to open a mission chapel over a neighborhood stable. A few years later the congregation constructed a small church at 76th Street and Lexington Avenue, across the street from our present church building.

In 1900, The Congregation of the Most Blessed. Sacrament, the order to which I belong, was invited to take charge of the pastoral and administrative duties of the parish. The order had just come to North America from Paris. St. Jean's needed French-speaking priests, and so it was a perfect match.

The construction of the present church building was due, in large part, to the contributions of Thomas Fortune Ryan and his wife. Ryan, a devout and wealthy man of unassuming ways, preferred St. Jean's to the large and showy parishes near his Fifth Avenue home, and the Blessed Sacrament Fathers served as his wife's private chaplains at the Ryan's country home in Suffern, New York. One day he arrived late for mass and found that there was standing room only. At the conclusion of the service, he approached the officiating priest and asked how much it would cost to build a new church. The priest answered, apparently off the top of his head, "$300,000." Ryan replied, "Get some plans and I will pay for it."

The new church, completed in 1913, was designed by Nicholas Serracino in the Italian Baroque style, with a massive, freestanding Corinthian portico, twin bell towers, and a magnificent dome over the crossing of the nave and transepts. The total cost was close to $600,000, but both the patron and the parish were apparently quite satisfied with the result, as we still are today.

The parish now reflects the demographic character of the Upper East Side. We no longer hold French masses. However, because of the high concentration of educated Europeans from various countries and traditions living in the area, we are discovering that Latin may actually be the most inclusive liturgical language for our congregation, and we use it regularly, especially in our music.

A Tradition of Shared Use

In 1929, St. Jean's developed an outreach to the surrounding community through the establishment of girls' high school. Unlike typical Catholic schools, St. Jean's was designed to serve poor and disadvantaged girls from the entire city, not just those in the parish. This mission continues today. The majority of the girls are "at-risk" because of their socio-economic backgrounds about thirty percent of the students are first-generation Americans, mainly from the West Indies and South America.

As the Vatican 11 reforms were implemented, with an emphasis on building Christian community in worship and related activities, the need for more space for social and cultural activities became apparent. Our building was built with a cavernous lower church, the same size as the main one. This "double-decker" arrangement allowed concurrent masses to be celebrated on Sundays and days of obligation in both spaces, providing the opportunity for all parishioners to attend. By the mid 1960s, the lower church was no longer needed and it was turned it into a "parish center," serving the congregation and the surrounding community. The lower church was divided into a series of multiple-use spaces suitable for classrooms, meeting rooms, dining rooms, and a theater.

Among the first outside groups to use the parish center were twelve-step programs. The groups that were soon regularly meeting there included Alcoholics Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, and Latecomers Anonymous. The groups are not charged rent; however, donations are collected at these meetings for the use of the space.

Other groups and programs soon followed: The Eymard Leisure Center, an organization for senior citizens, with a current enrollment of 150 began using our parish center in 1972. 'It offers companionship for older people, and sponsors various social, cultural, and craft programs, as well as outings and luncheons. Senior citizen members of the Eymard Leisure Center enjoy a Halloween lunch.

The St. Jean's Toddlers PlayGroup is a cooperative playgroup for children from two- to four-year old. Founded in 1983, it now has an enrollment of more than thirty children in three groups. The parish also began to offer free office space to counselors and therapists with the provision that they advise people who cannot afford to pay a fee, thus extending the church's pastoral mission.

Shortly after I became pastor in the early 1980s, we began receiving requests to use the church for rehearsals and concerts. I responded positively since I have a musical background and a passion for opera and early music. The main church is now us by many groups for concerts and sacred drama, re-introducing the vital connection between the arts and liturgy that largely has been lost.

Amor Artis Chorus & Orchestra, a group of musicians specializing in early and medieval music, started using the church for rehearsals and concerts in 1980 and sang monthly at the Sunday High Mass and for other special liturgies. It is wonderful to hear music, particularly sacred Music, performed professionally in a realistic setting and within the context of the liturgy, rather than in a sterile concert hall. Johannes Somary, the group's director, has been appointed the parish's "Artist-in-Residence." The group has been most faithful liturgically, and has, in effect, become part of the parish community, though its participants do not necessarily claim membership in the parish, or in any Christian church.

Another major musical and dramatic endeavor centered at the church is the Dicapo Opera Theatre. This company presents a diverse and ambitious offering of operas, plays, original theatrical works, concerts, recitals, and children's shows. Occupying an amphitheater-like space in the undercroft beneath the church's apse, the theater was referred to by one reviewer as "the most exciting new performance space in New York." The performances are exciting too, and combine serious artistry with a healthy sense of humor.

Although the groups and organizations that use our buildings contribute to the cost of maintaining the space and help pay utility bills, shared 'use does not generate significant revenue for the parish. We did not make the foray into shared use as a way to supplement our income, and this invokes occasional grumbling among some of our parishioners. Shared use is a way for the parish to expand its outreach to the surrounding community and to enrich the lives of its congregants.

There are, of course, occasional problems. Juggling the parochial use of the space among eight or nine groups can get complex. Sometimes the groups have difficulty getting along. When two choirs, an orchestra, and an opera company all try to share a space with preschoolers, senior citizens, and high school students, such problems are inevitable, but not insurmountable.

The impact of bringing the surrounding community into our facility has been enormous. Many of our neighbors, not just our parishioners, are becoming invested in this parish and in the building. The shared use of our building has had a direct and positive effect on our restoration program, specifically the replacement of the copper dome and roofs. While it is difficult to quantify such things, the success of the first phase of our restoration effort was probably due, in no small part, to the goodwill generated by the programs and services that share our space. People in the larger community care for the building because of these programs. While such goodwill has taken time and effort to cultivate, it has made it easier for us to continue with the restoration of the church building, and it will undoubtedly make it easier to maintain once the restoration is complete.


Église Saint Jean Baptiste was founded in 1882 as a national parish for 
the French Canadian population of the Yorkville area. It quickly 
became a spiritual center embracing many nationalities, as it does 
today. The faith community which gathers here is as diverse as the 
city of New York itself.

The present church building opened in the spring of 1913. Its design, 
drawn up by Nicholas Serracino, won first prize at the International 
Exhibition in Turin, Italy, in 1911. The architectural style of the 
church is of Italian Renaissance classical revival, with twin towers of 
one hundred and fifty feet rising from the facade and a central dome 
soaring one hundred and seventy-five feet above the floor level of the 
church. A major restoration of the exterior and interior of the church 
was completed in late November 1997 during the pastorate of Father John 
A. Kamas.

Upon entering the church from the northwest (near 76th Street), you 
immediately see an imposing statue of the parish's patron, the prophet 
John the Baptist. This was moved to its present location from the lower 
church (now the Saint Jean Baptiste Community Center), and is perhaps 
the finest sculpture in the church. It depicts the Baptist holding a 
cruciform staff with a lamb hoof around his neck and a lamb at his 
feet. It was John who called Jesus the "Lamb of God who takes away the 
sin of the world" (John 1:29). The baptismal font nearby is patterned 
on one which stood in the 1882 church.

Beneath the dome stands the stately altar of sacrifice on which the 
Eucharist is celebrated. It is here, too, that exposition of the 
Blessed Sacrament occurs during daytime hours, for prayerful 
contemplation. Catholics believe that Christ is truly present in the 
bread and wine following the blessing or consecration at Mass. The 
marble of the altar is from the main altar that was located in the 
lower church. The sacred monogram IHS, inscribed on the frontal of the 
altar, incorporates the first three letters of the name Jesus in Greek. 
The Scriptures are proclaimed from the ambo (pulpit) to the right, a 
table supported by a bronze angel.

To the back of the sanctuary is the high altar, testimony to the 
Catholic Church's long tradition of Eucharistic belief and practice. 
The altar, nearly 50 feet in height and entirely of Italian materials 
and workmanship, is mostly of fawn-colored marble with a variety of 
marbles and mosaics. The two life-size marble statues on either side 
of the altar's half-dome, as well as the figures set in gold mosaic, 
are of saints who were noted for their devotion to the Eucharist.

The side altars, of white marble with a series of columns supporting a 
gold mosaic half-dome, were the only other altars envisioned in the 
original plans of the church. The altar to the left of the chancel is 
dedicated to Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. Made of Carrara marble 
and sculpted at the Vatican studios, it depicts Mary under her title of 
Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. The consecrated bread, the 
sacramental presence of Christ, is kept in the tabernacle beneath the 
statue of Our Lady. The altar to the right honors Saint Joseph, the 
husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus.

The two smaller altars located against the pilasters of the east wall 
of the transepts were added to the church in the late 1920s. The altar 
in the south transept (to the right of Saint Joseph's altar) is 
dedicated to Saint Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868), the Founder of the 
Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, whose members serve Saint 
Jean's. The relic of Saint Peter Julian is displayed in the case below 
his statue. In the north transept is the altar of Saint Anthony of 
Padua (1195-1231). Facing this altar, on the opposite wall, is the 
statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Situated at the back of the church in the south wall is the Shrine of 
Saint Anne, which evinces a devotion to the mother of the Blessed 
Virgin Mary that began at Saint Jean's in 1892 and continues to draw 
large numbers of people from throughout the city.

The stained glass windows of the church are some of the finest in the 
city, having been crafted in Chartres, France, before the outbreak of 
World War I. The topmost windows above the cornice portray, for the 
most part, scenes from the Old Testament, while the lower windows in 
the bays of the nave depict scenes from the Gospels. The windows 
picturing non-biblical scenes portray incidents in church history that 
relate to the Eucharist. Though somewhat difficult to appreciate 
because of their height, but of no lesser quality than the others, the 
windows of the dome depict the twelve apostles.

The fourteen stations of the cross, devotional images for contemplating 
the redemptive passion and death of Jesus, are situated on the north 
and south walls of the church. These mosaic tableaux, framed in marble, 
were fashioned in Europe and are fine examples of the art of mosaic 

Most of the wooden furnishings of the church are of solid oak. The 
stalls of the sanctuary, in particular, are of note; they are of 
Belgian origin and exemplify the highest quality in design and 

A church is, of course, more than a building. We who form the 
community of Saint Jean Baptiste Parish seek to live the Catholic 
Christian faith in the fullness envisioned by the Second Vatican 
Council (1962-1965), with the Eucharist at the center of our lives.

Saint Jean's is home to many ministries. These touch the lives of 
church members and those around us on the Upper East Side and beyond. 
The Saint Jean Baptiste Community Center has programs for toddlers and 
for senior citizens . . . and everyone in-between! We have an active 
religious education program, including the adult catechumenate for 
those seeking the sacraments of initiation and classes for the 
sacramental preparation of children and youth. We serve neighboring 
Lenox Hill Hospital as chaplains. We have an outstanding music 
ministry composed of volunteers and professional singers and 
instrumentalists. Concerts are regularly held in the church as an 
outreach to the wider community; these are generally free and open to 
the public. Productions of DiCapo Opera, one of New York's finest 
independent companies, draw appreciative crowds to The Kathryn Martin 
Theater housed in part of the Community Center. The church is also 
home to the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony starting with its 2004-2005 

Saint Jean Baptiste High School celebrates its 75th anniversary in 
2004-2005. The sisters of the Congregation de Notre Dame, founded in 
Montreal, Quebec, by Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, work with a dedicated 
lay faculty and staff in forming "women of excellence" in a 
multicultural setting.

Our Parish Mission Statement reads in part: We the people of Saint Jean 
Baptiste Parish, in the heart of New York City, are called to live and 
proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ through daily Eucharistic 
celebration and adoration.

We strive to build a community of faith by recognition of the God-given 
dignity of everyone and the sacred value of human life from its very 
beginning to its end. We collaborate freely through the use of time, 
talent, and treasure to be a parish of true stewardship and human 



Every large city in the United States has two types of parishes, territorial and national. The territorial parishes are the only religious divisions of a Diocese actually permitted by the canon law of the Catholic Church.  The establishment of a national parish requires the special permission of the Holy See.  But before the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law of 1918, various groups were permitted, in some cases encouraged, by the bishops of the United States to have their own national churches in order to better safeguard their faith and to perpetuate certain traditions that could not be immediately discarded without some harm to their religious beliefs.

In the early part of 1800, a large number of French-speaking people resided in New York City.  A Mr. Gabriel Franchère, who came from Montreal, Canada, as one of the secretaries of the Pacific Fur Company founded by John Jacob Astor, reports: "In 1810 there were in New York City 32 churches, two of which were Catholic.  The population was up to ninety thousand, of whom ten thousand were French-speaking.  Catholics, however, may have been the minority, the majority being French Huguenots, émigrés of the French Revolution.

Bp. de Forbin-Janson, who had taken off the miter and laid aside the pastoral staff to join the Society of the Fathers of Mercy, gave a mission to the French Catholic population in February 1841, in Saint Peter's Church, Barclay Street.  He concluded the mission with this exhortation: "In this great city of New York where Catholics of Irish and German birth have hesitated at no sacrifice to secure churches and priests of their own nationality, how is it possible that the French, so famous for the faith of their fathers, should remain indifferent?  In truth how can they hope to maintain their traditions on a foreign soil without the strong ties of religion?  Such a church is desired most strongly by Bp. Hughes, who expects great things for his Diocese from it."  The words of the great orator stirred the people to action: meetings were held, committees were formed, and the result was the building of a French Catholic church on Canal Street.  The laying of the cornerstone took place in October 1841, and was followed by the dedication of the completed edifice one year later in August 1842 under the title of Saint Vincent de Paul.

The missionary zeal of the Fathers of Mercy, which had swayed the people of New York, New Orleans, Alabama, Florida, and Canada, embraced all types of work.  Fr. Annet Lafont, the Pastor of Saint Vincent de Paul, was the first white man to open a school for people of color, and that in his own residence with himself as one of the teachers.  He invited the Christian Brothers to take charge of the parochial school, and this first mission of the Christian Brothers proved to be the foundation stone of Manhattan College in New York City.  By his advice and well-timed assistance, he also enabled the Jesuits to begin their work in the city.  He furthermore established the Ladies of Saint Vincent de Paul to care for the poor, which paved the way for the coming of the Marianite Sisters of the Holy Cross to the United States.  Meanwhile, the French population had moved northward to West 23rd Street.  The cornerstone of the new Saint Vincent de Paul was laid in June 1857, and the church was dedicated by Archbp. McCloskey in May 1868.

Saint Vincent de Paul Church was quite a distance from the Yorkville section of the city where a fairly large group of French Canadians had settled.  They had the choice of using the slow-moving horse-drawn trolley along Third Avenue or the more expensive trains of the Harlem Railroad with its open tracks along the northern part of Fourth Avenue, now called Park Avenue.  They were held together in bonds of mutual friendship and assistance by the Societé Saint Jean Baptiste, founded by Mr. Franchère in 1850.

A French missionary, Fr. Nicholas, did his best to foster the spiritual welfare of this group. He soon realized, however, that his all too infrequent visits were unsatisfactory, and so he laid plans for a better organized service.  The Jesuits who had come to Saint Lawrence O'Toole on East 84th Street (later Saint Ignatius Loyola) were too few and too busy to organize the Canadian group as one of their priests, Fr. Holzer, had previously, in 1873, organized the Germans around their national church at Saint Joseph on East 87th Street.  Accordingly, Fr. Nicholas enlisted the help of Fr. Peter Cazeneuve, Provincial of the Fathers of Mercy, who gave himself heart and soul to the project.  He contacted the French Canadian families of the Yorkville section and aroused enthusiasm for the project of a national parish.  A meeting was held in 1881.  It was resolved to hold religious services in a centrally located spot.  A collection was taken, and the sum contributed was twelve dollars.  This was just a drop, one may say, but the first drop of a rising tide of generosity that has never failed to flow from the parishioners and friends of Saint Jean Baptiste since that historical meeting in 1881.

A mission chapel was opened at 202 East 77th Street.  It was a rented hall above a stable.  From the non-liturgical hoof-beating of the animals below punctuating the silence of the Mass, the rattling of chains almost drowning out the tinkling of the Mass bell, and the fragrance of the incense not quite subduing the stable odors that filtered up through the thin floor, this place of worship was picturesquely called the "Crib of Bethlehem."  But the group of some one hundred worshipers who assembled for the first Mass on February 22, 1882, did not mind such drawbacks.  The faithful came Sunday after Sunday to the stable loft, tracking straw and mud up to the improvised chapel.  On Saturday night, a mop and broom brigade of women invaded the hall to wash the floor and dust the walls, to hang images on the unpainted boards, and to set up the portable altar for Mass.  Other groups, non-Catholic, were renting the hall for services, so that all traces of Catholic worship had to be removed immediately after Mass.  The poverty of the locale did not daunt the ardor of the faithful. A choir was formed, accompanied by a wheezy harmonium already on the premises.

The infant congregation had not as yet received official recognition.  Grouping the French Canadians into a parish unit was only a venture, with ecclesiastical approval hinging on the success of it.  They did not have to wait long.  Moved by Fr. Cazeneuve's favorable report, Cardinal McCloskey, early in the spring of 1882, granted permission to build a church.

In the midst of these developments, Fr. Cazeneuve was recalled to France by his Superiors.  His already precarious state of health was worsened by a very rough crossing, and these combined conditions caused him to succumb eight hours after his arrival in France, on July 10, 1882.  May the memory of this dedicated Father of Mercy remain enshrined in the grateful hearts of the parishioners and friends of Saint Jean Baptiste!


Before his departure for France, Fr. Cazeneuve had confided his project to a French priest, Fr. Charles De La Croix, whom Bp. Fabre of Montreal had released for that work.  De La Croix, an adopted name, concealed the illustrious family name of Castries, of ducal rank.  The modesty of the zealous priest left unpublished the fact that he was the brother-in-law of Marshal MacMahon, President of France from 1873 to 1879.  The enthusiasm of the parishioners and the priestly virtues and personal charm of Fr. De La Croix were their only building assets on hand.  The bank account amounted to but four hundred dollars, which Fr. Cazeneuve had entrusted to one of the lay trustees before leaving for France, never to return.  Additional funds were obtained and a site was purchased on the north side of East 76th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, at the cost of $14,000.  Mr. Napoleon Lebrun drew the plans for the church.  It was to cost $20,000, and was to be of a simple Gothic style, one hundred feet long and forty-one feet wide, with a seating capacity of six hundred.

Ground was broken in October 1882, and two months later, Archbp. Corrigan blessed the cornerstone.  Fr. Aigueperse, Provincial of the Fathers of Mercy, delivered the sermon in French, and Fr. M. Reilly of Brooklyn one in English. The audience was attentive, yet not so much as to ignore the twelve baskets circulating in the crowd. More than $2,000 was contributed on that occasion!

It had been agreed that the basement of the church was to be completed for the new year, but adverse weather forced a halt, and it was only in February 1884 that Mass could be celebrated in the main church.  Meanwhile, worship in the "Crib of Bethlehem" had become such a problem that it was decided to use the basement as a temporary chapel for the Lent of 1883.  The mounting costs of the construction, however, brought about a financial crisis.  Cardinal McCloskey saved the day by taking over the title to the church.  It was on the occasion of the first Mass in the church that it was given Saint Jean Baptiste as titular.  Soon after, there was a change in Pastors.  Fr. De La Croix returned to France to settle important family matters, and the first Assistant, Fr. Frederick Tetreau, a Canadian priest, succeeded him.

The "Old Saint Jean's" was a religious success from the start.  Although intended primarily for the French Canadians, it was soon attended by a good number of Catholics of other nationalities.  It may have been the convenient location of the new church for the people of the section, many of whom had to report at an early hour for work in Fifth Avenue mansions, that prompted them to attend Saint Jean's.  It may have also been the simple yet devotional atmosphere of the church, which drew Catholics of every walk of life to it.


The people of Saint Jean's gathered in their out-of-the-way church, never dreaming that an incident, trifling in appearance, but providential in design, would spread far and wide the name of their beloved church.  In 1892, this humble church became the shrine of Saint Anne.

Previous to that time, at least two churches in New York carried her name, Saint Ann's Church on East 12th Street, dedicated in 1852 and proclaimed as a national shrine in 1912, was the first church built in her honor.  But even earlier than that, in 1840, an Episcopal church in honor of Saint Ann was erected in the Bronx by Governor Morris, Esq., in memory of his mother, Ann Carey Randolph.  There was also a Saint Ann's Avenue and a Saint Ann's Park.  Elsewhere in the United States, a number of cities had churches dedicated to the saint, but in no way comparable to the well-known shrine of Sainte Anne de Beaupré in Canada, 20 miles outside of the city of Quebec.  To Saint Jean's came the honor of becoming the second "Sainte Anne de Beaupré."

The Right Rev. J. C. Marquis of Canada arrived on May 1, 1882, unheralded and unexpected, at the rectory of Saint Jean's.  He was the bearer of the relic of Saint Anne which Pope Leo XIII had personally obtained from the Abbot of Saint Paul-Outside-the-Walls in Rome.  Msgr. Marquis was bringing the relic to Beaupré.

The Pastor, Fr. Tetreau, asked Msgr. Marquis to expose this sacred treasure to the veneration of the parishioners during the vespers service that evening.  As he was to leave for Quebec the following day, he assented and took the relic to the church.

The simple gesture was like the tiny flare starting a vast illumination.  The news that the relic was to be exposed spread rapidly and a large crowd filled the church that evening.  Miraculous or not, the sudden cessation of the convulsions of a young epileptic man when the priest touched him with the relic struck the city like a powerful electric shock.  All through Monday and the day after, and the day after that, crowds filled the little church. The priests of Saint Jean's obtained permission from the ecclesiastical authorities to continue the exposition of the relic.  Msgr. Marquis, much against his will, but reluctant to disappoint the hopes of the swelling tide of pilgrims, agreed to prolong his stay in New York.

Three weeks of May went by, and still people came in droves.  The news traveled to other cities and pilgrimages came from New England and the Middle Atlantic States.  Letters poured in from the South and Far West, beseeching Monsignor to delay his return to Canada for another week.  Estimates of the crowds that visited Saint Jean's during that eventful month vary from 200,000 to 300,000.  More would have come but it was impossible for Msgr. Marquis to delay his return to Canada any longer.  He fixed the 20th of May as the last day.  What happened on that date can be gleaned from the touching description of an eyewitness, Msgr. Bernard O'Reilly.

"The relic was to be taken away at noon.  All through the morning hours, the pilgrims crowded the street and flowed in one continuous stream through the church.  So great were the numbers still waiting that Fr. Tetreau's generous heart could not bear to withdraw his sacred treasure until the moment of Msgr. Marquis' departure was near at hand.  At length, four o'clock struck and the sad-hearted priest had to say that he must now perforce take the relic of Saint Anne from the church.  A loud wailing rose at this announcement, while Fr. Tetreau, standing on the altar steps, raised the relic in both hands above his head.  Then he moved toward the crowded middle aisle and the front door.  A scene of indescribable emotion then followed.  From every part of the edifice, people endeavored to reach the priest, stretching out their arms, and crying out, amid their tears and sobs, 'Good-bye, Saint Anne, good-bye.  Come back to us soon, Saint Anne!  Come back to stay!'"

Saint Anne did come back to stay!  Msgr. Marquis, deeply impressed by the devotion of the pilgrims, promised that he would do all in his power to obtain a relic for Saint Jean's.  With the permission of Cardinal Taschereau of Quebec, he divided the relic.  Then he returned to New York on July 15, 1892, and with Fr. Tetreau submitted the relic to the Archbishop of New York, who recognized the authenticity of the seal, and authorized the preservation and exposition of the relic in Saint Jean's.

On July 19, the novena to Saint Anne opened.  The news of the return of the relic brought thousands of pilgrims to the shrine.  Once more, miraculous healings were the answer to fervent prayers.  The crowds came undaunted by the oppressive heat, responding with ringing voices to the invocations intoned by the priests.  Year after year, the same scenes of burning hope and fervent prayers took place.  The same multitudes poured into the little church to pray to Saint Anne and venerate the relic.

Msgr. Marquis, previous to his return to New York with this relic of Saint Anne, had written to Pope Leo XIII of the wonders that had happened at Saint Jean Baptiste in New York and included articles from the press.  The Holy Father, after reading them, wrote back that he was very pleased with the devotion of the faithful in New York.  He promised to bestow another relic as soon as possible.  Later, Msgr. Marquis sailed for France, went to the Shrine of Sainte Anne d'Apt, and received for Saint Jean's the promised relic.


A French priest, Peter Julian Eymard, exposed the Blessed Sacrament in a very humble chapel in the city of Paris on the feast of the Epiphany in 1856.  To all appearances, there was nothing strikingly different between this and other such ceremonies; but the ceremony was different, for it marked the beginning of a new religious family in the church, the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.  Fr. Eymard, canonized in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, had cherished a dream: to encircle the world with a network of Eucharistic shrines.  The solemn exposition of 1856 was the first step taken to translate this heavenly-inspired dream into the world of reality.  Strong currents of faith and love caught the seeds which fell from this first Eucharistic flower and tossed them about until the arrived at God's appointed places.  They first settled and rooted in Europe, then in Canada in 1890.

The city of New York could point with pride at the time to the Corpus Christi Shrine of Perpetual Exposition at Hunt's Point and to many lay activities that spoke of a vigorous Catholicity.  But it did not as yet possess a religious community vowed primarily to the worship of the Blessed Sacrament.  In God's plan, Miss Eliza Lummis became the zealous apostle of perpetual adoration.

This lady had an illustrious ancestry.  She was a grandniece of Brigadier General Maxwell, who was a friend of George Washington, and a niece of Elizabeth Ellet, a noted author.  Her maternal grandmother was a convert to the Catholic faith.  She was a descendant of the Huguenot Guion family of La Rochelle, France, the first settlers of New Rochelle, New York.  Her maternal grandfather was William O'Brien, Earl of Inchaquin, a descendent of Brian Boroihme.

Miss Lummis was also a person of deep piety and great literary talents.  In 1896, with the hearty approval of Msgr. Michael Lavelle, the Rector of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York City, she established the People's Eucharistic League, with its center at the cathedral.  Moreover, she took part in the organization of the Corpus Christi reunion for men of the Nocturnal Adoration Society.  Besides all these activities, she did much literary work, and her magazine articles and poems were very popular.  In 1898, she founded a Eucharistic monthly Sentinel of the Blessed Sacrament, wrote most of the articles, and retained the editorship until she turned the magazine over to the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament in 1902.

Through her readings of any and all publications on the Holy Eucharist, she had become acquainted with the Montreal foundation of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.  Wishing to know more about the work of Fr. Eymard, she paid a visit and recorded her deep impressions in articles later published under the title, "A Nineteenth Century Apostle."  Little did she suspect, as she met Mlle. de la Rousselière, who had been instrumental in bringing the Congregation to Canada, that she would emulate the zeal of this pious lady and have much to do in finally introducing the Congregation to the United States.

The Eucharistic movement was gaining momentum in the United States, and invariably the name of Fr. Eymard came up for more than honorable mention.  The Rev. Bede Maler, O.S.B., of Saint Meinrad, Indiana, called the attention of the American clergy to the work of Fr. Eymard in a monthly magazine which he founded as the organ of the Priests' Eucharistic League, Emmanuel (now published and edited by the Congregation).  At about the same time, the late Abbot of Saint Meinrad, Very Rev. Finton Mundwiler, O.S.B., sent a circular to the bishops of the United States advancing the project of a Eucharistic Congress for priest adorers.  The Most Rev. Camillus Maes, Bishop of Covington, Kentucky, was enthusiastic about the idea and agreed to sponsor the first convention of the Priests' Eucharistic League, which was held at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  Bp. Maes accepted in 1895 the office of Protector of the league.  Keenly interested in the work of Fr. Eymard, he warmly approved of the ambitions of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament to open a foundation in the United States.  Some proposals for a house in the Middle States gave way to the cherished hopes of a Eucharistic shrine in a large city on the Eastern seaboard.  The answer to the prayerful wishes of the Congregation came unexpectedly in 1900.

Fr. Louis Estevenon, the Superior of the Montreal foundation, went to Mexico City in late 1899 to study the possibilities of a foundation there.  He met ideal religious conditions, for Msgr. Plancarte de Cempeche had constructed a shrine fulfilling the requirements of the Eucharistic worship as carried on by the Congregation.  Fr. Estevenon found the church with its rich floorings, mosaics, altar of white marble and onyx, and ciborium supported by spiral columns of white marble, a most suitable shrine, and sent to the major superiors of the Congregation in Paris a warm recommendation of the project.  However, political conditions of the time were far from being favorable, for the laws did not permit the existence of any religious group in Mexico.  The General Council of the Congregation did not accept the tempting offer, and that must have been a stroke of Divine Providence, for the revolutionary upheavals that repeatedly scourged that unfortunate country would have made short shrift of any foundation.

At about the same time, a Fr. Duhamaut, who had met Fr. Estevenon as fellow travelers while on a ship from Europe, offered his church, Saint Stanislaus, in Brooklyn, New York.  The Blessed Sacrament Congregation, much to their sorrow, was unable to accept this kind offer, as the Order did not have in the Canadian community the two German-speaking priests needed for the spiritual care of that large group at Saint Stanislaus.

Fr. Estevenon, on his return from Mexico City, met Miss Lummis in New York and spoke of his trip.  "Mexico is not the place for you," she said.  "Your place is here in New York."  "But who shall welcome us?" asked Fr. Estevenon.  There was determination in her voice: "We shall see to it."

And Miss Lummis did see to it!  She rallied to her cause some prominent members of the clergy: Msgr. Lavelle and Fr. John McMahon of the Cathedral of Saint Patrick, Fr. Charles Colton, Pastor of Saint Stephen's Church, the Jesuit Fathers Murphy and Young of Saint Francis Xavier, and McKinnon and Pardow of Saint Ignatius Loyola; also influential Catholic lay people, outstanding among whom was Miss Annie Leary, a papal countess.  Before seeing Countess Leary, Miss Lummis had written her a letter and had placed it under a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.  It is said that the Countess Leary did not sleep well that night but that she was in a favorable state of mind to rally to the cause so elegantly presented to her by Miss Lummis.  Archbp. Corrigan graciously listened to the pleadings of these Eucharistic-minded souls and finally gave his consent to the coming of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.  That they might not be a financial burden on the Diocese, Countess Leary and the other ladies underwrote the sum of $50,000 which the Archbishop had mentioned as the required amount, and the way was cleared for the Congregation to come to New York.  Archbp. Corrigan received a flattering letter of commendation from Archbp. Brooches of Montreal, and on May 1, 1900, he officially invited the Congregation to New York to locate a suitable place for a Eucharistic shrine.


While these negotiations were in progress, several trips were made from Montreal to New York. Two Fathers, in April 1900, were guests of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Cenacle on Riverside Drive in New York City.  Mother De La Chapelle, who gave them hospitality at the request of Miss Lummis, tells of their stay in the chaplain's quarters: "The Fathers were content with very little.  All we had to offer them were cold rooms in a remodeled barn!"  An aged sister remembered their short stay, for the squeaky new shoes which the Fathers had brought for the trip betrayed their early rising for their morning devotions.

On the eve of the Ascension, May 24, 1900, Fr. Arthur Letellier left Montreal with Br. Patrick Welsh and arrived in New York the following morning.  Their first visit was to a nearby church, and then the newcomers called on Archbp. Corrigan to inform him of their arrival and to thank him for his great kindness on their behalf.  They took quarters at Union Square in the home of a Mr. Molloy who had offered them the use of his house while the family was spending the summer in the country.  Fr. Estevenon, who had been named Superior of the group, arrived from Montreal on June 6, 1900.  For several weeks, the trio led a busy life; visits to likely places for a foundation were the only interruptions they allowed themselves in the intensive study of English.  They sometimes studied as many as ten hours a day under the tutoring of Fr. Young, S.J., and of Br. Patrick.  This genial brother had many fine qualities, but never was able to manage pots and pans with success.  His meals were prepared with more good will than skill, and when Msgr. Lavelle called on them one day, the sight of their emaciated features touched his heart.

"You are killing yourselves here," he said.  "Come to the rectory and be my guests.  You can learn English by conversing with the priests.  I shall give you good meals and you will be able to help me in return."

The little community accepted the generous offer, and Fr. Estevenon often referred to the kindness of the rectory staff, who made them feel at home: "We could not have received a better welcome in any rectory of Europe or Canada."  When the Fathers moved into the cathedral rectory, Br. Patrick returned to Montreal.

The Fathers soon learned of the Canadian church Saint Jean Baptiste, and often said Mass there on Sundays.  Aware of their fruitless search through the city for a place to start a Eucharistic shrine, Fr. Tetreau one day said to them, more in jest than in earnest: "If you can't find anything, I'll have to give you my church."  Somehow this casual remark reached the ears of Archbp. Corrigan, who then and there decided to effect a long-desired change, and the very next day he informed Fr. Tetreau that the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament would take over the church of Saint Jean Baptiste.  Fr. Tetreau gave his farewell sermon on September 30, 1900, and on October 2, 1900, the parish held a reception to bid Godspeed to the Pastor who had labored so zealously to build up the church and to promote the spiritual welfare of the people of the neighborhood.

Then followed the departure at various dates of the secular priests of Saint Jean Baptiste.  Fr. Tetreau returned to his native Diocese of Nicolet, Canada.  His brother, Fr. John Tetreau, went to Washingtonville, New York, and became the first Pastor of that parish.  The saintly Canon Petit, who had arrived at Saint Jean's in 1890, remained in charge of the relic of Saint Anne.  Frs. Monnier and Gravel consented to remain to care for the English-speaking congregation.  After two years, Fr. Gravel went uptown to the parish of Saint Joseph.  Later, he toured and lectured among the Canadian population of New England.  He persuaded many to emigrate to Manitoba, and a new city, Gravelbourg, was named in his honor.

Meanwhile, the Fathers were moving into Saint Jean's.  Fr. Estevenon, on Sunday, October 7, 1900, addressed the Canadian congregation of the parish at the ten o'clock Mass, while Fr. Letellier spoke in English at all the other Masses.  The community was now complete; reinforcements of religious arrived in New York on October 3, 1900.  Nine priests and brothers made up the group: Fr. Louis Estevenon, Superior; Frs. Arthur Letellier, Telesphore Roy, Alfred Pauzé, Remi Gingras, and Brs. Ferdinand Stubert, Leonard Routhier, Patrick Welsh, and Eli Gingras.  An inscription on the inside of the base of the special Golden Jubilee Chalice carries the names of these devoted religious.

From October to December 1900, "Old Saint Jean's" was the scene of busy activities in preparation for the solemn inauguration of the Eucharistic worship.  Between the morning Masses and the three o'clock holy hour, the community labored to make the necessary changes in the church.  The generosity of the ladies, especially of the Countess Leary, enabled them to obtain a new altar, with its coating of white paint offset by encircling golden rays and the distinctive "royal mantle" in use in most of the churches of the Congregation at that time.  New vestments, sacred vessels, and a monstrance also came through the generosity of Countess Leary.

"Old Saint Jean's" showed its transformed interior on December 12, 1900, to the imposing gathering of priests and lay people who came to witness the solemn inauguration of the Eucharistic worship.  Bp. Blondel of Montana, who was in New York preaching for the missions, celebrated the Mass, presided over by Archbp. Corrigan who delivered the sermon and solemnly exposed the Blessed Sacrament at the conclusion of the ceremonies.  Fifty priests were in the sanctuary to give a warm welcome to the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.  In the nave, where only a third of the throng was able to find a place, was the first group of many friends, generous benefactors, and lovers of the Blessed Sacrament that would help the Congregation to make of Saint Jean Baptiste a nationally known shrine of Eucharistic worship.  The famous Boys Choir of Saint Ignatius, under the direction of Fr. Young, sang at the Mass and benediction.


Saint Jean's, although it was not a territorial parish, never had, even from the start, an exclusive national character.  An ever-increasing multitude found its way to "Old Saint Jean's," attracted by the daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and the advantage of the daily confessions which the Congregation inaugurated in the city.  Even before the decree of Pope Pius X concerning early and frequent Holy Communion, the Congregation was a zealous promoter of both practices.  It was an inspiration to the faithful to see the priests and brothers coming hour after hour for adoration of our Eucharistic Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  The size of the community did not permit perpetual adoration more than once a week, but they invited the people to participate in this weekly vigil.  Fr. Letellier busied himself with the school and other parish activities, Fr. Pauze with the sodality and the Eucharistic societies, and Fr. Poirier with the choir.  Most of the baptisms and weddings fell to Fr. Roy.

The arrival of more religious in the years that followed, enabled them to take a more active share in the pastoral work.  Fr. Joseph Lagacé became the Chaplain to the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, at Madison Avenue and 81st Street, and labored there successfully for 20 years.  Fr. Beat Gmur gradually took over the chaplaincy of Lenox Hill Hospital, at 111 East 76th Street, and answered sick calls day and night for over 30 years.  The Congregation also became the ordinary and extraordinary confessors of various communities of sisters.  All this pastoral work spread further the knowledge of Saint Jean's and brought more and more people to this Eucharistic shrine.

No wonder East 76th Street became a busy thoroughfare, with people from all walks of life and from every section of the city coming to "Old Saint Jean's" for their devotions.  Like an old garment bursting at the seams, the walls of the small church seemed to try to expand to accommodate the worshipers who came, not only to see the brilliant repository on Holy Thursday, but also on weekdays to join the religious community in the public homage paid to Christ Eucharistic.

Fr. Estevenon, aware that the Congregation was about to be expelled from France, in 1903 went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the invitation of a Spanish lady, a Mrs. Anchorena, who had promised assistance to the Congregation.  She offered to finance the building of a church, and Fr. Estevenon invited the community from France to take refuge in Buenos Aires.  He laid the foundations of another shrine in Santiago, Chile, in 1907, and to recruit vocations for these Spanish-speaking countries, opened a preparatory seminary in Tolosa, Spain.  Meanwhile, he had been elected the Superior General of the Congregation and remained in that office until his death in 1912.  The Congregation reveres him as its second founder.  Saint Jean's, in particular, owes him a grateful remembrance for his pioneer work in New York City.



Fr. Letellier succeeded Fr. Estevenon as Superior of the community and Pastor of Saint Jean's in 1903.  All who knew him recognized his zeal and his great vision for the church and its worship. He was a leader with a keen faith and a love of Christ in the Eucharist.  He and his devoted Assistants remembered the prophetic words of Archbp. Corrigan at the inauguration of the solemn exposition in December 1900: "Evidently this church is too small and not imposing enough for the requirements of perpetual adoration. A new and becoming temple will one day be erected that will be more worthy of the divine King."  The many friends and benefactors of Saint Jean's joined their prayers and offerings to pave the way for the construction of an edifice more worthy of the Eucharistic King.  These fervent wishes and prayers materialized in 1910.

A momentous decision was the result of a very simple conversation between Fr. Letellier and a prominent financier, Mr. Thomas Fortune Ryan.  Serving Mr. Ryan in the capacity of advisor for his many charitable enterprises, a Miss Katherine O'Connor, a friend of Miss Lummis and of Countess Leary, often discussed with Mr. Ryan the work of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.  Mr. Ryan invited the Fathers to be his chaplains and to say Mass on weekends at his summer home, "Montebello," in Suffern, New York.  For two summers, Fr. Poirier went from New York to celebrate Mass in the Ryan private chapel.  After the Congregation had inaugurated a minor seminary in Suffern, which Mrs. Ryan bought in 1904 and donated to the Congregation, the Fathers said Mass daily for the family and for the Catholics of that rural area. Mr. Ryan soon became a frequent visitor at Saint Jean's, preferring the humble church to the more imposing edifices closer to his Fifth Avenue mansion.  Going to High Mass at Saint Jean's as he frequently did, it appears that one Sunday he arrived a bit late and had to remain standing during the entire Mass in the over-crowed church.  During the announcements, Fr. Letellier asked the prayers of the faithful for the erection of a new church.  After Mass, Mr. Ryan who had always been deeply impressed by the priests and brothers kneeling in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, went to the rectory, and greeted Fr. Letellier with this question: "How much would it cost to build a new church?"  Fr. Letellier was not a man to fumble and stumble.  "At least $300,000," he replied at once.  "Very well," came from Mr. Ryan.  "Have your plans made and I will pay for the church."  These two men, one a venturesome and successful businessman, the other a visionary apostle of the Eucharistic Lord, understood each other very well!


The first site of the project was the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and East 76th Street. The Congregation bought some land in 1910, but the asking price for the rest of the ground needed for the project was prohibitive.  Pressure was exerted to move west of Lexington Avenue as a more desirable location.  But that would have put the church away from the bulk of the loyal and generous supporters of Saint Jean's.

Representatives of the Congregation then bought up the necessary land under their own names and resold the various properties to the Congregation so that the owners would not take unfair advantage of the building project.  People were soon startled to see recently-erected apartment houses being torn down.  At least one of them seemed to have been destined for an early removal, since the builder, a Mr. Irwin, although not Catholic at the time, acceded to the wish of a nun who was passing by with a companion.  "May I place a medal in the foundations?  Later a church may rise on this spot!"  Mr. Irwin later became a convert and narrated the incident with pride on any mention of Saint Jean's.

The contract to demolish the apartment houses was given to J. Reefer's Son Company, and was to be completed within two months.  Work progressed rapidly, but soon difficulties interfered with this preparatory stage of construction.  Some of the tenants refused to accept a fair compensation for the termination of their leases.  The owners of a drugstore and of a garage were the most stubborn holdouts for exorbitant compensations.  With the razing of the surrounding buildings, their premises soon became like islands, roofed over for protection and shored up to prevent collapse.  A storm of indignation, including vigorous picketing by the friends of Saint Jean's, fell upon the stubborn tenants until they accepted the just compensation offered them.  The litigation and the compensation amounted to $10,000.


The first soundings of the site led the architect to submit an estimate of $12,000, but the figure soared to over $100,000 before the completion of the digging of the foundations.  In earlier days, two brooks, one arising in the vicinity of West 90th Street and draining into what is now Central Park, and the other arising near 95th Street, joined at East 75th Street and Third Avenue and flowed toward the East River.  The lower level around 76th Street had been marshy ground before it was filled in, prior to building operations after the middle of the century.  The digging, in order to reach solid bedrock for the foundations had to go some 25 feet lower that the original estimate.  Because of this setback, the plans for gilding the dome and towers, the interior decorating with marble and mosaic, were shelved indefinitely.

The donor of Saint Jean's, Mr. Ryan, had stipulated that his name be kept secret until such time as he cared to divulge his identity.  The Congregation respected the wishes of its benefactor.  It was only in October 1912 that the newspapers received a statement from the office of Mr. Ryan which made headline copy of his generous assistance to Saint Jean's and to other important institutions.

Mr. Ryan took an active interest in all phases of the new construction.  He had cherished the plan of a small church, but rich and elaborate in every detail.  Fr. Letellier called upon all his diplomacy and convinced Mr. Ryan of the need of a church large enough to seat twelve hundred people, with wide aisles to permit solemn processions of the Blessed Sacrament.  The plan of the huge dome to crown the edifice hung in the balance, due to the mounting cost of construction.  Fr. Letellier requested his brother religious to make an extra night of adoration.  The following day, Mr. Ryan, seeing the effect of the dome on the miniature replica of the church, consented to contribute the $43,000 required to build it.  The lack of adequate knowledge of the local costs of material and labor on the part of the Italian architect sent the construction expenses soaring far above the original sum agreed upon by Mr. Ryan.  Fr. Letellier was saved from an embarrassing situation by the repeated donations of Mr. Ryan.  His generosity toward Saint Jean's finally approximated the sum of $600,000.

The design of the new church came from Mr. Nicholas Serracino, and had won first prize in the International Exhibit at Turin, Italy, in 1911.  The plans are of a church of the purest Renaissance style, with twin towers surmounting the edifice, each 150 feet high, and a great dome 175 feet above the floor level of the upper church.  Arches and fluted pilasters support the rounded ceiling which covers the three naves.  A wide cornice carries around the nave and at the middle height of the apse.  Circling the altar is a triforium.  Indiana limestone lines the church exterior.  The façade in the original plans called for an imposing Arch-of-Triumph portico, supported by four gigantic columns, and an impressive approach of church-wide steps.  Unfortunately, the widening of Lexington Avenue entailed the partial removal of these steps.


The construction of the new church, after one year of work, had progressed to the point where it was possible to have the laying and blessing of the cornerstone.  This ceremony took place on April 28, 1912, in the presence of some nine thousand people.  The brothers who took up the offerings at the ceremony had to elbow their way with the collection baskets through the dense crowd.  Saint Joseph, one of the patrons of the Congregation, whose opportune intercession had saved the Congregation from a financial disaster during its early days, was called upon to make a success of the ceremony.  Fr. Letellier said to the sacristan, Br. Eli: "Place his statue right out in the open, the first thing of all, and remove it after everything else has been taken in."  Clearly, Saint Joseph was "on the spot"; moreover, it was the feast of his patronage.  Such confidence was well rewarded.  The threatening rain held off until the end of the ceremony.  As soon as the sacristans had removed the statue to the sacristy of "Old Saint Jean's," the rain came down in torrents.

Cardinal Farley presided at the ceremony and set and blessed the cornerstone.  One thousand school children took part in the procession.  They were followed by 300 Sodalists dressed in white.  An impressive group of men marched to their respective seats, scattered around the steel framework which rose like a giant web.  Two hundred members of the Nocturnal Adoration Society, 100 cadets of the Eymard Lyceum, and 600 Holy Name men from different parishes of the city formed the male contingent.

Bp. John Chidwick, the Rector of Dunwoodie Seminary in Yonkers, New York, delivered the sermon at the conclusion of the liturgical blessing of the cornerstone.  A brilliant orator, he glorified Christ our Lord as the living cornerstone of the church, and reviewed the history of the Catholic Church in the Yorkville section of the city.  Even with four large churches, Yorkville needed another shrine where something distinctive would be added — the perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Cardinal closed the afternoon ceremony with devout praise for the Congregation and congratulated the friends and parishioners of Saint Jean's for their sustained generosity.  He also affirmed the he would not take it amiss if the new church were to surpass in beauty his own Cathedral of Saint Patrick.  He then imparted the papal blessing to the kneeling multitude and the day ended, marking an important step in the development of the Church of Saint Jean Baptiste.


A cordon of police on East 76th Street attracted a great deal of attention all through the early and late hours of February 24, 1913.  They stood by to protect the open church while the priests, brothers, and volunteers transported the contents of the sacristy from "Old Saint Jean's," in preparation for the opening of the lower church on Sunday, February 25.  Fr. Letellier was marking the 25th anniversary of his ordination, and it was only fitting that the jubilarian be the first one to celebrate Mass in the church for which he was spending his generous heart and undaunted will.

Bp. Maes of Covington, Kentucky, Protector of the Priest Adorers of the United States, preached the sermon.  He dwelt at length on the development of devotion to the Holy Eucharist, highlighted in 1247 by the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi.  He respected the wishes of the jubilarian not to make mention of his 25th anniversary.  The friends and parishioners of Saint Jean's, however, spontaneously expressed their praise and gratitude to Fr. Letellier at the reception in the parish hall later that evening.  The audience roundly applauded the congratulatory speeches of their spokesmen.  Miss Helen Toohig presented a bouquet of 25 lilies, a hundred dollar bill curled in the center of each flower.  This generous gift of the Sodality covered the cost of the Communion railing in the lower church.  Fr. Letellier also received a sterling silver chalice, heavily studded with precious stones, the nodus set off by four large and unusually perfect sapphires.


The blessing of the lower church of Saint Jean's represented the first step in the realization of the planning and tireless zeal of Fr. Letellier, assisted by his devoted brethren and the sustained generosity of Mr. Ryan.  The walls rose higher and higher.  The roof, with its towering dome, covered the nave and the sanctuary.  Although the permanent altar and choir stalls were not in place, the upper church was at least ready for public worship.  The ceremony of the dedication took place on January 6, 1914.  Less than 14 years after its arrival in the United States, the Congregation could rejoice in the dedication of a new and beautiful shrine to Christ Eucharistic.

The many worshipers who filled the "New Saint Jean's" to capacity on the day of its dedication sensed the dawn of a new era.  The presence of Cardinal Farley enhanced the solemnity of the occasion.  Bp. Maes of Covington celebrated the Mass.  A large assembly of prelates and priests assisted in the sanctuary.  The spacious naves overflowed with the many friends and benefactors of Saint Jean's and representatives of the People's Eucharistic Leagues.

Fr. Letellier drew a forceful parallel between the mystery of the Epiphany and the characteristics of Saint Jean's as a shrine of perpetual adoration.  He referred tactfully to the benefactor who made Saint Jean's possible: "The Wise Men, who brought a tribute of wisdom, power, and wealth to Jesus newly born, have had their successors and imitators, and this church is an evident proof of it.  A man whose reputation is widespread, whose great intelligence is sufficiently proved by the astonishing success that that has crowned his efforts, a man who treated on equal terms with rulers in great financial and social enterprises, and whose nobility of heart is as great as his immense riches, such a man came to us one day, but almost stealthily, and asked us what it would take to build a superb sanctuary for the God of the host.  The sum mentioned, already very huge, was accepted with a simplicity that almost hid the greatness of the gift.  And you, my dear parishioners, although this temple has been erected primarily for the glory of the Blessed Sacrament, it is not less true that it is, and will remain, your parochial church.  Do not imitate the people of Bethlehem who neglected to recognize and render homage to the Infant-God.  Follow rather the footsteps of the Magi and faithfully copy their admirable example by entering frequently into the dwelling place of Jesus, there to kneel and adore."

Cardinal Farley spoke at the end of Mass and said in part: "No celebration has given more pleasure that the one I am now presiding — the dedication of this church, which realizes the intentions of the generous donor and of the Fathers in charge.  Our Lord promised to leave behind him a memorial of his life, his death, his love for mankind, and his promises never fail.  Two thousand years have passed and there has been no cessation of the bloody sacrifice of the New Law.  From the altars flows that salvation which has come upon the world.  I now conclude by congratulating the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament, by congratulating the most munificent donor, and the people who come here from time to time to offer their homage to their King and Lord on his throne of love and mercy."  The cardinal then read a congratulatory cable from the Holy Father, Pope Pius X, and imparted the papal blessing.


Saint Jean Baptiste is one of two New York City churches served by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.  The other is the Church of Saint Andrew in Lower Manhattan.  Saint Andrew's stands in the shadow of the Municipal Building, near the federal and state court complexes and City Hall, and is just a short walk from Chinatown and Little Italy.  The church, of Federal style, is a prayerful and welcoming place in the heart of the Civic Center.

Church of Saint Andrew; 20 Cardinal Hayes Place; New York, NY 10007. Telephone: 212.962.3972.


1882-1883        Rev. Peter Cazenueve
1883-1900        Rev. Frederick Tetrault
1900-1903        Rev. Louis Estevenon, S.S.S.
1903-1914        Rev. Arthur Letellier, S.S.S.
1914-1918        Rev. Fernando Gaudet, S.S.S.
1918-1921        Rev. Arthur Letellier, S.S.S.
1921-1930        Rev. Alphonse Pelletier, S.S.S.
1930-1938        Rev. Auguste Pelletier, S.S.S.
1938-1944        Rev. John Graham, S.S.S.
1944-1958        Rev. William LaVerdiere, S.S.S.
1958-1972        Rev. Adrian Hebert, S.S.S.
1972-1978        Rev. Donald Jette, S.S.S.
1978-1979        Rev. Andrew Beaudoin, S.S.S. (Administrator)
1979-1984        Rev. Gerald Levesque, S.S.S.
1984-1987        Rev. Norman Pelletier, S.S.S.
1987-1988        Rev. John Kamas, S.S.S. (Administrator)
1988-2000        Rev. John Kamas, S.S.S.
2001-2002        Rev. Mario Marzocchi, S.S.S.
2002-2003        Rev. Paul Bernier, S.S.S. (Administrator)
2003                  Rev. Anthony Schueller, S.S.S.

  First-century John the Baptist is the last of the Jewish prophets and the forerunner of Jesus Christ. Born into a priestly line, of aged parents as if by a miracle, John was a Nazirite, dedicated to God's service from birth. With this, came the obligation never to shave, to take wine, or to indulge in ordinary human pleasures. Instead, John lived in the wilderness, on the fringes of society, a curious figure clothed in the skin of a camel whose words and personality possessed an irresistible magnetism.

John is easily the most startling figure in the Gospels, a man of mystery. Bronzed by the desert sun, with piercing words of ominous malediction, uncompromising and aggressive, John must have presented a stark contrast to the comfortable religious leadership of his day.

Crowds came to him, drawn by his hypnotic power, his eloquence, and his penchant for invective: "You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. . . . Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 3:7-8, 10).

John's was the last voice of the first dispensation, echoing Moses and Elijah, and the final challenge of the fire and thunder of the God of the ancient Jews.

John prepared the way for Jesus, and, with all his fierceness, exercised a humble ministry. He recognized his place in the great drama of salvation, that he was but the forerunner for the Messiah. When the time came, John graciously made way for the one who was to follow. He shrank even from the thought of baptizing Jesus: "I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11).

John's end was tragic, the result of sordid intrigue. With characteristic boldness, he had denounced the unlawful marriage of the infamous Herodias to the king, and, as a result, had been thrown into the gloomy fortress of Machaerus on the shores of the Dead Sea. Then, to gratify the cruel whim of Herodias' daughter Salome, who danced in Herod's presence on his birthday, John was beheaded. Thus ended the life of this sublime and extraordinary servant of God who blazed the trail for the Lord.

John pointed to Jesus as the "Lamb of God." His words prophesied Jesus' own passion and death for the world's healing and redemption.

Église Saint Jean Baptiste was founded in 1882 as a national parish for the French Canadian population of New York City's Yorkville area. (Usually Catholic parishes are assigned by geographic territory; a national parish accepts persons of that nationality — in this case French-Canadian or French-speaking — regardless of location within the city.)    It quickly became a spiritual center embracing many nationalities, as it does today. The area was serviced by the second avenue and third avenue elevated trains, and immigrants from many nations located there.    Since 1900, the church has been under the care of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, an international religious order dedicated to the Eucharist, the central sacrament of Catholic life and worship.

Invited by Father Tetreault, the first pastor,  the Marist Brothers opened the school for boys in 1892 with 75 boys.  "Only 15 understood French; none were interested in learning it."  The Saint Ann's Academy opened in September 1894 with an unrecorded enrollment of boys from the parish, plus 15 boarders.  In addition to the school, the Brothers were responsible for  teaching CCD on Sundays, the parish bazaar, the monthly novena to Saint Ann and publication of the Annals of Saint Ann's Shrine.  The Brothers housing also serviced several elementary schools in the neighborhood, as well as residence for many French Brothers  who left France starting in 1898 when the school system there was being secularized.  They stayed in New York City to learn English.   The overcrowding led Brother Zéphiriny, principal of Saint Ann's, to seek other sites for the Brothers learning English.  His search led him to Esopus, where he viewed the property but decided to choose property in Poughkeepsie instead because transportation to New York City and Quebec was easier from Poughkeepsie.   Another interesting tidbit is that one of the teachers at Saint Ann's in the first decade of the 20th century was Brother Edmond Alphonse, who became the first treasurer of Marist Preparatory in 1942 and served as treasurer, choirmaster, and organist there for many years.  

The present church building opened in the spring of 1913.  Its design, drawn up by Nicholas Serracino, won first prize at the International Exhibition in Turin, Italy, in 1911.  The architectural style of the church is of Italian Renaissance classical revival.  A major restoration of the exterior and interior of the church was completed in late November 1997.

Situated at the back of the church in the south wall is the Shrine of Saint Anne, which evinces a devotion to the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary that began at Saint Jean's in 1892.    When the present church was opened in 1913, the Brothers took over the old church and converted it into a gymnasium, which served the school until it relocated to Queens and took the name Archbishop Molloy.   Brother Zéphriny taught and lived at St. Ann's Academy, and when he opened the Marist property in Poughkeepsie, New York, he gave named it  Saint Anne's Hermitage.   I received my high school diploma from Saint Anne's Hermitage.  When I taught at St. Ann's Academy in NYC (1950-1957) , my aunt Mary Foy Mullin told me that she had attended services in the old church.   She had immigrated to New York from Ireland in 1908, and lived on the east side in the 70s area.

Thomas Fortune Ryan (1851 - 1928) born near Livingston, Virginia, the son of George Ryan, a farmer, and his wife whose maiden name was Fortune.  Orphaned at 14, he moved to Baltimore MD to seek work.  He took a job as an errand boy for John S. Barry, a dry good merchant, and worked for Barry for four years, working hard and gaining several promotions.

In 1872 Barry encouraged the young man to seek his fortune in New York City by trying for a position on Wall Street, a breeding ground for many self-made men.  Within a year Ryan had worked for a brokerage firm as a messenger, then a broker's assistant, and in 1873. with Barry's backing, Ryan opened his own brokerage firm and also married Barry's daughter, Ada.  By 1874 the new firm of Lee, Ryan and Warren purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

The 1880 census lists Ryan living in Hempstead, Queens, with his wife Ada, and four sons listed as born in Virginia: John, Thomas F, William and Allen; and three servants, all born in Ireland

When streetcars were proposed for Manhattan in 1883, Ryan organized a paper entity called New York Cable Railroad and bid against entrepreneurs Jacob Sharp and William C Whitney (Oliver Payne's brother-in-law) to gain control of a franchise for a line running along Broadway between Union Square and the Battery.  To get the franchise, all three offered bribes, but Sharp's was the biggest.  Ryan, Whitney and Peter Wiedner then combined to wrest control from Sharp.  By 1900 the Metropolitan Streetcar Company controlled nearly all the streetcar lines in New York City.

August Belmont was the principal financier behind the NYC subway systemBy 1905, the Metropolitan found itself competing for ridership with the New York's popular subway system, which had been organized and financed by August Belmont.  Ryan proposed a merger, which Belmont eventually accepted.  Ryan sensed the financing was shaky, and by 1906 had withdrawn from the arrangement, but only after he was $35 million richer.  He had a substantial interest in American Tobacco Company, and profited handsomely when that combination was broken up by the government.    His New York townhouse at 858 Fifth Avenue  was on the same block as Oliver Payne's, but it extended the entire block to Madison Avenue, including extensive gardens.   It was designed by Carrère & Hastings.

Ryan always loved the Virginia area where he was born.  In 1901 he purchased Oak Ridge, a farm which had been vacant for twenty years.  Thomas Fortune Ryan became the wealthiest native-born Southerner of his generation with a net worth of over $130 million. His business interests embraced the Manhattan transit system, the American Tobacco Company, banking, the Equitable Life Assurance, the Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, railroads, Mexican rubber plantations and diamond mines in the Belgian Congo.  

In 1905 Ryan bought the controlling interest in the Equitable Life Assurance Society, a deal that put him at loggerheads with the financier E. H. Harriman, who had also sought to buy the stock.  Privately, Harriman complained that Ryan was ill suited to run the company, a sentiment shared by other Wall Street scions of an older moneyed class who looked down on the onetime Virginia country boy as unscrupulous, without honor, and decidedly not a gentleman.  No one dared criticize him too openly, however, for Ryan was a powerful man with powerful friends.

He extensively enlarged the original Oak Ridge  house into a fifty room Colonial Revival Mansion on four floors. Although not definitely proven, Ryan's architectural firm was probably the New York concern of Carrère & Hastings. Thomas Fortune Ryan used the property both as a rural retreat and as a model farm employing as many as 300 workers. A wide range of agricultural activities were pursued at this time on Oak Ridge, including an elaborate dairy operation housed in one of the largest stone dairy complexes in the United States.  Saddlebred and thoroughbred horses were maintained on the Estate and entered in competitions and races from California to England.

Ryan's development of Oak Ridge is eerily similar to Oliver Hazard Payne's development of the Esopus estate.  Although Payne died before completion of the horse barns west of route 9W, he clearly intended a similar use for the Esopus property, but may not have thought of horse racing but of horse shows.  One local told me that he wanted to run horse shows in Esopus itself.

Thomas Fortune Ryan had an international viewpoint.  His interest in the Belgian Congo stemmed from a request of King Leopold of Belgium to organize a syndicate to develop the natural resources of the Belgian Congo.  Deciding that rubber production would not be profitable, Ryan organized diamond-, gold- and copper-mining operations in the Congo.   Naturally, Ryan became the principal stockholder...

Ryan also liked things French.  He supported French and Belgian art, including an extensive collection of Limoges enameled porcelain.  Ryan was an early patron of the French sculptor Rodin. Wall paintings by the French-Canadian artist M. Suzor-Cote adorn the Breakfast Room of the Oak Ridge Mansion.   He also tried to develop area near Montréal called Mont Tremblant, which is now a popular ski resort area and summer vacation spot.  

His gift of St. Jean Baptist church reflects his love of things French, but also the church  was close to his townhouse on Fifth Avenue.   During his lifetime and under terms of the wills of Ryan and his first wife, the couple donated over $20 million to Roman Catholic causes.  As a generous Catholic philanthropist, Thomas Fortune Ryan endowed Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond, Virginia and St. Jean Baptist in New York City, as well as funding churches, schools, and hospitals throughout the country.
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