Audio homily here:
Whenever I can, I invite visitors to our monastery in Jamaica, Long Island, to take the subway to downtown Manhattan for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry and then visit Battery Park, the Museum of the American Indian, and some of the old churches and shrines among the city’s famous skyline. I try to tell the story of our country and the Catholic church in America by walking through those places. It’s a good opportunity to talk about the care we need to give creation as we look at the waters of the harbor, the question of immigration as we visit Castle Clinton in the Battery, and the church as we visit the area’s churches. Looking at the past helps you to understand the present.
Our walk usually ends at St. Peter’s church, the oldest Catholic church in New York City, on the corner of Church and Barclay Streets, a block away from the World Trade Center. The church was dedicated November 4, 1786, three years after British troops evacuated the city at the end of the Revolutionary War and it’s been there as an active parish every since.
Previously, New York City was under Dutch and British rule for almost 150 years. During that time the city was strongly anti-Catholic, with laws calling for any Catholic priest who came there to be jailed. Catholic worship was forbidden; there were no Catholic churches.
Even after the Revolutionary War, despite their support for the American cause, Catholics were looked down upon in New York City. There were only a few hundred in a population of almost 20,000. Being a Catholic didn’t get you far in New York in those days.
So how did that church get built? Well, there were some foreign diplomats from France and Spain and Portugal in the city then. New York was the nation’s capital at that time. (1785-1790)
There were a couple of well-to-do Catholic businessmen, but most of the Catholics that formed St. Peter’s were poor Irish and German immigrants and French refugees and slaves from the recent revolution in Haiti.
Not a good mix of people to form a parish, you might think. This new congregation, besides facing the anti-Catholic attitude of New Yorkers, was poor and getting poorer as new Catholic immigrants poured into New York from Europe. Its priests weren’t the best either. They seemed to be always squabbling among themselves. There were some scandals among them. The laypeople were also divided among themselves. There were factions that wanted to run the parish their way or no way. There wasn’t a bishop in the country at the time to straighten things out.
So what kept it going? The other day we celebrated the Feast for the Dedication of the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome. The liturgy for that feast offers some wonderful insights into what a church and a parish should be. “My house is a house of prayer,” Jesus says. This church is not a social hall; it’s a place where we meet God and God meets us. It’s a place where we are welcomed on our way through life by a living water that restores us and helps us grow. ( Ezekiel 47.1-12) It’s is a place where we remember our mission in this world: we’re builders of the City of God, living stones that together form the temple of God. ( 1 Corinthians 3, 9-17) It’s is a place of communion, where we commune with God and God with us.
The readings for the feast say a church is a place of welcome. It’s where the lost sheep find their way home. It’s where people like Zacchaeus, the tax collector mentioned in St. Luke’s gospel, find new hope for their lives. It’s is a place of sacraments, where infants are blessed, where marriages begin, where we put our dead in the hands of God who promises eternal life.
What keeps a church and a parish going is its spiritual life, its life of prayer, its life of ministry.
Whenever I go to St. Peter’s Church on Barley Street I point out two markers at its entrance. One says that St. Elizabeth Seton, the first native born American saint, was received into the Catholic Church here in 1806. She had been a member of a prominent Anglican church just down the street, Trinity Church, but came to St. Peter’s drawn by her faith in the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. Socially, it was step down for her. Spiritually, she found a home here in this struggling, messy parish of poor immigrants.
The other marker recalls Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave who was also a member of this church in colonial times. He became a famous New York hair-dresser and was welcomed into the homes of elite members of New York society for over 50 years. For 50 years he came to Mass every morning at St. Peter’s. He’s buried in the crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and in being proposed for canonization today.
The church is not a place of brick and stone. It’s a place for people, holy people, to meet God and one another. They make the church.