Hell’s Kitchen church home to first Black Catholic parish in the north sells for $16M

According to Bisnow New York, the first Black Catholic church to open above the Mason-Dixon line has been sold for $16 million. The former St. Benedict the Moor church, located at 342 West 53rd Street in Hell’s Kitchen, was built in 1869 as the only church for Black Roman Catholics. According to W42ST, the Archdiocese of New York sold the property to developer Walter Wang’s JMM Charitable Foundation, whose future plans for the site are unknown.

The sale agreement allows for the redevelopment of the rectory and parish house, but the church must remain unchanged for at least 20 years. After the Catholic Church deconsecrated the church in 2017, Manhattan Community Board 4 proposed that it be designated as a landmark to prevent it from being redeveloped, but it has yet to do so.

The parish was founded in 1883 on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village to serve Black Catholics living in the neighborhood known as “Little Africa” at the time. The church is dedicated to St. Benedict the Moor, a 16th-century Franciscan who was born in Sicily to enslaved Africans.

In 2011 the statue of St. Mary still stood in the niche.  photo by James Russiello

It was built with $5,000 from Rev. Thomas Farrell, who died in 1880 and left the money in his will as a form of reparation for Black Americans, according to W42ST.

“I believe that white people in the United States have done grave injustice to colored people of African descent, and I believe that Catholics have shamefully failed to perform their duties toward them,” Farrell wrote. “I wish then, as a white American citizen and a Catholic, to make whatever reparation I can for that wrong and neglect.”

A Victorian building squeezes up against the church in 1929, separating it from the school.  photo by P. L. Sperr, from Wikipedia.org

By the 1890s, the majority of the church’s congregations were Hell’s Kitchen domestic servants who had followed their wealthy employers north after they relocated uptown. The church, like its congregation, relocated to Hell’s Kitchen. Rev. John E. Burke, who would go on to serve as the congregation’s parish priest for decades, paid for the $30,000 move.

St. Benedict’s became a hub for New York City’s African-American community, with a library dedicated to Black literature, a drama group that performed Shakespeare, and a debating society that debated economic advancement. Even after the community’s mass migration to Harlem, the church remained a center for Black Catholics.

In 2011 the statue of St. Mary still stood in the niche.  photo by James Russiello

The iconic murals on the church’s interior were created in the 1930s with funds from the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee, which paid 14 unemployed artists to decorate the interior. The parish was given to a Spanish order of Franciscans in the 1950s because the surrounding neighborhood was predominantly Hispanic at the time.

In 2007, the parish combined with the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on West 51st Street. Mass had ceased at the church around 2012, and rising maintenance costs forced the Catholic Church to deconsecrate the property in 2017.

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