My son drove us to the station in Fairfield, Ct., on Sunday morning, in time to catch the 8:12am train to New York. From Grand Central Terminal it was a short walk to Holy Innocents, where I was less than a year old the first time I visited.
The last time I visited Holy Innocents was in 2016, if memory serves, before a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden. It was December in New York, the city was getting ready for Christmas, and that game against the Devils was my kids’ first-ever NHL contest—a big deal for a guy who grew up dreaming of being between the pipes for the Blueshirts.
The time before that was in 2015, when I was in New York covering Pope Francis’s trip to the UN and the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Before that, it couldn’t have been later than the mid-90s when I left for Rome.
Holy Innocents is on W 37th St, which, if you know a little of the city and its history, is in the heart of the Tenderloin district – a quarter that quickly filled with tenement housing where immigrants lived and venues for entertainments that were not always family-friendly in the last decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th.
Holy Innocents, it happens, has been known as a favorite of actors and other performers almost since its founding just after the Civil War ended.
When the parish was founded, the soon-to-be-teeming neighborhood was still basically farmland, or close enough. The first pastor brought in Costantino Brumidi – a late-in-life immigrant to the United States and a terrific character with a story of his own that’s well worth telling, who was also the artist who would go on to do the fresco of George Washington in the capitol rotunda – to create a great fresco for the main altar at Holy Innocents.
The parish faced hard times almost from the get-go. Changing demographics, commercial development, all part of the ebb and flow of city life, never let the parish have it really easy. Still, the place and the parish community made a go of it, welcoming people who worked in what had become the city’s Garment District, which is now mostly gone.
Holy Innocents is still there.
Folks gathered on the steps to greet each other and share news after Mass on Sunday, and it seemed there were refreshments on offer in the church basement after Mass, but we did not partake, as we were going with friends to Bryant Park a few blocks up and over.
Holy Innocents has always been a favorite, and it was great to be back.
The 10:30am Mass was a traditional Latin liturgy, though not with all the bells and whistles, and it was well done. The singing was lovely and the Mass celebrated carefully, with a competent homily mostly detailing the 21 August 1879 apparition of Our Lady, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, and Our Lord refigured as a lamb at Knock in Ireland, delivered to a congregation that ranged in age from very young to very old and from motley to dandy in dress, composed of folks from different walks of life and all different shapes and colors and sizes.
In short, it looked a lot like the Catholic Church.
There’s a lot of crazy on this beat, more than enough to make your hair stand on end. So, it’s good to be reminded that life just happens everywhere.
GK Chesterton once remarked somewhere to the effect that the story of the man who did not fall from the scaffold is more sensational than the story of the man who did. It is even better to be the man who did not fall from the scaffold, even if it makes a fellow a character in a story, which is the one thing any scribbler worth his salt will tell you he does not want to be.
The weather, by the way, was warm. It wasn’t uncomfortable – and New York in August can give Rome a run for her money – and the shade of trees around the edges of Bryant Park was pleasant, more June than August, or at least it felt so to me.
Sometimes you miss the old haunts, and sometimes you just need a break, and when a Sunday morning unencumbered in mid-August comes along, sometimes – very rarely – you can head into Manhattan on the train and visit a favorite old parish for Mass with the wife and see friends.
That’s what happened this Sunday, and it was awesome.