Whether you’re a believer or not, there’s no denying that religious buildings provide some of the world’s most celebrated and recognized pieces of architecture. From the Notre Dame de Paris and St Paul’s Cathedral to the world-famous Vatican, these incredible structures connect with all of us on different levels and to many, go beyond existing as mere bricks and mortar to provide the very foundation of their beliefs and spirituality. For others, a church or temple is simply part of a scheduled sightseeing stop.
To many, St Francis of Assisi’s Church may look like any other place of worship and in a city the size of New York, there are quite a few of them. But there’s more to this Roman Catholic Church than meets the eye and as any New Yorker will tell you, this is one lesser-known sight that’s well worth a visit.
Centrally located on West 31st Street in Midtown Manhattan, the church is conveniently located near local hotels and apartments. The church is a welcome oasis in the heart of the city that never sleeps. Completed in 1844, the church was dedicated to St Francis of Assisi – the patron saint of peacemakers – and became the cornerstone of the local community, undergoing various expansion and refurbishment works as it prospered over the years.
While its location has always made it accessible, it is the church’s diversity and ability to adapt to its surroundings that has made it so popular. From the introduction of the ‘Nightworker’s Mass’ in the late 19th century, designed for nightshift workers, actors and train passengers, to making history and becoming the first US church to celebrate ‘Noonday Mass’ – a daily mass held at the later time of 12.15pm – St Francis of Assisi has always responded in various ways to the needs of the people.
During the Great Depression of 1930s America, the church started a daily breadline for the hungry and has continued this act of help every day since. Today, the church provides food to the homeless and hungry as well as providing support in many other ways – from alcoholism groups and counselling to offering help for immigrants.
True to its premise that ‘All Are Welcome’, which is regularly adorned on a sign at the front of the building, visitors to St Francis of Assisi are greeted by friendly Franciscan Friars before having the chance to wander around the cool interior, join an uplifting daily mass (which run all day) or gaze up at the enormous and aptly named ‘Great Mosaic’. Covering the entire surface of the sanctuary, the Great Mosaic is an ornate piece of art that was commissioned at the end of World War I and completed in 1925 by artists Rudolph Margreiter and Joseph Wild. The piece depicts Mary standing on the globe of the world encircled by Seraphs and angels, with the baby Jesus on one arm and in the other hand holding a lily – a symbol of her purity.
The church is also home to several other pieces of mosaic art – including the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Death of Saint Joseph and the mosaic of St. Francis, among others.
Art aside, another great reason to visit is for the magnificent choir on Sundays which quite simply raises the roof with uplifting song, along with a daily mass that is often run by different priests, each injecting their own personality and inspirational words into the service.
The guide books and ‘top tens’ will often bypass St Francis of Assisi in favour of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Due to its central location, it’s easy to get to – just a stone’s throw from Madison Square Garden. This quiet retreat is a must for any visitor who likes to ditch the guidebook every once in a while in favor of rare and truly memorable finds.
St Francis of Assisi’s Church is located at 135 W. 31st Street in Midtown Manhattan. Daily mass takes place from 7.00am on weekdays and 8.00am on weekends and the church also holds special ceremonies and events at important dates throughout the year such as Easter and Christmas. Find out more online at www.stfrancisnyc.org.