If asked what I love best in New York City, it would not be the city’s museums or its music halls, wonderful as these are, but its splendid churches: the neo-Gothic glory of the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on Lexington and East 66th Street; the somber grandeur of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on 84th Street and Park Avenue; the breathtaking beauty of the Church of St. Jean Baptiste on Lexington Avenue and East 76th Street. All these testify to the vitality of the Catholic faith in New York over the centuries. Yet the church in which I rejoice most is the Church of St. Agnes, on East 43rd Street, next to Grand Central—the quintessential city church, to which I have gone over the years not only to attend Mass—and plunder the bookstore—but to baptize my children and give thanks for my blessings.
Since the devastation of Covid-19 has put St. Agnes and many other churches in unprecedented straits, now seems a good time to remind ourselves of how truly essential these places of worship are to the life of the city. In his recent ruling in Diocese of Brooklyn v. Governor Cuomo, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch upheld the clear constitutional rights of houses of worship.
As almost everyone on the Court today recognizes, squaring the Governor’s edicts with our traditional First Amendment rules is no easy task. People may gather inside for extended periods in bus stations and airports, in laundromats and banks, in hardware stores and liquor shops. No apparent reason exists why people may not gather, subject to identical restrictions, in churches or synagogues, especially when religious institutions have made plain that they stand ready, able, and willing to follow all the safety precautions required of “essential” businesses and perhaps more besides. The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.
After this welcome ruling arrived, I happened to be reading John Betjeman, who, in one of his poems, expresses delight in London’s most famous city church.
If in some City church we’ve knelt
Shut off from traffic noise and news,
And all the past about us felt
Among the cedar-scented pews,
Or if we think the past is rot,
Or if our purse has other calls,
Whether we go to church or not
Which of us will not help St. Paul’s?
With Betjeman’s timely poem and the Gorsuch ruling in mind, I stopped by St. Agnes and had a good chinwag with Father Michael Barrett, its Opus Dei pastor—a gentle, incisive, and faithful man, at once a true shepherd of souls and a crack administrator, having worked in the secular world for many years before becoming a priest. Born in Stuyvesant Town, he grew up in the Bronx. After graduating from Columbia University, he worked for the Gulf Oil Chemicals Company selling petrochemical feedstocks on the East Coast and then for Merrill Lynch as a retail broker. After that, he did some investment advising for a private foundation and, ten years later, studied theology in Rome, where he was ordained a priest by none other than Pope John Paul II. Father Barrett received his doctorate in moral theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. A good city church needs a good city pastor, and Father Barrett fits that bill completely.
Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Edward Short: During the lockdown, many businesses in midtown arranged for their staffs to work remotely, and they have not returned in any force. How is this affecting St. Agnes?
Father Barrett: We think about 70 percent of our faithful are commuters, and most of them have been gone for some months. We’re beginning to see some who come to their workplace once a week and occasionally stop into St. Agnes for Mass or confession. This means that we’re getting about 90-plus persons a day in the four masses we celebrate on weekdays. We used to celebrate six, but we reduced the number given smaller attendance. On weekends, we get people from around Manhattan, some who live in the parish and others who love to be at St. Agnes, but it’s much less than half of what we had before Covid-19. During the closure of the church, we celebrated a Mass online, and after we began opening the church again, we continued to celebrate that Mass online. The 12:10 p.m. Mass Monday to Saturday is always online. On Sundays we have the 12:30 p.m. Mass online. From now on, we will continue to offer at least one Mass a day online, because a number of people find it helpful.
Short: What other services have been affected?
Father Barrett: Confessions were reduced, but we are beginning to see more people coming to the confessional set up in the basement that is safe for Covid-19 prevention. Again, it is a significant downturn because even those who would like to come to the church are nervous despite the vaccine’s imminence. Many people continue to keep themselves in their homes and do not venture out except to find food and other supplies.
Short: The implications of this for your operations must be serious.
Father Barrett: A big part of supporting St. Agnes is the daily Mass collection, which has greatly diminished, and the money we receive for lighting vigil candles at one of the shrines, because few come to light the candles. Obviously, this is a challenge for St. Agnes to be able to count on financial support.
Short: Why is support for a church like St. Agnes in this time of uncertainty and crisis so crucial to New York City’s recovery?
Father Barrett: Supporting St. Agnes is vital because its role is long-term support for the faithful. We will go through a few years of struggle, but we will be back to normal and the city will return to its special role, even if some things will change as far as work habits and professional activities. New York is still a place of energy, with a history that cannot be overlooked or eliminated. We have been here since 1873. The church has burned down twice. We went through 9/11. We went through the crash of 2008. With all the difficulties of working in New York City, we will continue to reach out to people who work and enjoy Manhattan in the decades ahead.
After talking with Father Barrett, I met a few old friends with deep ties to Saint Agnes. They were quick to offer insights into how integral St. Agnes is to the life of the city.
Attorney Robert Crotty: “St. Agnes offers to all a refuge from the city’s frantic flow of people and traffic. It is there for those who come to pray, or meditate, or just to sit. Even in this time of the pandemic, St. Agnes continues. We yearn to be back, but for now we take encouragement knowing that St. Agnes continues—as it has for the past 147 years—and that when the pandemic passes, St. Agnes will be there to welcome us home.”
Another friend, Neil Merkl, president of the Guild of Catholic Lawyers, which meets at St. Agnes on the first Friday of every month, summed up his affection for the church: “St. Agnes is a part of both the new and forgotten New York. It has been here for nearly 150 years. I first found it in the late 1980s. Six masses in the morning; six at lunchtime. They had at least half a dozen priests. The old wooden and brick building was built in the 1870s, when there was a grand central depot, before there was a Grand Central Terminal. The church was old school: afternoon darkness lit by votive candles from the saints’ shrines, the church building baby boomers grew up in. It was home.”
Another friend, Margaret Fernandez, a young lecter with St. Agnes, spoke of why the church means so much to her: “I first encountered St. Agnes when I turned up East 43rd Street, pleasantly surprised to see the name of a special friend of my spiritual journey pointing me toward the Church: Fulton Sheen Way.” Bishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979) called the parish home for many years, from the 1930s through the 1960s. His prophetic radio and later television sermons (The Catholic Hour and Life Is Worth Living) were recorded in a studio at the old church, as well as at the Adelphi Theater further uptown.
Fernandez has a daily relationship with the church, as have many others who work and live in midtown. “Throughout the years I have found myself in the pews at Saint Agnes in many different seasons of life. I have gone there to pray, I have gone there to weep, I have gone there to heal. Saint Agnes Church is like a home to me.”
What strikes me about these responses is how frequently the word “home” pops up. Cities can be hard, cruel, unforgiving places. It takes a city church to remind us that, ultimately, it is the people of cities who matter most—something the devoted priests of St. Agnes never forget.
Photo Courtesy St. Agnes Church