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A historic Hell’s Kitchen church which was the first Black Catholic parish north of the Mason-Dixon has been sold for $16 million, putting the future use of the 1869 building into question.
First established as an act of reparation by a priest, the former St. Benedict the Moor building played a part in African-American history for decades, marking a time when Hell’s Kitchen was home to a large Black population before the growth of Harlem.
As first reported by Bisnow New York, the deconsecrated church at 342 W53rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenue and former rectory and parish buildings at 338 W53rd Street have been sold to billionaire developer Walter Wang. Publicly available New York County Supreme Court records show that the Archdiocese of New York sold the empty buildings to Wang’s JMM Charitable Foundation, a 501(c)(3) based in Los Angeles, California. Wang is the Taiwanese-American CEO of JM Eagle, the world’s largest manufacturer of plastic and PVC piping, while his wife, Shirley Wang is the CEO of Plastpro, a fiberglass door maker.
The Foundation had more than $43 million in assets and $11 million in revenue in 2020, according to Propublica records. Its plans for the properties are unknown, but the sale agreement shows that while the rectory and parish house can be redeveloped, the church must remain intact for at least 20 years, although it can be repurposed for other uses.
It is unclear how protected the church is beyond the 20-year covenant. It was proposed for New York City Landmark status by Manhattan’s Community Board 4 (MCB4) in 2017, when it was deconsecrated by the Catholic Church. Board members Jean-Daniel Noland and Joe Restuccia recommended that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) protect the building from redevelopment with the designation. Two years later MCB4 wrote to underline the request.
“The community is at risk of losing a significant part of its history,” MCB4 wrote the LPC in 2019, requesting landmark consideration for the properties. “The Board urges the Commission to carefully consider its request for evaluation of the St. Benedict the Moor Church. It is vital to preserve the church to acknowledge and commemorate its significance in the City’s – and the Hell’s Kitchen community’s – cultural, ethnic, and religious history.”
But as of publication, it was unclear whether the church had been moved towards landmark status after MCB4’s letter. The LPC’s website does not show any open applications for the two properties. W42ST has reached out to the LPC for clarification.
The building is part of African-American history and the changing face of Hell’s Kitchen, a story explored by New York blogger Tim Miller in 2014. St. Benedict the Moor was first established as a parish on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in 1883 to serve Catholics in the large Black community which had established itself in what was known as “Little Africa” in the 1860s. It was named for St Benedict the Moor, a 16th-century Franciscan friar born to enslaved Africans in Sicily. He is one of the patron saints of African-Americans, known for having endured racism throughout his life.
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The money for the parish came from the will of Reverend Thomas Farrell — who died in 1880, leaving $5,000 to establish a parish for Black Catholics, saying: “I believe that the white people of the United States have inflicted grievous wrong on the colored people of African descent, and I believe that Catholics have shamefully neglected to perform their duties towards them. I wish then, as a white citizen of these United States and a Catholic to make what reparation I can for that wrong and that neglect.”
The parish was the first for Black Catholics north of the Mason-Dixon line, but by the 1890s the community it served was largely living in Hell’s Kitchen, as many were domestic servants whose wealthy employers had moved uptown. The parish followed in 1898, buying the 1869 Italianite church built for the Second German Church of the Evangelical Association in the post-Civil War building boom.
St Benedict’s move to Hell’s Kitchen cost $30,000, which the New York Sun of the time credited to fundraising by the pastor, Irish-born Reverend John E Burke, who was to stay its parish priest for decades. In 1903, he traveled to Rome, meeting Pope Pius X. Pioneering Black newspaper The Colored American, of Washington D.C., reported: “Father Burke, of the Catholic church of St Benedict, the Moor, brings back from Rome a special benediction from the new Pope, Pius the Tenth, for all the colored people of this country.” Four years later he was made the director-general of all Black parishes in the US.
The church became a center of African-American intellectual life, with a library dedicated to Black literature, a drama group performing Shakespeare and a weekly debating society dedicated to economic advancement. It had a parochial school beside the church, and a convent whose nuns ran an orphanage in Rye, Westchester. A 1911 book called Half a Man, about Black New Yorkers, said: “Only in this Catholic church does one find white and black in almost equal numbers worshipping side by side.”
Even as African-Americans steadily moved to Harlem, the church remained a focal point for Black Catholics, ministering until 1924 to Brooklyn and as far afield as Newark, a 1936 history of the parish recorded. In the 1930s the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee, set up to provide work in the Depression, funded 14 new murals by out-of-work artists. By the 1950s, with the area round the church now the focus of Hispanic immigration, the parish was handed to a Spanish order of Franciscans.
But in 1983, it marked 100 years since its foundation in Greenwich Village, with a celebration of its African-American heritage. “This was the stepping stone for blacks from the Village to Harlem,” said Bishop Emerson J. Moore, episcopal vicar of Central Harlem, who officiated at the mass, the New York Times reported. ”It was the first Catholic church to welcome blacks and was always used to call attention to racial prejudices in America.”
As a parish, it merged with the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on W51st Street in 2007. DNAInfo reported in 2017 that Mass had ceased to be celebrated by around 2012, and the cost of repairs had become prohibitive. In 2017, it was formally deconsecrated, opening the way for the sale and prompting MBC4’s intervention to call for landmarking.
The sale opens a new chapter for the buildings. While buyers JMM Charitable foundation and Shirley and Walter Wang do not have publicly available working contact information, W42ST reached out to the team at JM Eagle, where Ms. Wang serves as CEO for further information and a statement on the future plans for the property. W42ST also reached out to the Archdiocese of New York and will update if we hear back.
For now, the historic building remains intact — a reminder of the church’s legacy for many New Yorkers. As former parishioner Wesley Johns — who was baptized at St Benedict’s as a child and returned once more after 30 years for its centennial — told the Times in 1983: “The minute I set foot inside, it felt just like home.”