Amid news of other historic houses of worship being demolished, W53rd Street’s St Benedict the Moor will be reinstated as an active church, according to the lead architect employed by the billionaire philanthropist owners.
The first Black Catholic parish north of the Mason-Dixon Line, St Benedict the Moor was named for a 16th-century African-born Franciscan friar and served Hell’s Kitchen residents until it was deconsecrated in 2017. In January, the church and associated buildings at 338-342 W53rd Street were sold by the Archdiocese of New York for $16 million to billionaire Walter Wang’s JMM Charitable Foundation.
According to Department of Buildings (DOB) paperwork, Walter’s wife, Shirley Wang, of the JMM Charitable Foundation, recently filed plans detailing a renovation project that includes both a $2.5 million dollar restoration to the church sanctuary building at 324 W53rd Street (between 8/9th Avenue) and a new structure taking the place of the rectory at 338 W53rd Street. The new building will stand seven stories and 66 feet tall, spanning about 21,500 square feet, with eight residential units, and space for a community facility on the ground floor.
“The church is being renovated and will remain a house of worship,” Daniel Bernstein of Kutnikii Bernstein Architects — the firm designing the new structure — told W42ST. “The improvements consist of exterior restoration of the front facade, on grade accessible entrance, elevator to access sanctuary and cellar,” he added. “We have endeavored to maintain the historic character of the facade due to its historical significance.”
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Initial reports of the sale from real estate publication BisNow indicated that per the purchase agreement, the property’s church building can not be altered (aside from material modifications) for the next 20 years. The sale deed additionally states that the purchasers must not operate the building in uses that would be “damaging and harmful to the reputation” of the Archdiocese.
Listed officially as God’s Providence LLC in property sale records, the JMM Charitable Foundation is a 501(c)(3) based in Los Angeles, California. Forbes estimate the Wang family’s net worth at $5.4 billion in 2017. 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 couple has publicly attributed their dedication to Christianity and charitable giving to Walter’s experience surviving late-stage cancer. “Life is very fragile but also extremely precious,” he told the Global Chinese Philanthropy Initiative. “What we do in our lifetime defines who we are. It is truly a blessing to give.” The Wangs have supported multiple philanthropic causes including AIDS research and improving economic conditions in Africa.
While St Benedict will once again become an active parish, other Hell’s Kitchen houses of worship have met different fates. In May, the 113-year-old Centro Maria building at 539 W54th Street (between 10/11th Ave) — formerly the Catholic St. Ambrose’s parish and most recently home to one of Manhattan’s last remaining women’s residences — was demolished to become a 21-floor, 71 unit condominium building. In August, New Dramatists — a former Presbyterian church known for 60 years in Hell’s Kitchen as “The Church of the Playwright” — put its W44th Street home up for sale. Over on the Upper West Side, community members have clashed with a real estate firm over the future of a 19th-century church West Park Presbyterian Church. Celebrities, including Mark Ruffalo, joined locals in opposing the church’s sale, which would make way for luxury apartments, challenging the firm aiding the financially struggling congregation. This week, in an opinion piece in the New York Daily News, the historic preservation contingent framed the conflict as a broader struggle between public interest and corporate power described as “the canary in the mine for a major reinterpretation of the city’s landmarks law that could endanger landmark churches all over the city.”
The conversation around landmarking St Benedict the Moor remains an open one — after the building was deconsecrated by the Catholic Church in 2017, members of Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4)’s Land Use Committee recommended that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) protect the building from redevelopment with the designation, reiterating their proposal in 2019. “The community is at risk of losing a significant part of its history,” MCB4 wrote to the LPC. “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.”
Longtime MCB4 Land Use Committee member and Clinton Housing Development Executive (CHDC) Director Joe Restuccia told W42ST that he and other community members still hoped for an official landmark designation for the property, citing the recent designation of the nearby (Former) Colored School No. 4 as an example of the importance of preserving an archive of New York’s Black History.
“The significance of this church is not even in question — this is an important historic landmark for Hell’s Kitchen,” said Restuccia. “We should absolutely be preserving it, and it’s for no lack of local effort that it hasn’t happened yet — but there has been a lack of political willpower to get it done.”
And while the site’s status as a protected landmark remains unresolved, there is relief among the community board that its new owners have declared the church will remain intact. “If indeed the building is being preserved, that is a relief —given the important historic role that the building has played in Hell’s Kitchen,” said MCB4 Chair Jeffrey LeFrancois. “We would certainly welcome a place for the community to worship and hopefully, a place for community board meeting-type gatherings to take place in. We look forward to learning the details as they become available.”