Blackfriars in Gotham: 150 Years of Dominicans in New York

Blackfriars in Gotham: 150 Years of Dominicans in New York

Tomorrow will mark 150 years since the New York archbishop John McCluskey penned a letter to the Provincial of our province, Fr. William O’Carroll. The letter states in full:

“The Dominican Fathers having with my permission purchased lots in this city on which they are to erect a church and convent of their order, they are further authorized to appeal to the charity of the faithful in furtherance of their important work. I beg at the same time to commend them to the benevolence of all, wishing them blessing and success.”

Archbishop McCluskey must have been excited at the prospect of the Order of Preachers having a stable ministry presence in the Archdiocese, and eager to make it public knowledge.  On the same day his letter is dated, the editors of New York’s Catholic weekly, the New York Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register, published an article entitled “The Dominicans in New York,” in which they announced:

“We have very good news for the Catholics of New York City. Since our last paper went to press a magnificent property has been secured in this city, for a church and college (priory) of the Dominican Order of Preachers.  The entire block on the east side of Lexington Avenue, extending from 65th to 66th streets, two hundred feet front, extending eastward two hundred and twenty-five feet, has been purchased, on favorable terms, as a Dominican house in this city. So, we have reason to congratulate the Catholic community on the accession of another Religious Order to supply the wants of this almost God-forsaken city.  The Dominicans have made a grand purchase.”

Two days later, Fr. O’Carroll wrote his own letter to the Master General of the Dominican Order, Fr. Vincent Jandel. Whereas the Archbishop’s correspondence is declaratory, Fr. O’Carroll’s is an attempt to explain his own actions and, interestingly enough, the desire of New Yorkers for Dominican friars. He remarks:

“Our work is fairly started in New York and by the time the present convent is built there will be I trust in God plenty of fathers of the right spirit to send there.  The opportunity was so propitious, priests and laity calling out for more churches, that I thought that I should not be faithful to my charge it I neglected it.  The people and the priests would have accepted anyone that came to attend to the spiritual wants of the people.  But since they came to know us through the missions they are better pleased to have us than any others. The title of the new convent will be St. Vincent Ferrer.”  

Fr. O’Carroll’s letter hints at the reason why Archbishop McCluskey had so enthusiastically supported the building of a Dominican church and priory in Manhattan. The Dominicans had become widely known in the city the winter previous through several large parish missions its itinerant preachers had given. While the spiritual fruit of these missions is known only to God, one, given at the Church of the Transfiguration in South Manhattan (modern-day Chinatown), yielded astounding statistical results: a rotation of nine Dominican friars preaching and instructing four times daily, an average of ten hours of confessions heard each day leading to an estimated total of 16,000 absolutions during the three-week mission. Fittingly enough, this Dominican foundation uptown from the developed part of 1867 Manhattan—indeed, sitting in an expanse of empty lots and fields complete with rock formations and dirt roads—was put under the patronage of St. Vincent Ferrer, one of the greatest preachers ever given by God to the Order of Preachers.

Today, a century and a half later, God continues to bless our preaching and presence in Manhattan. On the Upper East Side, Dominican Fathers hear confessions daily in our two magnificent churches—St. Vincent Ferrer’s and St. Catherine of Siena’s. The Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York provides 24/7 spiritual care and ethical guidance to patients, families, and health care workers in three hospitals. Dominican sisters run two all-girls college preparatory schools. Down in Greenwich Village, the friars of St. Joseph’s, under the patron of the universal Church, have been tremendously successful in their R.C.I.A. program. Throughout the Archdiocese, Dominicans have helped to implement and preach a new wave of three-day parish missions, focusing on quality preaching by consecrated religious and on offering the sacraments of the Church. It also is worth mentioning that student brothers from the House of Studies in Washington, DC, go up to New York each summer for 10 weeks. In addition to serving at some of the ministries mentioned above, the brothers have assisted in recent years at First Things, the World Youth Alliance, and the Missionaries of Charity.

As Dominicans, we have much to be grateful for in our 150-year history of formal apostolates in the City. Let us pray that God continue to watch over us and bless our friars, sisters, and those we serve during this anniversary year.

Br. Barnabas McHenry, O.P.        


(21 June 2017)