The Salesians of St. John Bosco arrived in New York City in 1898 from Turin to minister to the influx of Italian immigrants in their own language. The Salesians first settled on East 12th Street while using the basement of St. Brigid's Church for their Italian services. They were soon moved to Transfiguration Church on Mott Street where they retained a presence until 1949. Meanwhile, the Italian people of East 12th Street were unhappy with this arrangement and fought for the return of the Salesians to their own neighborhood. The Salesians took up residence at 431 East 12th Street where they had enough space for both living quarters and a chapel.
The Salesians soon found themselves in need of more space as they ministered to the ever-growing population of Italian immigrants. The New York Archdiocese gave the Salesians a parcel of land across the street from their chapel. The land was the site of what was known as the 11th Street Cemetery. The bodies of the deceased were transferred to Calvary Cemetery, and the basement of what is now the current structure was built on this sacred ground in 1911. Construction of the upper church of Mary Help of Christians began in 1917 with plans drawn up by architect Nicholas Serracino. Serracino was the architect of St. Jean Baptiste Church (a New York City landmark) on East 75th Street, and also of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on East 33rd Street, which has since been demolished.
Mary Help of Christians Church has remained the focal point of the neighborhood. After the Italian population started to move away, a new Hispanic population arrived and the Salesians welcomed this new immigrant group with open arms. Mary Help of Christians provided important community outreach. While offering food for the soul, they also met the needs of the neighborhood poor with a food pantry. While subsidizing the parish, the flea market met a growing need for clothing and household items at affordable prices. The youth ministry programs provided a safe haven for the neighborhood youths, while giving them hope for the future. A new young adult population started to find their way to Mary Help of Christians for spiritual, educational, and recreational programs. All of this changed when the New York Archdiocese officially closed the parish and withdrew the Salesian order. It is very difficult to describe the loss of this parish. How do you describe a feeling you hold in your heart? An important part of our history is being erased, and we have been stripped of an important part of our lives.
The church was built by Italian immigrants. Many of our ancestors probably helped to build this church. They came to America with nothing more than a dream, but they worked together to build this beautiful structure. I would miss every inch of this building, including the marble steps that I have climbed in my life more times than I could possibly count.
Sara Delano Roosevelt, granddaughter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, married neighborhood son and parishioner Anthony di Bonaventura at Mary Help of Christians Church on June 12, 1953. Dorothy Day, a candidate for sainthood, lists Mary Help of Christians as a place where she worshipped.
Mary Help of Christians Church was officially closed in May 2007, and the Salesians of St. John Bosco were removed. Since then, the church property has been under the administration of Immaculate Conception Church, and the church was used for one English Mass and one Spanish Mass every Sunday. The English Mass was discontinued over a year ago, and rumor has it that the Spanish Mass will soon meet the same fate.
According to Immaculate Conception Church, the property is now on the real estate market. (April 2012)