Places that Matter

Mary Help of Christians Church

click on image for slideshow
Mary Help of Christians church, 2012
Mary Help of Christians church, 2012
Mary Help of Christians church, 2012
Mary Help of Christians School, 2012
East Village church established by the Salesian order
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

In November 1898, three priests from the order of the Salesians of St. John Bosco arrived in New York City. They came from Turin at the request of Archbishop Michael Corrigan, who sought to provide spiritual guidance and religious services for New York’s growing Italian immigrant population. After ministering from several existing Lower Manhattan churches, the Salesians finally settled in the East Village, and in 1911, completed the lower chapel of their own Mary Help of Christians Church. Located at 436 East 12th Street, Mary Help of Christians added a larger upper church in 1917, and the attached parochial school, which fronts on East 11th Street, offered its first classes in the fall of 1926. After over one hundred years of service, Mary Help of Christians will hold its final Mass Sunday, September 9, 2012.

St. John Bosco (known in Italian as Don Bosco) founded the Salesian order in Turin in 1859. As industrialization rapidly changed labor and living standards, Bosco saw increasing numbers of abandoned youth going to jail, walking the street or being abused as menial laborers. To keep children busy during their free time, Bosco established a youth center with a strong religious flavor. Bosco named the center for St. Francis De Sales, whom he eventually honored as the order’s patron saint. In Roman Catholicism, each religious order or congregation has its own charism, or divinely inspired calling to fulfill a specific need (youth work, medical care, prayer, missionary outreach, etc). The Salesian’s charism is council and education for poor and abandoned children (when Pope John Paul II stayed in Krakow, he got caught up in the Salesian spirit, which inspired him to found World Youth Day). 
 
In the mid-19th century, the Salesians found ample work in Italy, Spain and Latin America, but community need often outpaced the supply of priests. In the United States, Salesians were often sent to Italian neighborhoods because they spoke community members' native language. They ministered to all age groups, but here, as elsewhere, the Salesians frequently established youth outreach programs, including schools and community day centers. 
 
When the first three Salesians arrived in New York City in 1898, the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church on 14th Street found them an apartment on East 12th Street amidst a large Italian residential population. The priests began working from the basement of St. Brigid’s on East 8th Street, and they went door to door to announce their services. In anticipation of their first Christmas Mass, the Salesians worried that St. Brigid’s basement could only accommodate eight hundred worshippers. To their surprise, just twelve people showed up. 
 
The community came around when they realized that they could relate to the Italian-speaking priests, and by Easter Sunday, Mass attendance had grown to 600 people. With new Italian families steadily arriving in neighborhood, the Salesians began to lobby for their own parish. In 1902 they were given the Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street. However, the East Village Italian community was not pleased with this arrangement, and their successful petitioning reunited the Salesians with East 12th Street, where an Italian parish was incorporated in 1908. 
 
The parish initially worshipped in the Chapel of Mary Help of Christians, located in a tenement building on the north side of the block. As they soon required more space, the Archdiocese made the ample Eleventh Street Cemetery available to the Salesians, who completed the lower chapel of Mary Help of Christians Church in 1911.  They made do with the basement until 1918, when the larger upper chapel was completed to the designs of Nicholas Serracino, an architect then favored by the Archdiocese. The total cost of church construction was $86,122, and the names of all who donated $500 or more were contained in the cornerstone. Serracino’s church design was based on that of Turin’s Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, and Gaetano Capone’s mural of the patroness was also modeled on a picture in the Turin Basilica.
 
In 1920, Father Paul Zolin started planning for a parochial school, which was completed in 1925 and opened the following school year. The Salesian Sisters, who arrived in the United States in 1908, staffed the Mary Help of Christians School while living first on East 11th Street, and then across East 12th Street from the church. According to priest and historian Father Mike Mendl, Salesian schools have their own charism. Based on the teachings of De Sales, the sisters of Mary Help of Christians embraced the mantra, “Reason, Religion, Kindness.” Punishments are minimized, and “the idea is that you let kids know that you care about them,” Father Mendl explains. “You let the kids have lots of recreational activities, and you get out there and take part in the activities. It’s not just administrative. You love what they love, so you can help them to love what you love.”
 
Between the church building, the abutting rectory, the school and a large playground on Avenue A, Mary Help of Christians occupies a large swath of valuable East Village property. But Mary Help of Christians is more than a sum of these parts, or its precious real estate. For generations of East Villagers, Mary Help of Christians has been the hub of the community, and, in many ways, it has provided the functions of a little city. As lifelong parishioner Janet Bonica says, “today, society is very transient. Back then, there were neighborhoods. Really, you grew up with the people, and you went to church together, and you went to school together, and everything you did was affiliated with the church’s different activities.”
 
Bonica’s grandfather landed in New York City from Sicily the month before the first three priests arrived. He came as a nine year-old boy, and the Salesians were at the center of the rest of his life. He and Bonica’s grandmother were married in the Chapel of Mary Help of Christians in 1909. His children and grandchildren all took Communion and were confirmed at Mary Help of Christians. 
 
Bonica’s father grew up on the corner of 11th Street and Avenue A, and her mother was raised on Avenue A between 9th and 10th Streets. They too were married at Mary Help of Christians, and when they moved to St. Marks Place, where Janet was born, "it was kind of a different world, a very Polish neighborhood,” Bonica recalls, “but you wouldn’t think of going to another church. Mary Help was the Italian parish. This was where we walked - you walked to your parish. It was your home.” Bonica’s family went to Mary Help of Christians for Sunday Mass and on holy days, and even before she and her younger brother attended the school, they were involved with numerous church-related activities. So was the rest of the community.
 
“One of the priests started the Mary Help of Christians drama company,” Bonica says. “He used to put on fabulous productions - it was like going to an off-Broadway show. He did Jesus Christ Superstar, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Godspell…God, he did that so many times! And when they did Evita, Dominic, who owned the funeral home on the corner, lent them a coffin for the show!”
 
Pageantry, parades and festivals were a significant part of the church’s public outreach. Of particular significance was the May procession on the Feast of Mary Help of Christians. “There used to be a real big procession in the neighborhood,” Bonica remembers fondly. “With all the children. And they would have a band, with the boy scouts and majorettes marching. All the old women would process around the neighborhood, and they would have the May crowning in the church.” Parishioners walked through the streets carrying the statue of the Madonna, and men carried open bed sheets to catch money thrown from upstairs windows. 
 
Bonica discusses the May bazaar, which was held in the school’s playground, and her experience of attending middle school with equal zeal. “The three years that I was here at the school were the best years of my life. And even though I only went to the school here for three years, I went to this Catholic catechism as a public school student. I was always here. This, my whole being, was here. Everyone I knew. Everybody belonged to Mary Help of Christians.”
 
With Masses in multiple languages, the church has ministered to a range of local ethnic groups over the years. Late evening services, followed by potlucks and volleyball games, have catered to busy student worshippers and young professionals. The school, a day care center and community house have provided care, education and guidance to neighborhood children, and a food pantry and flea market have supplied meals and affordable clothing and household goods to the community. “The food pantry started with people ringing a bell and asking the priest for a sandwich, or something else to eat,” Bonica explains. And she says that the flea market, which began in the mid-1990s, was wildly popular even beyond the church community. Parish members donated items for sale and proceeds from those transactions went to the church. But independent vendors, who regularly rented tables from the church, made a significant profit off their own sales. “People were buying really great stuff at really low prices. And some of the vendors relied on the market.”
 
In 2005 the Archdiocese of New York announced its decision to redistribute many of its resources from the city to outer counties, where a large percentage of the Catholic constituency has migrated over the last few decades. Mary Help of Christians was one of several churches slated to close. Bonica remembers how she found out about the closure. “My mother called me at work - and my mother had a hearing problem, she was practically deaf! So she called me at work and she said, ‘I saw it on the news, they’re gonna close MHC!’ And I said, ‘No, you’re wrong.’ And she’s arguing with me, and I said, ‘No, you didn’t hear that, you’re wrong!,’ and she said to me, ‘I read the captions!’”
 
Some believe that the Mary Help of Christians property is earmarked for sale to a private developer, but these suspicions have not been confirmed. Although parishioners appealed to religious and political officials, the school was closed in 2006, and the church held its last Mass as an independent parish in on the Feast of Mary Help of Christians in May 2007. The Archdiocese kept the church open for Mass on Sunday - one in English and one in Spanish - but the English Mass was discontinued in 2010. 
 
When asked to identify her favorite part of the Mary Help of Christians complex, Bonica says sadly, “I don’t even know how to explain the feeling that you get when you’re inside the church building. I mean, I know this place better than I’ve ever known anything in my life. And I guess I miss the murals, but it’s just a feeling about the whole thing. I can’t put a finger on it. I can’t tell you how many Sundays I go in just to take a look around.” The murals recalling the Turin Basilica were taken down and given to a Salesian high school in New Rochelle. Although the parishioners will be accommodated at other churches, there is no telling what will happen to the assemblage of Mary Help of Christians structures that four generations of East Villagers helped to build. The hopeful closing to one parishioner’s September 2012 email may offer the only solution to the fears of the unknown, “Please continue to pray for a miracle. With God, all things are possible.”