St. Patrick’s Cathedral might be the most well known, but New York City boasts several churches with interesting histories. Here are five worth visiting. By Jessica Allen.
St. Mark’s Church has the distinction of not only being New York’s oldest site of continuous worship, but also the site on which Patti Smith launched her music career (indeed, her 1971 performance with Lenny Kaye was the first time an electric guitar was played inside the church). In the 1650s, the Stuyvesant family bought the land on which St. Mark’s now sits, and constructed a family chapel. Over the years, various artists, including Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, John Cage, and Yoko Ono, have used the space to host poetry readings, rock concerts, and dance festivals.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine has a great sense of humor, a terrific publicist, or both. Every October this massive, and as yet unfinished, Gothic church in Morningside Heights screens a classic silent horror film with live organ accompaniment, then welcomes a procession of devils, imps, and goblins through its nave. The intricately designed costumes and ominous musical score pay homage to Halloween’s serious roots as an opportunity to give evil a chance to come out and play in hopes that it will leave us in peace the rest of the year. If you’re not up for scary stuff, you can hang out with Phil, Jim, and Harry, the three peacocks who roam the grounds.
The Old Quaker Meeting House in Flushing, Queens, was built in 1694, and still has the original wood ceiling and floorboards. It’s one of the oldest houses of worship in the United States. In the 19th century, Flushing Quakers ran an active outpost of the underground railroad, ferrying slaves through Long Island and New York City to freedom. Patrick Healy, the first African American to earn a PhD in the United States, is believed to have attended primary school at the Meeting House as well.
According to campus lore, the bell tower at Fordham University Church inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write “The Bells,” a poem about the emotions and effects produced by different types of bells, including “Silver bells! / What a world of merriment their melody foretells!” In Poe’s honor, the bell is known as “Old Edgar Allan.” Finished in 1845, Old St. John’s (as it’s sometimes called, after John Hughes, the archbishop who oversaw its construction) served as a parish church for farms in the village of Fordham. The stained glass was donated by Louis Philippe, King of the French, but no one calls them “Old Louis’s Windows.”
Founded in 1841, and in its current building since the 1880s, the Church of the Most Holy Trinity casts a long shadow across its Brooklyn neighborhood. The French Gothic church looms over the low rises of Williamsburg, its grandeur and ornateness contrasting with the mundane aluminum-sided architecture of its half-working class, half-hipster surroundings. Bricked up passages in the basement suggest many mysteries, and the ghost of a sexton murdered in the vestibule is said to be one of several that haunts the property, his bloody handprint occasionally visible on a stairwell. More reliable are the great views from the church’s parapets.