By Terri Cook
The Irish dockworker’s life revolved around the river, his family, and his church. St. Veronica’s Church on Christopher Street was his church. Longshoremen would attend early mass in the sanctuary before heading to the docks where the work was physical and not without danger. Oral historians tell of hearing the thump of these workers’ baling hooks as they knocked against the church’s wooden pews. Memories of the longshoremen were also left in the church’s celebratory journal ads.
The parish was founded in 1887 in a warehouse at the corner of Washington and Barrow Streets. At that time, the area was bursting with Irish longshoremen and their children, as well as some Spanish and Italian immigrants. Bohemians were drifting in and opening art and literary galleries while affluent American businessmen of the day resided in townhouses. The farther west you went, the poorer the people and the poorer the housing became.
By 1890, the present site for St. Veronica’s had been purchased and a lower church dedicated. It would take another 13 years to collect funds for the upper church that is still utilized today. When the congregation dedicated its new sanctuary in 1903, members celebrated by taking a ferry ride up the North River—the name they always used for the Hudson. Many local merchants celebrated with them and advertised in St. Veronica’s dedication journal.
St. Veronica’s, with its Gothic Revival and Victorian touches, was designed by local architect, John Deery, as a square sanctuary with the footprint of a classic Roman church. Since the interior was opened before the advent of electricity, original skylights still light the nave. The Dove of Peace Oculus graces the ceiling, half-moon windows were placed over the side altars, and a stained-glass skylight filters colorful light into the baptistry.
It was a poor community; therefore, the congregation could not afford to renovate the sanctuary. They left gas jets on the back wall and hat hooks in the pews—a reminder of when men wore fedoras.
Golden marble columns contained faux finishes (scagliola) to resemble marble. Plaques from World War I, and the wars that followed, list the names of the boys who served and died in the armed forces, and identify the streets on which they lived. A two-tiered balcony reveals more neighborhood history. An upper tier once held St. Veronica’s elementary school children who first attended a school located on Leroy Street in 1897. A new building was constructed by the parish in 1905 on Barrow and Washington Streets, and would graduate its last class in 1963. Today, it’s the private Village Community School.
The balcony’s lower tier, that used to accommodate the parishioners’ overflow, is now the AIDS Memorial—a permanent remembrance of the time when AIDS was decimating the neighborhood’s gay community, and nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital was the neighborhood’s epicenter. Visitors still drop by to read the plaques and remember their friends.
While the history of the waterfront still lives within these walls, St. Veronica’s has also been the sanctuary of an Ecuadorian group and its patroness, Our Lady of Quinche (since 2005). This is the group’s third home since its last eviction from St. Ann’s Cathedral on East 12th Street, which was sold to New York University.
Since St. Veronica’s is located within an historic district, the present congregation was sure that it would survive as a living sanctuary. However, on April 29, 2017, the group was surprised by a letter stating that the sanctuary was closing on June 25th, the day of the Gay Pride Parade.
A committee has been formed that will examine several options and write a financial plan to be submitted to the Archdiocese. Members welcome the community to join them in petitioning the Archdiocese to consider an alternative to locking up their living history book, as well as locking out the community, from St. Veronica’s Church.
Terri Cook is the author of Sacred Havens: A Guide to Manhattan’s Spiritual Places; and Sacred Havens of Brooklyn: Spiritual Places and Peaceful Grounds. She was a member of St. Veronica’s Church until the service schedule was reduced. Currently, Cook leads neighborhood tours through Manhattan and Brooklyn. Join Cook’s mailing list by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.