New Apts to Rise Next to Chelsea Site that was First Black Catholic Church in NYC

The new owner of the historic St. Benedict the Moor Church plans to build a new 10-apartment residential complex at what was once a rectory where parish priests resided, with a $2.5 million renovation of the adjacent 140-year-old church building that was the site of the first Catholic black church north of the Mason-Dixon line.

| 10 Nov 2023 | 04:03

The new owner of several adjacent lots on West 53rd Street has filed plans to build a residential building on the grounds of the former Church of St. Benedict the Moor, the first Black Roman Catholic parish north of the Mason-Dixon line that traces its roots to 1883.

Aside from constructing a 10-apartment building, the new owner also plan to renovate the 140-year-old church building whose construction dates back to 1869, according to the NYC Department of Buildings records for lot 338-342 on W. 53rd St.

Kutnicki Bernstein Architects will be working on the project, according to the DOB filing. The new residential building will be at 340 W. 53rd St., where there currently is a three-story rectory, built in 1965, where parish priests used to reside. It will have a footprint of 3,575 square feet and stand seven stories tall, with one to two apartments per floor and a community facility on the ground floor.

As for the adjacent church building, which was deconsecrated by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York in 2017, the filing describes plans to alter the existing building’s facade, as well as to enlarge its cellar and mezzanine. Daniel Bernstein of Kutnicki Bernstein Architects told W42ST that the firm has “endeavored to maintain the historic character of [the church’s] facade.” The renovation is estimated to cost $2.5 million.

Bernstein also said that the building will “remain a house of worship.” It appears that it will not be affiliated with the Catholic Church: the Archdiocese of New York “no longer has any involvement at the former Saint Benedict the Moor Church,” Joseph Zwilling, their spokesman, told Straus News. Kutnicki Bernstein Architects has not responded to our request for comment.

The Department of Buildings work plan was submitted by Shirley Wang, as Crain’s New York first reported last week. She is one half of the philanthropist couple whose nonprofit, JMM Charitable Foundation, purchased the church lot this March for $16 million in all cash — over $2 million above fair market value, according to court records. The sale agreement stipulated that future uses of the site could not harm the reputation of the Church of St. Benedict the Moor.

The developers
Shirley and her husband, Walter Wang, each made their fortune in manufacturing. Shirley is CEO of Plastpro Inc., a fiberglass door manufacturer, while Walter is the CEO of JM Eagle, the largest plastic pipes manufacturer in the world. He is also the son of Wang Yung-ching, the late plastics tycoon whose family is among the richest in Taiwan. Shirley Wang also sits on the board of directors for Douglas Emmett, a Los Angeles and Honolulu-based real estate trust.

The couple is also known for their philanthropic ventures, which have largely been in education, public health, and Asian American issues. Last year, they donated $11 million to Columbia University. JMM Charitable Foundation, Inc. reported over $43.5 million in total assets in 2020.

The Wangs have described their Christian faith as a primary motivation for their philanthropy. They are members and supporters of the Bel Air Church in Los Angeles.

The sale deed shows that the property of St. Benedict the Moor Church was purchased through God’s Providence LLC., which was registered to the JMM Charitable Foundation’s address in Los Angeles.

The first Black Catholic Church north of the Mason-Dixon line
“The drab neighborhood under the elevated line on West Fifty-third Street witnessed a colorful scene as high dignitaries from the church, dressed in vestments of gold, white, and crimson, marched ... to the newly decorated church at 342 West Fifty-third Street,” wrote a reporter for the New York Times, in a 1933 article about the 50-year celebration of the Church of St. Benedict the Moor.

The church was first established in 1883, and it found a home on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. It was named after Saint Benedict, who was born to enslaved Africans in Sicily. The Rev. Thomas Farrell, a pastor of St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue, had died three years before, and left in his will $5,000 for the founding of a Black church. “I believe that the white people of the United States have inflicted grievous wrong on the colored people of African descent, and I believe that Catholics have shamefully neglected to perform their duties toward them,” he wrote. The church was his act of reparation.

“The dedication of this church marks the beginning of an active movement in the Catholic Church to draw into its fold the entire African race on the continent,” wrote a reporter at the New York Times, about its opening day in November, 1883.

As the city’s Black population migrated north, the parish followed. In 1898, the church moved into the former site of the Second German Church of the Evangelical Association — its current location on West 53rd Street. The parish’s boundaries stretched farther than normal, extending to Brooklyn and Newark.

The St. Benedict the Moor Church was the “intellectual center of the New York Negro,” wrote Hubert Harrison, the early 20th-century “father of Harlem radicalism.” Other notable parishioners include Harlem Renaissance writer Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and journalist John Edward Bruce. The first known Black American seminarian in history, William Augustine Williams, had served as a sacristan at the parish, notes the Black Catholic Messenger.

As Black communities moved further uptown, so did the congregation, which relocated to Harlem in 1921. In 1953, the Archdiocese of New York reassigned the church to a Spanish order of Franciscans, and it became the Church of San Benito and had largely Hispanic attendees, according to David Dunlap, author of “From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.”

In recent years, the church has ceased to be an active place of worship. In 2017, the Archdiocese of New York deconsecrated the property, citing in a decree “the immense financial burden to repair and to maintain the building and the lack of parochial resources.” The property became available for “profane but not sordid use.” The neighborhood’s community board sought landmark designation for the building in 2019, though to no avail.

Community members may be relieved to hear that the new owners intend to maintain the church building’s historic character, though specific plans are yet to be publicly known.