St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in New York City, the first Black parish north of the Mason-Dixon line, has been sold to a developer in a $16M deal.
The historic property in Hell’s Kitchen, which over its 154-year existence has hosted prominent Black Catholics from around the country, had been deconsecrated since 2017. The buyer is the JMM Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit associated with Taiwanese billionaire Walter Wang.
“'It was the first Catholic church [in NYC] to welcome Blacks and was always used to call attention to racial prejudices in America,” said the late Auxiliary Bishop Emerson Moore of New York in 1983, upon the church’s centennial.
“'This was the stepping stone for blacks from the Village to Harlem.”
The church by those years had become largely Hispanic, according to the New York Times, and had moved from its original location in Greenwich Village, where the congregation was founded in 1883. In the late 1890s, the current property was acquired for the Black Catholic group from a German Protestant congregation.
The golden years of St. Benedict the Moor soon followed, with thousands of registered members and a congregation made up of roughly 50% converts; the church served as a national parish for all the African Americans of the city.
Black Catholics and others also chose the parish for significant events, including the first stateside High Mass of Venerable Augustus Tolton, held at the original property following his 1886 ordination in Rome as the first openly African-American Catholic priest. Fr Norman Dukette, the first Black priest ordained in Detroit, assisted at the parish's golden jubilee Mass, held at the Hell's Kitchen location in 1933.
St. Benedict the Moor was also known to host “lyceums,” discussion groups that attracted Black luminaries such as Hubert Harrison, John E. Bruce, and Arturo Schomburg; by this, the church became known as the “intellectual center of the New York Negro.” The famed Black physician and diplomat John E. W. Thompson was counted among the church’s notable parishioners.
The first African-American Catholic seminarian in history, DC area native William Augustine Williams, moved to New York later in life and served as the parish sacristan at St. Benedict the Moor until his death in 1901. Like Tolton, he had been born a slave and was renowned upon returning to the US as a well-educated Black polyglot.
The nation’s third-oldest surviving order of Black nuns, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, was also connected to the parish, opening a nursery and convent there as well as operating an associated orphanage.
Though St. Benedict the Moor was at one point known as the most integrated within the New York archdiocese, within a few decades of its prime most of the neighborhood’s African Americans had moved to Harlem, portending the parish’s decline as a center of Black life.
By the turn of the millennium, the church was rumored for closure—a common fate for Black Catholic parishes following the religious decline of the late 20th century and the developments of desegregation. St. Benedict the Moor ceased operation as a worship site in 2007, and was deconsecrated a decade later.
Under the new purchase agreement, consented to by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York on January 6, the church itself must remain intact for at least 20 years, but can be repurposed for other (non-profane) uses. The fate of a New York City Landmark application for the church, filed in 2017, is unknown.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).