It was the 1970’s and New York was in all its ruined, decrepit, life-threatening glory. There were piles of garbage everywhere, burnt out, gutted buildings, rent-strike signs and prostitutes casually strolling Eleventh Avenue. And in those days, pimps were pimps—they wore day-glow, double-knit polyester suits, plumed hats and unspeakable shoes, their eyes sharp and their broad-collared shirts open to their navels.

In those days, rather than air-headed actresses, our celebrities were mass murderers. Who, having lived through the terror he induced, could forget Son of Sam? Columbus Avenue was blighted, and heroin addicts slept blissfully in building vestibules. It was the New York of the Blackout, the transit strike and the garbage strike. In the midst of this chaos, however, existed, for my family and me, a jewel, an oasis: St. Vincent de Paul Church, the French church of New York.

Every Sunday morning at about 10, we left the Upper West Side for mass. I would pull myself away from Scooby-Doo, put on my Sunday dress and my makeup (which consisted of Chapstick and stolen drops of my mother’s perfume), and get into our blue Buick. We were never late because mass in French at St. Vincent de Paul meant too much to my parents, Haitian immigrants who, after a week of slamming themselves against the wall of a new language, needed the respite and comfort of their own language.

The pews were always filled with French speakers of every description. My mother, in her Creole earrings, sat with my father and me in a pew a bit behind a row of older ladies in the traditional head gear of Brittany. And since St. Vincent de Paul was a French church, its coffee hours were never really coffee hours but wine-and-cheese receptions. It was smelly cheeses and baguettes, rather than the bologna on white I ate at American churches.

Those memories fill my mind as I think about the struggles of the past few years, ever since the Archdiocese in 2002 included St. Vincent de Paul, whose location has since become valuable Manhattan real estate, on its list of parishes to close — a list now under review by the new Archbishop of New York, according to the New York Times.

I think not only of my own life at St. Vincent de Paul but of all those that went before me, in particular that of the man who started it all in pre–Civil War New York, Father Annet Lafont.

There is a lot to be said for not minding your own business. In the 1700s, William Wilberforce, an English gentleman, refused to mind his own business and brought the institution of slavery to its knees. In the early 1840s, a little French missionary priest named Annet Lafont refused to mind his business and established a church that has been a beacon of racial tolerance and equality for mre than 160 years. We are presently fighting to preserve his legacy as well as the magnificent building that houses his vision.

The story begins in the 1830s, when word got back to the French religious leaders of the day that the French Catholics in New York were leaving the church in droves. Unwilling to sit through sermons in English, they opted to attend French Protestant services or not go to church at all. Alarmed at this trend, the Archbishop of Nancy preached a mass in French at St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, urging the French to establish their own church, like the Germans and the Italians, had in order to strengthen their community and family ties, and create a visible link to France for their rapidly Americanizing children. The French heeded the call, and by 1841 the French had their own church on Canal Street, St. Vincent de Paul. In the 1850s, the parish moved to its present location in Chelsea, on West 23rd Street.

The pastor of the church was Annet Lafont, a French priest from the order of the Fathers of Mercy, a French Missionary order. By all accounts, he was an extraordinary leader. He founded orphanages in New York City and Tarrytown, homes for the elderly and young women’s residences, and what is now known as Manhattan College grew from his parish school. Chronically short of funds, he accomplished all this, it seems, from sheer force of will.

Father Lafont, however, was not content simply to mind his own flock. In a document celebrating the centenary of the Fathers of Mercy, we are told that “Father Lafont was moved by the truly pitiable condition of the Negroes in New York. They could hold no real estate, were permitted in no public vehicle or place of amusement, and when traveling, they had to use a special car which was little better than those for cattle, and they suffered many indignities and acts of oppression.” Though this list of sociological and legal facts gives us an indication of the poor conditions in which Blacks lived in this city, nothing is more startling than reading eyewitness accounts of the mental and physical violence they daily suffered. In an 1846 letter to Paris describing life in New York and the work of Father Lafont, a Frenchman, Henry de Courcy, gives us just such a first hand account of daily life in the antebellum years:

Unfortunately, emancipation was not followed by what would have given it value, a semblance of equality, and today, forty-seven years after abolition of slavery, the population of color is not less held in contempt than a century ago. The blacks are citizens, but if they want to exercise their political rights, a riot chases them from the balloting places. They are Christians, but when they go into a church, the whites turn them out of doors…. Last winter, I found myself on a trolley that crosses the entire length of New York. It was snowing abundantly, and I was enjoying the comforts of the train which had a warm stove. The train stopped, and an old crippled black man, who was with difficulty leaning on a stick, stepped onto the train. He looked around the car and saw that it was occupied by three debonair gentlemen, so he sat modestly by the door. At that moment, a woman of the people got into the car. She was some grocer’s wife or tavern mistress, but she had the honor of being white. She looked the poor pariah up and down and called the conductor. But the black man beat a hasty retreat and, in his rush, let fall his crutch.

Thus, while slavery was officially over, contempt, hatred and cruelty were still doing a swift business. Blacks were nothing more than chattel, viewed as and treated like sub-humans and subject to any and every indignity that the society at large chose to mete out. By extending his hand to African-Americans, Father Lafont had nothing to gain and everything to lose—he had to fight the community at large as well as his own congregation to do what he knew to be right and what he knew to be just. Though they were not French, and often not Catholic, though they were of a different color and often spoke a different language, and though, in short, they were none of his business, Father Lafont did his greatest work among people of African descent, and the fruits of that work can be felt 160 years later in the life and ministry of St. Vincent de Paul church.

Father Lafont’s response to what he observed was swift and radical. The author of the centenary history of Father Lafont’s order, the Fathers of Mercy, tells us, “He was the first white men (sic) in the Northern States who dared to open a school for [children of African descent], asserting that ‘they must receive the same moral and mental training as the white children.’ When the white families threatened to remove their children from St. Vincent de Paul’s School, Father Lafont simply opened his own house to the children and became their teacher himself. Thus the establishment of a Catholic school for children of African descent and the racial integration of the parish took place about 70 years before they took place anywhere else in New York, when St. Mark the Evangelist parish in Harlem was integrated in 1912.

Father Lafont was not satisfied with reaching only the children. He also organized the St. Ann Society, the first black mission in New York. Through the society, the children and their parents were given weekly religious instruction classes in the basement of the church. And on Sundays was seen, “perhaps for the first time in the United States, the happy spectacle of both white and black approaching the altar of God, in the Church of St. Vincent de Paul, to partake of the Bread of Life of which Jesus Christ had said all must eat if they would not perish.” The New York Archdiocese itself recognizes the greatness of Father Lafont, describing him as “one of the most dynamic priests in the antebellum history of our diocese,” and goes on to tell us, “His pastoral skills as founder of the French parish, St. Vincent de Paul (first on Canal Street and later on West 23rd Street), as well as his strong social conscience were a benchmark for the clergy of the city.”

Yet as deep as the church’s social commitment was, it would not be French without a strong sense of “La Douceur de Vivre.” It would have been unnatural for a church established by the inventors of the bottom-exposing can-can, the high-heeled shoe and champagne to be high-minded all the time. It seems that for a long time, St. Vincent de Paul was a magnet for the French “beautiful people.”

In 1961, Edith Piaf (left), with Marlene Dietrich as her maid of honor, was married at St. Vincent de Paul.With breathtaking, star-studded pomp was also sung the funeral mass of Armand Castelmary, the opera singer who died onstage at the Met as he played Tristano in “Martha.” St. Vincent de Paul was also the site of a fundraiser in 1868, catered by Mrs. Delmonico of Delmonico fame, which one reporter prized for the chance of “viewing a large amount of French female beauty and elegance.” The family of Louis Keller, who had published the social register for 30 years prior to his death, chose the St. Vincent de Paul as the place in which to hold his funeral.

It was also the first church in New York to have a crèche scene at Christmas. Newspaper archives are rife with references to candle-lit ceremonies, organ concerts and society weddings taking place at the church.

More remarkable and more improbable than even this history is the fact that what Annet Lafont started never died. Father Lafont took the first step in what has been an uninterrupted legacy of racial and religious tolerance and social justice at St. Vincent de Paul. Parishioners of every description still fill its pews. After the Second World War, French Jewish refugee children found warmth and belonging at St. Vincent de Paul. In the 1960s and 1970s. Haitians persecuted by the regime of Duvaliet, including my parents, sought and found community at St. Vincent de Paul. Presently, the church is reaching out to embrace New York’s vast populations of French-speaking African immigrants.

When congregants established Save St. Vincent de Paul, Inc., we also established Carrefour Pastoral de la Francophonie to meet the spiritual and physical needs of French-speaking immigrants of every religion. We have a food pantry, a clothing-distribution center, a scholarship fund, parenting classes, an established and committed network of French-speaking volunteers to visit the abandoned or those alone in the hospital, home or prison, and immigration and battered women’s referral services. People of every extraction—African, Haitian, Swiss, Belgian, Canadian and French—and every economic level are involved in running and funding the programs.

St. Vincent de Paul is also a special place of remembrance. In the church, there is a memorial to French and American volunteers of the Lafayette Squadron and the American Field Service who died for France during World War I, and 337 French-American men who died during the two World Wars. Following World War II, the memorial was rededicated, in person, by Charles DeGaulle. Among those listed on the entablature are Antoine de St. Exupery, author of “The Little Prince,” and Charles Nungesser, the pilot. To this day, commemorative masses are celebrated for the veterans twice a year.

And just as the good works started by Father Lafont never perished, neither did the beauty. The church’s elegance now lies in its diversity and in its  unique, mixed African-and-French liturgy and worship, where African music regularly punctuates with its rhythms the classical French service.

As I write these words, our organization is still trying to stop the closure of St. Vincent de Paul Church, with the support of our local community board and elected officials. The Urban Environmental Law Center has just submitted, on our behalf, a new application to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, asking it to acknowledge the extraordinary history of our modest church and prevent its demolition. (The community board has actually proposed a possible third way, which would enable the Church to build on a portion of the property and thus gain financially while allowing us to continue to grow our church.)

Photo: Jefferson Siegel

It may look modest from the front, but the church is an irreplaceable piece of the past and the present, for French, African and African-American New Yorkers. It simply unites within itself too many of the elements that are central to what our beloved town is all about—architecture and art, multiculturalism and racial tolerance; beauty of form and beauty of spirit—to become only a thing of the past.

Olga Statz, J.D., LLM, is a lawyer who teaches legal writing and litigation skills. She lives in New York with her husband, daughter and parakeet.

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  • Br. Rory, FSC January 28, 2010 at 1:52 am

    A beautiful story and so well told. Thank you.

  • Elizabeth Hemmerdinger May 19, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    This is a wonderful piece, a window into experience I find really moving. I understand a little, but a lot more than I did, how a the possible loss of a place of such importance brings back memories and layers of community history. Thank you for sharing this with us.