When the present Church of St. Vincent Ferrer was dedicated on May 5, 1918, three ambitious and interwoven dreams were finally realized. First, the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph (Eastern United States) saw the confirmation of a missionary venture that had first brought them to New York City in the mid-nineteenth century. From humble beginnings, their prayers and their preaching over several decades resulted in the construction of one of Manhattan’s most beautiful churches. Secondly, the internationally celebrated architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue delighted to see his ecclesiastical masterpiece put to prayerful use for the first time. He proudly commented in a letter to a one-time colleague, “I think St. Vincent Ferrer is my very best work.” Finally, the good parishioners of St. Vincent Ferrer had their faith and heroic generosity rewarded as they offered their first prayers in the great temple built from their gifts and sacrifices. Coincidentally, the date of the church’s dedication is now observed in the Dominican Order as the feast day of St. Vincent Ferrer.
The Dominican Fathers and Brothers were first charged with founding a parish in New York City in 1867. This commission resulted from the great popularity the friars had gained among New York Catholics. Their missions and preaching had long been favored in many of the city’s parishes. In recognition of their success, John Cardinal McCloskey, archbishop of New York and America’s first cardinal, asked these Dominican preachers to establish themselves permanently in the city by founding and serving a parish on the east side of Manhattan. This request marks the birth of St. Vincent Ferrer Parish. After borrowing $10,000, the Dominicans secured 18 lots of land measuring 200x225 feet on Lexington Avenue between 65th and 66th Streets. On this land, the six priests assigned to this new foundation oversaw the construction of a small chapel, and the first Mass was offered in it on September 8, 1867, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady. On November 10 of that year, the cornerstone was laid for a more substantial gothic church that was finally dedicated in December, 1879. This second church served the growing parish until 1914, when it was dismantled to make way for the present church. During the difficult years of the First World War, the friars and parishioners of St. Vincent’s worshipped in a temporary structure on East 67th Street while plans were finalized for the church we see and enjoy today.
Even before their 1914 decision to build
a new church, the Dominicans held in esteem several beautiful and prayerful
structures arising in the New York area, including St. Thomas Episcopal
Church on Fifth Avenue and the Cadet Chapel at West Point. They noted
that an architect named Bertram Goodhue was involved in both of these projects. Therefore,
in 1912, just after he left Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson to start his own
firm, Goodhue was chosen unanimously by the Priory Council to design and
build a church that would serve the increasing needs of the Dominican community
and parish. By 1915, the construction of the church was underway,
and already it was gaining a reputation in the city for its grace and beauty. Also
that year, a parish Church Building Association was organized to gather
funds and to decide which elements of the church—stained glass, sculptures,
etc.—would be added as funds became available. The Association
excelled in ensuring that no undue financial burden was placed on the parishioners. This
is just one example of the mutual respect and concern that all participants
of the project—clergy, laity, artists, and artisans—carried
for one another.
At the time of its construction, the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer was innovative in many ways. First, Goodhue’s plan for a Christocentric structure was epitomized by the stone Great Rood situated on the exterior of the church just above the main doors. It was carved by Lee O. Lawrie, at the time “America’s greatest sculptor,” and its installation at St. Vincent Ferrer marked one of the first times in America that a crucifixion scene was placed prominently on the facade of a church. Even today this remains a rare feature in American ecclesiastical architecture, although one may see it employed at another Dominican parish in Manhattan, St. Catherine of Siena on East 68th. Secondly, the Dominican commitment to preaching was honored by making St. Vincent Ferrer the only church in the country fitted with Guastivino acoustic tiling. The newspaper coverage of the 1918 dedication commented on its effect, saying, “as a result, the preachers’ voice is heard distinctly in every corner of the edifice, while the music is diffused in such a way as to appear to come from no one particular point.” Thirdly, under Goodhue’s direction, all of the windows were planned to complement one another. The position of the reds and blues was arranged so that, in direct sunlight, the windows in dominant blues would interact beautifully with the opposite windows that showcase warm reds and golds. The master craftsman Charles Connick created a majority of the windows. Finally, in regard to the Stations of the Cross, the precedent established in the Dominican shrines of Spain was continued. Instead of statuary or carvings, large oil paintings were used to depict the scenes of Christ’s via dolorosa. Goodhue decided that these stations should look as if they were old art pieces painted in different countries at different times. One effect of this technique is the ever-changing color of Christ’s robe as one moves from station to station. Telford Paullin and his wife, Ethel, were chosen to create the paintings.
As generations of Dominican clergy succeeded one another, and as the generosity of the parishioners only increased, the beautification of the church continued gradually according to the original 1915 plan. In 1931, one of the true treasures of St. Vincent’s was finally installed—the High Pulpit. Composed of quartered oak and formed according to a fourteenth-century gothic style, the High Pulpit continues even today, particularly on Sundays, to enthrone the preaching of the Gospel. Later in the 1960’s, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council heralded adjustments to the Church’s liturgical life, and subsequently as the ancient Dominican Rite gave way to the reformed Roman Rite, the sanctuary of St. Vincent’s was reconfigured and a new altar of sacrifice was erected, in two stages, at the front of the choir. This is the altar used for Mass today, while the Blessed Sacrament continues to be reserved on the magnificent High Altar at the back of the sanctuary.
Today, as the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer approaches its 100th birthday, improvements to the church continue to be added. In the early days of the current decade, a joint commitment of the clergy and laity of St. Vincent’s ushered forth a new era of sacred music in the parish. Hundreds of hours of dedicated volunteer work, together with a generous anonymous gift, served to provide the church its masterful Schantz pipe organ, which accompanies the accomplished choir that sings at the noon Mass on Sundays. Other projects also gain the enthusiastic support of today's generous parishioners. For example, a 2006 capital campaign led to the installation of a new heating and cooling system. Though more practical and less interesting, gifts like this one serve to protect the treasures housed inside the church, and in so doing they help to secure future decades of solemn Dominican worship and preaching in the heart of New York City.
This brief history of the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer can convey to its readers only little of the magnificence of this grand structure. To experience its full beauty, the humble soul must enter its doors for a quiet moment of prayer or the communal celebration of the Eucharist. Like the great medieval cathedrals of Europe, this gothic church at the corner of Lexington and 66th stands as a “gospel in stone and stained glass and wood,” a testament to faith and a contemporary retelling of salvation history. Like all of the great churches of history, it was built by and for prayer, and it continues today to be built up and improved by the love and commitment of those who come here to pray and offer their sacrifices to God.