Field Trip Friday: Church of St. Francis Xavier

Last month, OHNY staffers Jessica and Hae-In took a tour of the Church of Saint Francis Xavier, one of the new sites in this past October’s OHNY Weekend. The elaborate Neo-Baroque style church is located nearby the OHNY office in Chelsea, on West 16th Street.

New glass on the high altar

Patrick Brewis, Director of Stewardship, led the tour as well as the capital campaign to renovate and restore the Church, whose parish dates back to 1847. The campaign began in 2001 and EverGreene Architectural Arts and Thomas A. Fenniman Architect completed this extensive restoration project in 2010. Fenniman was recently internationally honored by Faith & Form: The Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art and Architecture, whose jurors commented: “This is a colossal restoration, an incredible undertaking. It is ambitious yet respectful. Every detail has been lavished with attention.”

Ceiling with restored murals and coffers

The restoration architect and artists worked on the conservation of the church’s 47 colorful murals, the restoration of its 35 plaster statues of saints, extensive stone and marble cleaning and repair, and on-site architectural paint conservation and decorative painting, including gold leaf lettering. Throughout the church, one particular theme is carried through the many carvings, moldings, glassworks and marble and that is the lily, the symbol of Christ’s resurrection and promise of eternal life.

In 1847, the Jesuit community in the village of Fordham, then part of Westchester County, established a school and church in Manhattan. After a few years, they built a simple, classical-style church on West 16th Street and named it St. Francis Xavier. St. Francis Xavier outgrew the space and in 1882 the new granite sanctuary was created. It was designed by the Irish-born architect Patrick Charles Keely, who designed hundreds of Roman Catholic churches.

New doors and stenciling for the entry portico

The interior follows the plan of many Roman Catholic churches, a Latin cross with a high domed crossing and carved plaster ornament and scene paintings depicting the life of Jesus. The stained glass windows, however, feature pure geometric shapes in brilliant colors instead of religious imagery which is more common. These were all cleaned and re-leaded as part of the restoration process, allowing for light to really illuminate the sanctuary again.

Evidence of the restoration

Before the tour, Patrick showed the staff many ‘before’ images, showing the damage to the plaster and murals that had become barely visible. On the tour, Patrick pointed out all the restored and renovated elements throughout the space and described their transformation in detail, including the moving of the former high altar, which was moved forward; new and improved accessibility ramps; a new Baptismal Font and Confessional Room; repairing and refinishing all the wooden pews; cleaning the interior, including the Italian marble and terrazzo floors; and restoring the murals and reinstalling historic lighting.

Lighting from the upper level helps showcase the murals

He also took the staff to the upper gallery running around the sanctuary, where the refurbished organ and pipes were relocated. The balcony used to be accessed by Jesuit priests and students in the school next door via a second-floor catwalk so that they could participate in private Masses, separate from the public. Overlooking the interior space below, new modern lighting was also added on this level to better highlight the murals and detail.

Church apse

A multi-million dollar project, the result of all this extensive work can now be enjoyed their 3,000 parishioners and Patrick is currently working on putting together a documentary about the entire process, which will premier in April 2011. In addition, OHNY will be offering a year-round program tour of the space in early February of next year, so stay tuned for that!

Church of St. Francis Xavier
46 West 16th Street, New York, NY


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