St. Augustine Church, Bronx, New York, 1878

St. Augustine Church, Morrisania, as seen in the year 1878.


A FEW years since a portion of Westchester County was detached from it and united to the City of New York. This causes us to include among the city churches some which were formerly regarded as country parishes. Among these is the parish of St. Augustine, Morrisania. The Catholics in that part of Westchester County were attended from St. Paul’s Church at Harlem, but in 1855 the Rev. Stephen Ward was sent to establish a mission and erect a church, to afford the faithful greater advantages for the practice of their religious duties and the education of their children. There were many difficulties, but in 1858 he secured ground for a site, and prepared to erect a church after the designs of Mr. H. Engelbert, a skillful architect. It was to be of brick,with brown stone facings, and to be fifty-one feet by one hundred feet in length.

The Most Reverend Archbishop Hughes laid the cornerstone on Sunday, the 12th of September, 1858. After the conclusion of the prescribed ritual, the Archbishop addressed the large audience joyfully gathered to witness the auspicious commencement. His text was from the first Epistle of St. Paul to Timothy, iv. 1: “Now the Spirit manifestly saith that in the last times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to spirits of error and doctrines of devils.” He said that they had all come there to witness a ceremony— a religious ceremony— which would appear to many a new one:

It will be reported in the papers merely as a material ceremony, and the world cannot comprehend the use of such a one; but we have the text of Scripture for it— the authority of the Holy Catholic Church. We all know that the first man and woman transgressed, and that the material world was cursed in consequence; that the Son of God was sent to redeem the world, and that the Church has power to redeem some portion of this earth from this curse. The Church with her prayers has appointed this portion of ground to the worship of God. The sanctity of the prayers has taken the original malediction from this ground.

This parish honor roll was published in 1878. Click on it for a closer look, and notice the proliferation of Irish names.

Before he closed the Archbishop said that he wished to revive an old custom. He did not wish any collection made among the people present, but wished to see them come up in order and lay their offerings on the cornerstone itself. He valued the custom much. The faithful, with the utmost order, responded, and as each passed the stone, he made it in some sense his own by his contribution.

The Rev. Mr. Ward went bravely on, and in 1860 completed his church. It is in the Lombardo-Italian style, with three entrances, and a spire 125 feet high. There are two sacristies and an organ gallery across the west end. All the windows are of stained glass, presented by members of the congregation. In the windows over the altar you behold Our Lord and His Blessed Mother, while those on either side show the figures of St. Peter and the holy patron of the church, St. Augustine. The Church is large enough to seat a thousand persons, and cost fifteen thousand dollars.

That solemn dedication ceremony was accordingly performed on the 30th of September, 1860, by the Rev. Francis McNeirny, now Bishop of Albany. The Rev. Mr. Ward continued his labors among the flock whom he had gathered around the altar of St. Augustine, till his death, June 22, 1863, at the age of sixty-three. He was succeeded by a younger priest, the Rev. J. P. Woods, born and educated in New York, full of zeal, never sparing himself in labors for the good of his people. After being a faithful priest and father to his flock, he died prematurely, on the 20th of January, 1875, broken down by his constant and holy toil.

Father John J. McNamee served as Pastor of St. Augustine’s from 1875 to 1878, when the book from which this excerpt is taken was published. Until the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 (a national gathering of the American Bishops), many Catholic priests wore civilian garb as did Protestant ministers. 

The present pastor of St. Augustine’s Church was born in the County Longford, Ireland, on the 12th of September, 1847. From his boyhood, his early inclination was evinced in unmistakable signs to be not for
this world, but for the service of God. This vocation was not lost. He was educated for the priesthood in St. Mell’s Seminary, Longford, and there made choice of America as the field in which he hoped to spend his priestly career. Having come to this country in 1864, he entered the College of the Society of Jesus, at Worcester, Massachusetts, where he was graduated with honors in 1866.

He immediately proceeded to St. Joseph’s Seminary, in Troy. On the 22d of May, 1869, he was promoted to the priesthood. The first field assigned to the young priest was the position of assistant at St. Mary’s Church, Clifton, Staten Island, where he remained till November, 1871. He was then called to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he discharged the laborious duties of assistant till the 15th of February, 1875. The experience acquired under a venerable priest in a country parish was thus increased by experience as assistant at the Cathedral. On the death of the Rev. Mr. Woods, the Rev. Mr. McNamee was chosen pastor of the Church of St. Augustine.

From John Gilmary Shea, ed., The Catholic Churches of New York City, With Sketches of Their History and Lives of the Present Pastors: With an Introduction on the Early History of Catholicity on the Island, and Lives of the Most Reverend Archbishops and Bishops (New York: L. Goulding, 1878), 195-201.

PLEASE NOTE: The above has been edited slightly in the interests of blogging brevity.

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