“The necessity of hearing the Word of God in their own tongue, and of having their children taught the Christian doctrine in the tones familiar to them from the cradle, led the German Catholics to exert themselves to have separate churches where they could enjoy these advantages.” The first German Catholic church in New York City was founded in 1833 on the Lower East Side, St. Nicholas. But the German community was expanding further West, and they wanted a parish of their own. The area around West 31st Street near Seventh Avenue was described as being composed of “rude shanties” in a “rocky, swampy tract.”
The people erected a small frame church, which they named in honor of St. John the Baptist. The early years were tough, as the parish trustees butted heads with the first pastor, who founded a separate parish down the block, St. Francis of Assisi. In 1847, a fire burnt the church down. Bishop John Hughes dedicated the new church, and Father John Raffeiner, a German pastor in Brooklyn, delivered the main address in German. For the next twenty years the parish was served by German-speaking diocesan priests, until 1870. At that time, it seemed that the church, in great need of repair, might close down.
But Archbishop John McCloskey decided to reinvigorate the parish by sending a religious order to run it, German-speaking Capuchin Franciscans. McCloskey had already entrusted to their care the parish of Our Lady of Sorrows on Pitt Street. Father Bonaventure Frey, who helped bring the Capuchins to the United States in 1857, took charge of St. John the Baptist. A new Gothic-style church was erected on June 23, 1872, at a cost of $175,000. Representatives from German parishes across the city came to the ceremony. The sermon was again preached in German.
Abridged and edited for blogging purposes from John Gilmary Shea, The Catholic Churches of New York City (1878)