A statue of the Virgin Mary stands outside “the UN church,” Holy Family Church in New York. Photo courtesy of Holy Family Church

New York church welcomes the UN

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • October 8, 2012

NEW YORK - It’s known as the United Nations church.

About halfway along 47th Street, just west of the UN’s iconic tower on First Avenue in Manhattan — and in an area known as Dag Hammarskjold Plaza — is Holy Family Church, a name that also reflects its long time roots in the city’s east side neigh­bourhood, where it also serves 500 families in the community.

The present Holy Family building, a stunningly beautiful modern structure, was dedicated by Cardinal Francis Spellman in 1965, just before Pope Paul VI’s visit to the UN in October of that year. A cornerstone commemo­rates an ecumenical meeting the pontiff held at the church. The parish actually dates to the 1920s when it was established as the church for the local Turtle Bay Italian neighbourhood.

The church plays a significant role in the UN community by housing the residence and office of the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, as well as offices of national and in­ternational UN-related Catholic organizations. The church’s dedi­cation was attended by then UN Secretary General U Thant. Holy Family continues to be the site of many UN religious observances.

“In fact just this past Monday we had a prayer service for the opening of the General Assembly,” Fr. Robert Robbins, the church’s pastor of 23 years, said in a late September interview. Ambassa­dors and UN personnel attended.

Robbins, a native of the Bronx who is leaving Holy Family for several new roles with the New York archdiocese, including director of community outreach, says the international flavour of the parish creates a unique community.

“It’s always interesting because what we have is a New York City parish which is also attempting to reach out to Catholic members of the UN with different cultural backgrounds, so each time something presents itself — for instance a memorial service or something like that — you’re going to get the mission in from Peru or some other country,” he said.

“It’s just very interesting trying to deal with the language differ­ences, the cultural differences, also the religious expression, because South American countries espe­cially have devotions that wouldn’t be known to us in North America.”

Parishioner Margie Skeels, a former parish council president who works with the UN Devel­opment Program, said being a member of the church “raises the level of my faith. Personally I have a chance to live my faith through the UN.”

The building is almost awe-inspiring in its architecture and art work — with sculptures, altars, stained glass and a unique presen­tation of the Stations of the Cross — created by various international artists, including a Canadian.

The original church was built on a stable because the area between First and Second Avenues once abounded in slaughterhouses. Some of that building is contained in the present structure.

The new church’s architect, George J. Sole, created a church symbolic of a stone monument and which partly harmonizes with the UN building itself. The exte­rior’s gray granite walls consist of panels with a cruciform pattern surrounded by four squares, rep­resenting a community gathered around Christ. The interior is spare, but that complements its breathtaking artistic details.

The altar is made from black granite quarried near the Canadian Arctic, behind which is a towering aluminum sculpture of the Risen Christ with a large testa or crown of lights. It, along with the statues at the two side altars, and the statue of the Virgin Mary in an outside garden next to the church, were made by the Italian studio of Nagni. The side altars represent themes of sacrifice, uni­versality and peace.

The west wall incorporates the related grouping of three large stained glass windows and three ceramic sculptures, referencing the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt with the dispossession of contem­porary refugees.

The Stations of the Cross, on the east wall, are one continuous set of sculpted images. In the 11th station, the sculptor has pressed into clay the tools used in the crucifixion. In the 12th, there is a reference to the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop to Christ hanging on the cross.

The stations, windows and ceramics are all from the studio of Catalan-born artist Jordi Bonet, who emigrated to Canada and worked from a studio in Montreal until his death in 1979. His sculp­tures can be seen as far afield as JFK airport in New York and the Pie-IX subway station in Montreal.

(Stang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)

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