The Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in New YorkCity stands as a living memorial of the missionary vanguard of Franciscan friars from Europe who sailed to New York to care for the spiritual needs of the immigrants of the mid-19th century. Saint Francis Church and Friary have been intimately related to the birth and growth of both the Custody of the Immaculate Conception and the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, and the names of the friars who have labored faithfully and generously for the past 175 years in the spiritual oasis of the Big Apple are countless.
In the 1840’s, the West Side of New York City between 23rd Street and Times Square was a pleasant residential community of some 400 residents living along the Hudson River in the area known as Bloomingdale. Trees lined the streets and farms, and country estates dotted the lovely landscape. Many of the inhabitants were staunch Germans from Prussia, Bavaria, Bohemia, Austria, and Hungary. A large number of them were Catholics, who, if they wished to hear the word of God in their own language, had to trek to Saint Nicholas Church on East 2nd Street.
Early in 1840, the first Pastor of St. Nicholas Church, Father John S. Raffeiner, laid the cornerstone of a small frame church on West 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. The little church remained a mission of St. Nicholas parish until September 14, 1840 when a Hungarian Franciscan became its first Pastor. In the first baptismal register the friar identified himself as the “Reverend Zacharias Kung, O.S.F. Ref., of the Province of Our Lady of Hungary, a priest and missionary.”
Fr. Zachary Kunz had come to America with a few of his confreres at the urgent request of some American bishops who were concerned about the spiritual care of the newly arrived immigrants. He found his parishioners scattered along the banks of the Hudson River between 24th and 40th Streets. Six days after his arrival – on September 20, 1840 – the little church was dedicated and named in honor of St. John the Baptist. However, his pastorate was brief and stormy. Trusteeism, which was raising havoc in many parts of New York, quickly put an end to his missionary efforts. The rebellious conduct of the trustees reached such outrageous proportions that Bishop John Hughes felt obliged to place the church under interdict. The little church remained closed until 1845.
Fr. Zachary, heartsick over the divisions, and concerned about the welfare of the peaceful members of his parish, asked the bishop for permission to establish a new parish. The bishop consented to dividing the parish lines, and Fr. Zachary began his plans for a new parish church on West 31st Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
This is the first in a series of articles on the history of our parish which will be published throughout our 175th anniversary year. They are adapted from the writings of Fr. Flavian Walsh, O.F.M., Pastor from 1985-87.