The missionary par excellence, Fr. Francis Koch, succeeded Fr. Ludger Beck as pastor but stayed less than two years. He had inherited a debt of $76,000 which he worked hard to reduce. The neighborhood was changing radically around Saint Francis Church. The modest frame buildings of the German residents were transformed almost overnight into theaters, taverns, saloons and dance halls. Behind the church on West 32nd Street was the famed house of prostitution known as “House of All Nations.” On the same street, closer to Sixth Avenue, was the infamous “Tenderloin Club” which gave its name to the district. On one wall, created out of discarded horse race tickets, were letters which spelled out “LOST HOPES.”
The people were all moving out and the parish appeared doomed as a spiritual center. Rumors circulated that the church might be closed and the site disposed of. The “Nightworkers’ Mass,” which was first offered at 2:30 AM on March 20, 1904, is given credit for turning the tide around when a new clientele began to pour through the doors of Saint Francis Church.
Father Francis Koch had initiated the “Nightworkers’ Mass” in response to the request of Mr. Thomas Meehan, a new correspondent of the Herald syndicate, who approached Fr. Francis in the name of 200 Catholic men who worked at The New York Herald. Fr. Francis was extremely tired after 29 years of ceaseless missionary work in America. At the “Night-workers’ Mass” on August 14, 1904 he announced his
decision to return to his old home in the friary of Fulda, Germany, and devote the rest of his days to quiet reflection in preparation for eternity.
“My life has been so filled with stirring scenes in the last 29 years, that I shall be glad of an opportunity for rest and quiet near the tomb of Saint Boniface,” he told his parishioners.
Fr. Francis sailed on the RMS Pannonia on November 15, 1904 with Bishops McDonnell of Brooklyn and Colton of Buffalo, who were on their way to the Holy Land and Rome. Fr. Francis carried with him an exquisite chalice presented to him as a gift from the New York “Nightworkers.” Fr. Francis did not remain inactive in Fulda for very long. He returned to America and worked for 15 more years, surpassing every other American priest in the number of churches which he built, primarily in northern New Jersey.
This series of articles on the history of our parish is adapted from the writings of Fr. Flavian Walsh, O.F.M., Pastor from 1985-87.