October 5, 2018

Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood

Photos by New York Scugnizzo
Reprinted from the October 2018 Craco Society Bulletin
The Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood at 113 Baxter Street between Canal and Hester streets has a historic connection to Cracotans.
The building exterior was completed in 1904. Beginning in the latter part of the 19th Century, when Italian immigrants settled in lower Manhattan in the early 1900s, they formed a neighborhood eventually known as Little Italy. Italian immigrants were shunned by the established churches and forced to worship in makeshift areas in basements. Recognizing the situation, in 1888 the Vatican established a National Parish to serve the rapidly growing population. A group of Scalabrini Fathers of the St. Charles Borromeo Society were designated to form the Most Precious Blood Italian National Parish. Three years later, the Scalabrini Fathers had purchased land at 113 Baxter Street and commenced construction of the church.
Most Precious Blood Church
The Scalabrini Fathers began building the Lower Church in 1891 as an Italian Franciscan style structure. After construction began, the Scalabrini Fathers realized the enormity of the challenge and asked the Archdiocese to find another group to complete the construction. In 1894 the Archbishop approached the Provincial Minister of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, who were at the time building Saint Anthony of Padua Church on Sullivan Street.
The Franciscans agreed to assist with construction on the condition the debt would first be paid off before efforts to raise money for the Upper Church began.
After the basement level was roofed over, services were held below ground in what is now the basement hall, while funds were raised to complete the sanctuary. At the time, the church was baptizing around 2,000 babies every year and there were about ten weddings every Sunday. Finally, although the debt had been reduced only to $65,000, construction of the upper church began.
On July 7, 1901, Archbishop Corrigan laid the cornerstone for the Upper Church which contained U.S. and Italian coins, the names of the Archbishop, other clergymen and President William McKinley, and other documents. Three years later, in 1904, the infrastructure and basic interior elements of the church were completed. 
On April 17, 1904, the church building was dedicated in a ceremony with visiting clergy, civic and religious societies, parishioners and the Italian Rifle Guards. 
The Shrine Church of Most Precious Blood has some of the finest examples of sacred art in America. Its marble main altar and side altars, all with religious statuary, display marvelous craftsmanship by Borgia Marble Works of New York.
St. Francis with Dante Alighieri and Christopher Columbus 
by Donatus Buongiorno (1865-1935)
From 1914 to 1917, Donatus Buongiorno, an Italian immigrant from Solofra, Italy, Province of Avellino, designed the interior of the church in Neapolitan Baroque style. He sketched designs for stained glass windows which were paid for through the generosity of Italian immigrant individuals, businesses, and groups who became successful in America. Buongiorno, who trained at the then-Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Naples (today: Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli) in the 1880s, created the 30 oil painting murals of religious scenes on the church's walls and ceilngs, including five Crucifixion scenes behind the main altar and in the ceiling of the apse—referring to the church's name, Christ's blood upon Crucifixion—three saints depicted on the nave's ceiling, ten angelic putti in ceiling window vaults, two scenes from the life of Christ to the left and right of the main altar, five scenes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and five scenes from the life of Saint Anthony of Padua on the walls of the side aisles and above the two side altars—a tribute to patron saints of the Franciscan friars who staffed the church during most of its existence. Buongiorno and his works, including this church commission, have been listed in Who's Who in American Art since 1917.
By the late 20th Century, the building suffered from water leakage and general disrepair. A complete, two-year renovation was initiated in 1995. Oil paintings inside were restored, and the exteriors and interiors of the building were cleaned and repaired throughout. On February 7, 1997, the Church was reconsecrated.
Plaques from the rectory are being stored in the San Gennaro chapel
Since its merger with Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the Shrine Church of Most Precious Blood has experienced a renaissance. New groups were formed and along with traditional groups like the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza, and the Craco Society they now call the church their home. It is also home to the Vietnamese Arts and Learning Cultural Center, Alcoholics Anonymous and The Girl Scouts of Little Italy. While programs are ongoing, the Shrine Church of Most Precious Blood is again in need of repairs: major infrastructure, new building systems, air conditioning, renovation of the interior spaces of the church, rehabilitation of the basement, installation of an elevator and other major capital improvements are necessary. 
Recently, the rectory and courtyard in front of it on the Mulberry Street side of the building was sold. The statues and plaques in the courtyard were removed, with some being repositioned in front of the Baxter St. entrance of the church.