My Cross To Bear

st.alphonsus.cross The little white cardboard signs started appearing in store windows in my neighborhood about 1980.  “SAINT ALPHONSUS CHURCH IS SINKING”, they cried out in big block letters.

The foundation of the church, which had been built in 1870, to serve German Catholics living in the area, was slowly sinking into a stream-bed near Canal Street. One should not build large buildings atop former drainage canals, even if God is the owner of the property.

Some well-meaning souls wanted to “save the church.” Although I am not a Catholic, nor even a churchgoer, my initial sympathy and natural inclination was to side with those who wanted to try and save the church.

When I first moved to the neighborhood in the Summer of 1975, naturally, I walked around, exploring, as anyone new to the area would do and my explorations that day took me inside the church.

It was by far the oldest and one of the largest buildings in the surrounding area. It did not have what I would call a large congregation. Mostly, it served the elderly Irish and Italian Catholics, a dwindling number of whom still lived in the tenements in the “South Village” as that area of New York City was called at the time. Many of those  faithful ones had themselves been baptized there or married there– and attended the funerals of their relatives and friends there.

It was a tired old church, with faded paint in the vestibule, that looked as if it had not been re-painted since before World War One. Here and there were handsome wooden staircases leading to the refectory or perhaps to the bell tower. The dark wooden steps were worn down quite smooth in places from generations of bell ringers and congregants who preferred the less-crowded confines of the balcony to the main floor. There was also a huge organ, but I think it may have fallen into disrepair long before I arrived. At any rate, I don’t remember ever hearing it.

Tuesday, July 1, 1975, the very first day I began living at 46 Grand Street, between Thompson and West Broadway, nearly in the church’s shadow, I quickly discovered one of the unexpected surprises of my new home was that it came with free church bells announcing each day’s noon–and Mass on Sundays and much beautiful ringing and clanging at other times as well.

Every day was a celebration in my first New York City Studio.

The bell ringing was often in concert with a great cacophony of banging and hammering which emanated from John DeLorenzo & Son Iron and Sheet Metal directly across the street from my storefront studio. There was also another sound that dominated, a loud, impatient buzzing that asserted itself whenever the telephone rang at DeLorenzo’s– and that was often. Apparently, they had discovered that the gentle bell of an ordinary ringing telephone could not be heard over the tumult of the busy metal shop. But after the first few weeks of living there, I never again noticed the banging from across the street. It’s surprising what one can get used to.

But those church bells….one could never get used to them.

One day, about five years later, the bells stopped ringing for good.

In its infinite wisdom, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York determined that the land upon which the church had sat for nearly one hundred and fifty years had become far too valuable of an asset to justify allowing it to remain standing for the handful of the faithful who still prayed for its salvation as well as for their own.

After one hundred and ten years, the House of God was slowly sinking closer to Hell in the streambed beneath thousands of two-inch thick iron plates which had been carefully laid underneath its supporting structure.

By the summer of 1980, The Church of Saint Alphonsus Liguori was an accident waiting to happen and needed to come down, lest the old people still happily playing Bingo in its basement on Monday evenings be granted an early admission to Heaven.

The first thing that happened was that the doors were locked from the inside and a chain laced through the door handles and a company of the unfaithful was hired to handle the salvage operation.

Plaster Madonnas and alabaster angels, wrapped and roped in padded blankets, were hoisted like so much common cargo into the backs of darkened trucks, then bumped along over cobblestone streets through rush hour traffic and down into to the nearby Holland Tunnel and smuggled out of town, not to the heralding of trumpets, but to the honking of horns.

Soon the church, having been stripped of its baptismal font, gilded tracery and choir stalls was nothing more than a dusty and crumbling empty shell.

Echoes of pigeon wings gave mute testimony to all the many prayers which had long ago been uttered in its nave.

A chain was placed through the door handles on the outside.

An insane homeless woman recently liberated by President Regan from her place in mental institution took up residence under the portico in the arcade atop the limestone steps, her incoherent mutterings a strange echo to millions of past prayers.

Soon, all that remained was the large octagonal tiled marble floor and the copper gutters, but soon vandals and scavengers had removed them too.

There was a large wrought iron cross at the apex of the roof on the building’s west end. No doubt, it, too, would have been removed had Thompson Street not been too narrow for the wrecker and crane. The cross had probably been made by a German craftsman on a forge one cold Winter’s day during the Franco Prussian War and transported across the ocean in the hold of a merchant vessel. For the last hundred and ten years it had perched atop the upper story of the nave wall rising above the aisle roof, probably one hundred and fifty feet above the street. Only brave birds dared rest on its outstretched arms.

I was determined to save it.

As the weeks dragged slowly by, what was left of the church became a shooting gallery or more often, a toilet for the homeless and insane.

I tried to forget about the cross, but it wouldn’t let me. Every time I walked my dog Homer down Thompson Street or went into DeRoma’s for a sandwich, there it was, defying me to devise a way to get it.

I suppose I could have waited until they tore the building down, but then there would have been all that rubble to sift through.

Then one day, without telling anyone about my little plan, I slipped on a pair of rubber-soled tennis shoes, took a length of rope and slipped in through the open front door of God’s house. He wasn’t home.

I turned left and began climbing the wooden stairs of the bell tower. After a couple of turns I was on the level of the ceiling of the church, approximately 70 feet above floor level. There were two little steps leading to a small wooden door–not the kind of door one could open and walk through, but more of an access door. On this door was a white porcelain knob and a big keyhole with a solid brass keyhole-shaped cover over it. Holding the length of rope in my left hand, I gripped the doorknob in my right hand and gave it a quarter turn clock-wise. It opened with a satisfying click.

A gust of cool air with the faint scent of rose petals and old candle wax brushed by me.  I swung the door fully open and looked in. What I saw reminded me of nothing so much as the interior of an old barn. There were very large wooden timbers forming the skeleton of the building. The timbers seemed to be evenly spaced about every three feet and they went on and on until they disappeared in the darkness at the far end of the open space. Other timbers soared high overhead forming huge repetitive triangle shapes supporting the slate roof. Leading away from the door and into the darkness were two very long twelve-inch wide boards. They formed a walkway and it led in the direction that I wanted to go. If there were any footprints on those boards, successive deposits of dust upon dust had covered them up long ago.

Rope in hand, I made new footprints.

Stepping off those boards would have meant crashing through the plaster ceiling and certain death on the floor of what had been the nave about 70 feet below.

Sunlight was coming through an opening in the roof about fifty yards in front of me. I went toward the light. There was an old vertical handmade wooden ladder about twenty feet tall leading straight up to where there must have once been a smaller bell tower, but someone had removed the bell and the tower and left a gaping hole about six feet across.

I coiled the rope, put it over my head and shoulders and holding onto the rungs of the old ladder with both hands, up I went. In ten or fifteen seconds, I emerged into the late afternoon air of a fine Spring Day.

The sun was low in the sky over Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. There was no wind.

And then I saw it about twelve feet away.

The iron cross was even more beautiful up close that it was from way down on the street. It was around five feet tall and had been fabricated from inch-and-a quarter square bar stock, which had been heated on a forge and bent in a vice and then hit repeatedly with a hammer while still red hot in order to achieve the desired curve. Then other pieces had been similarly formed, perhaps laid on some kind of drawing to insure the correct shape. When the design was complete, all the various pieces had been joined together with long metal threaded rods and nuts and small spacers had been inserted and the nuts tightened just enough to last an eternity. Then the cross was embedded in a base of solid lead to hold it straight and upright against any wind or storm and once installed, there it stood for a hundred years overlooking both carriage and car.

I very carefully crawled out onto the apex of the roof on my stomach until I could straddle the apex of the roof with my legs. I made a big loop with my rope and tied a slipknot in the rope.

I slung it up and missed the first time.

On the second attempt the rope got a good purchase over the top of the cross. I tugged gently at the rope as if I was trying to hook a large fish until the rope was tight against the iron cross. Then I backwards-shimmied to the opening and backed down the ladder a couple of steps. I tugged on the rope.

The cross did not budge.

It did not want to leave its home. I was going to have to use force. I pulled harder.

Nothing.

Putting the weight of my body on the rope I managed to dislodge the cross and then slowly, with hardly a sound, it toppled over toward me like a drunk with his arms straight out to his sides who was passing out from a standing position.

I was very lucky. If it had fallen the other way, it would have pulled me up through the opening in the roof and over the side of the building and to the sidewalk a hundred feet below. I was very lucky.  Stupid lucky.

I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to pull it closer to me. It was much heavier than I had expected.

Then, suddenly, it began to slide down the roof. I let go of the rope and the cross dropped about fifteen or twenty feet through clear air and crashed through the roof below.

Now it was just hanging there, its horizontal arms balanced on two of the supporting beams of the roof.

I carefully backed down the ladder hand over hand and backtracked along the two board wide wooden pathway to the little door, climbed back through it, descended the stairs to the ground floor, exited through the front door, went down the limestone steps, turned left onto West Broadway and went to look for my friend to help me finish the job.

I knocked on Standish’s door at 32 Thompson Street.

Now it was okay to ask someone for help. If I had asked him for help before, he would have probably told me I was crazy and tried to talk me out of it. But now it was just a matter of getting a tall ladder and getting the cross off the roof of the lower structure, surely two strong men could do that, even if one of them (me) didn’t have any sense. Yes, I needed Standish’s help. This was clearly a two-man job. One to go up the ladder and the other to hold the ladder. And it would have been a shame to get killed or injured trying to do it alone especially now that the hard part was done.

Whenever you accomplish something, especially something difficult, and especially when you have put your own life at risk –but you have somehow miraculously managed to survive, it’s always great to have a friend along with whom you can share your victory.

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