The Great Places: Our Saviour’s Church, New York

George Weigel

Of the 19,500 Catholic parishes in the United States, it’s a safe bet that none had a more spectacular aesthetic renovation last year than Our Saviour’s Church at Park Avenue and 38th Street in midtown Manhattan. That’s why I’ve chosen Our Saviour’s as the first in what I hope will be an occasional tour, in this column, of Catholic “great places.”

Our Saviour’s was chartered in 1955 and completed in 1959. One clerical legend has it that the late Cardinal Spellman wanted a Park Avenue church to rival the Anglican’s St. Thomas, which boasts perhaps the most magnificent stone reredos in America; another New York tale says that “Spelly” resented the fact that the only Park Avenue church was in the hands of the Jesuits. Whatever the truth of the matter, Our Saviour’s became, sadly, the archdiocesan great white elephant. Debts mounted, bills went unpaid, the fabric started to erode, and some began to wonder whether the church shouldn’t be abandoned despite its prime location – four blocks south of Grand Central Station in the middle of the capital of the world.

Then, six days after 9/11, a man with no small plans came to Our Saviour’s as pastor: Father George Rutler – convert from Anglicanism, graduate of Dartmouth, the Pontifical Gregorian University, and Rome’s Angelicum, EWTN personality, and one of the wittiest correspondents in the universal Church. What had been a parish of midtown daytime transients and weekend dowagers quickly began to attract flocks of twenty- and thirty-year olds. Children were once a rare sight at Our Saviour’s in the past; last year, fifty-two baptisms and almost fifty weddings were celebrated there. The parish had never produced priestly vocations; it now has more seminarians than any other in the archdiocese. Substantial funds were raised to cover overdue structural renovations and the parish, long beset by deficit budgeting, was put into the black.

But Father Rutler wasn’t through. At the Metropolitan Museum, he had seen a medieval reproduction of an icon of the Christos Pantokrator, Christ the Universal King – and it occurred to him that Our Saviour’s would benefit by something like it. But not just any something. For what Father Rutler commissioned, and what has now been sensationally completed by an Irishman and a Korean (converted by Father Rutler, of course), is a twenty-four-foot tall Christos Pantokrator based on the great icon of that style at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. What I once wrote of the St. Catherine’s icon is just as true, now, of the luminous apse of Our Saviour’s, Park Avenue:

“The Christos Pantokrator is an image of Christ in a typical iconographic pose, full-face toward us, the Lord’s head surrounded by a golden corona or halo, his left arm clutching a jeweled Bible to himself (the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, holding the Word of God, the Holy Scripture), his right hand raised in a gesture that is both greeting and blessing, the thumb and ring finger touching (in acknowledgment of the two natures united in the one person of Christ), the index and middle fingers crossed (in acknowledgment of the instrument of salvation). The colors are impressively rich: gold and ivory, lavender and vermillion. But it is the Holy Face – majestic, calm, strikingly masculine – that draws us into the icon and into an encounter with the Lord himself.

“It is one face, for Christ is one. Yet the iconographer, by painting a face with two subtly different expressions, has drawn us into the mystery of God Incarnate, the Son of God come in the flesh. For all its humanity, we see – perhaps better, we sense – that, while this is a truly human face, it’s unlike any face we’ve seen before. He is in time, in one dimension of his face, but beyond time, in another. He is like every other human person, i.e., a person of time and space and history; but he is also transcendent, eternal. We meet him in his humanity; he draws us into his divinity.”

The white elephant of Park Avenue has become a vibrant center of Catholicism and an embodiment of the unity of truth and beauty.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.