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

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: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”