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Origins and History of
St. Anthony of Padua Church

The First Italian Church in New York
The Second Italian Church founded in the U.S.
The Oldest existing Italian Parish in the U.S.
The First Church building built by the Italian immigrants.
Staffed since its beginning by the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor), the first missionaries to the New World.  The Franciscans came to the Americas with Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second journey of discovery.

Original Interior of St. Anthony's

To understand the history of Saint Anthony of Padua Shrine Church, you have to go back to 1205.  That’s when Francesco Bernardone, a citizen of the little town of Assisi, had returned from going to war with neighboring Perugia.  He had been taken captive and held in prison, and, being released due to severe illness, returned to his home town.  He was wandering through the outskirts of the town, and came upon a wayside Chapel, called, San Damiano.  There, praying before a crucifix, the Lord Jesus spoke to him. 

Jesus said, “Francis, rebuild my church, for it is falling apart.”  Francesco took these words literally, and began rebuilding some abandoned churches in the Assisi area.  Eventually, he understood that this call was not the rebuild with brick and mortar, but a spiritual rebuilding.

In 1209, Francesco, or Saint Francis of Assisi,  received approval for his way of life and the Franciscan Order was born.  Francis was a fundamentalist in his interpretation of the Gospels, and believed that the Gospel of Jesus Christ could be lived literally, without gloss or interpretation.  He began to send his friars out in groups to preach the Gospel. 

In 1219, five Franciscans, Saint Berard of Carbo and his companions, went into Morocco to preach to the Saracens (Muslims).  On their way to Morocco they passed through the University city of Coimbra, in Portugal, where they were introduced to a young Augustinian monk named Fernando.  He was very impressed with this new order, and expressed an interest in them.  They went on to Morocco, where  they were martyred, decapitated, and they became the first martyrs of the Franciscan Order.  As their bodies were being brought back to Italy, they once again passed through Coimbra, and Fernando decided to leave the Augustinians and present himself to the Franciscans.  In 1220.  He was clothed with the Franciscan habit, and took a new name, symbolizing the change of his life.  He took the name Anthony.  Of course, the rest is history, and he became the great- probably one of the most popular saints in the history of the church, Saint Anthony of Padua.

It is no secret that Italians have long been involved in the establishment of the New World.  We know that many of the first explorers, from Christopher Columbus, who discovered America in 1492, to John and Sebastian Cabot (who also hailed from Genoa), the Jesuit Missionary Father Eusebio Kino (Segno, Italy), Amerigo Vespucci (for whom America is named), and Giovanni Verrazano, who explored the New York harbor, all left their imprint on the New World. 

Intimately linked to these Italian explorers were also the members of the Franciscan Order (established in Assisi, Italy, by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1209), who were the first religious to come to the New World (having sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage) and, by the mid 1500’s, had already established foundations in what is now the state of New Mexico, as well as Mexico and Central and South America.  They also established the first public school in America in 1524 and the first college in 1536.

Before 1850, most Italians migrated to South America.  The Spanish language and the local weather was more akin to their native land and tongue.  These Italians were, by and large, from northern Italy.  They were not as attached to the land as the agricultural southern Italians, and were more financially independent.  In the mid-1850’s, the political climate in South America began to change, bringing about many civil wars and revolutions.  The Italians began coming to the United States, and more and more these were southern Italians who came to work in the factories and industrial centers of our large cities.

In 1850 there were 4,531 Italians in the United States, with only a handful in New York City, one of whom was the great Italian liberator, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who ran a candle factory in Staten Island.  He had fled his native land but would return soon afterward to unite Italy into one nation.

In 1859, there were enough Italians in New York for Archbishop Hughes to become concerned about their spiritual welfare.  He appointed an Italian priest to this ministry, who opened a small chapel on Canal Street, dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua.  This chapel did not last long, and the Italians in New York either went to the local Irish parish such as Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mott Street, Saint Joseph’s Church here in the Village, or turned to other religions.

The Franciscans had made an establishment in western New York State in 1855 when Bishop Timon, the Bishop of Buffalo, went to Rome for the official Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. While in Rome, he approached the Minister General of the Franciscan Order, and asked him to send some missionaries to the Buffalo area to work with the Irish immigrants who were building the Erie Canal, which connects the Hudson River with the Great Lakes.  The Minister General sent Bishop Timon to the Collegio San Isidoro, which is the Franciscan House for the Province of Ireland.  There he met one of the professors, an Italian named Father Panfilo, who was on the faculty there.  Father Panfilo was from the town of Magliano, in the Abruzzi region.  He spoke English fluently and wanted to be a missionary.  He was convinced to come to the Buffalo diocese to minister to English speaking workers. In June of 1855, four Franciscans arrived in New York and made their way to Buffalo, where they established parishes and schools and grew in great numbers.  One of those is Saint Bonaventure University in Olean, New York. They also established a seminary for Franciscan and diocesan priests.

By 1865, there was alarm at the plight of the Italians in New York City and Cardinal John McCloskey, Archbishop of New York, asked the Franciscans, who were laboring in upstate New York to establish an Italian parish in Manhattan.  Father Pamphilus asked some Italian Franciscans to be willing to begin an apostolate to the Italian immigrants who had begun to come to the large cities of the Northeast.

He sent Father Leo Pacillo, a Neapolitan-born friar, to establish an Italian parish in the South Greenwich Village section of Manhattan, where many northern Italians began to settle.  Since there was concern about the ability of the local Italian population to sustain such a parish, St. Anthony of Padua Parish was established as both a territorial parish (with set boundaries and encompassing the local Catholic population), and as an Italian national parish in 1866.   Thus, any Italian in the city could claim St. Anthony’s as their parish, as well as many of the Irish Catholics, who lived in the South Village.   The first official act of the newly-established parish took place on March 23, 1866, when the first baptism (Elizabeth Kelly) was recorded in the baptism register.  The church was officially incorporated on April 10, 1866.

Saint Anthony’s was the second parish established in the United States for Italian immigrants (the first being in Philadelphia, but that parish was suppressed in 2000).  It was the first Italian church in New York and now is the oldest existing Italian church in the United States. 

The first St. Anthony’s Church was a former Methodist church on Sullivan Street and West Houston.  The Italian community grew rapidly and the church purchased an old factory on MacDougal Street and renovated it as the new St. Anthony School, which began on September 5, 1872, headed by a staff of four sisters from the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany,  also founded by Father Pamphilus.  The enrollment soon passed 500 students of Italian and Irish background.  When the land adjacent to the old church became available, the Franciscans sought to purchase this property.  On January 31, 1882, the property was put up for bid, and  a terrible snowstorm hit New York.  Only one person made it through the snow to the bidding- Father Anacletus DeAngelis, the pastor of St. Anthony’s, who bid $53,000 and acquired the property. This was called the “Miracle of St. Anthony’s.”   This land had originally been surveyed by Aaron Burr, who served as a U.S. Senator and Vice President, and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.  Ground was broken on June 14, 1885.  Arthur Crooks, one of the foremost architects of the City, was hired as architect and gave the Italians of New York a church that was culturally significant for them.  It was built on a modified Romanesque style that is still popular in Italy, from Rome to the smallest town of Abruzzi.  The new church, completed in 1888, was the first church constructed by an Italian community in the United States.  Also constructed, attached to the church facing Thompson Street, was a beautiful friary which would serve as the headquarters for the Franciscan Province of the Immaculate Conception,  as well as the rectory for Saint Anthony’s for many years.
Today the Shrine Church of Saint Anthony of Padua on West Houston and Sullivan Streets stands proudly as the first Italian parish in New York State, the second Italian parish founded in the United States, the oldest existing Italian Parish in the U.S. and the first parish church building built by the Italian immigrants in the United States.  Its beauty stands as a testament to the dedication of the Italian people and their love for God and the church, so much so that Saint Anthony's has been popularly called "The Italian Cathedral."  

Some History:

The parish grew in enormous numbers as the waves of immigration increased in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Eventually, the friars from Saint Anthony’s took over the Church of the Most Precious Blood on Mulberry Street to minister to the Southern Italians who began migrating to New York and settling east of the Village, in what became known as Little Italy. 

When the church was completed in 1888, the Italian immigrants who built this church wanted a beautiful structure, one that compared with Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, which they looked upon as the “Irish” church.  I think you would agree that Saint Anthony’s is one of the most beautiful churches in the area.

If you walk south on MacDougal Street, you will come to a park called Father Fagan Park.  This park is named after Father Richard Fagan, a Franciscan priest and associate pastor of Saint Anthony’s who, in 1938, at the tender age of 27, died as a result of injuries sustained in the friary behind the church on Thompson Street. 

The rectory caught fire in the early morning of November 4, 1938. Father Fagan escaped and then twice reentered the burning building—first to rescue Father Louis Vitale, and again to save Father Bonaventure Pons. Trapped in the rectory and badly burned, Father Fagan leaped through a window to the roof of the Settlement House a floor below, which is now our gymnasium.  He was found and brought to Columbus Hospital, where he died five days later.  To describe Father Fagan’s heroic life and heroic death, members of our church quote the Book of John: "There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (John 15: 13).

Saint Anthony’s has stood here ministering to the Italians for 142 years, as well as the many other communities who made the Village their home- the jazz musicians, the beatniks, artists, actors, and now, the rich and famous who live in our area.   We have had the famous and infamous as members of our parish, including some who alternated between working at the Saint Anthony Feast, which existed for many years in early June, and making license plates at the state penitentiary.  Our neighborhood here still attracts the famous, and we have had as members of our parish people who you'd recognize immediately.  A stroll through the South Village, or SoHo, as some call this area now- you may bump into any number of famous people and celebrities who live in our neighborhood.  We've even had saints-  St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (Mother Cabrini) once taught in our religious education program.

Saint Anthony’s Today

Today we find Saint Anthony’s still strong after 142 years of ministry and service.  You will also find the Franciscan presence strong.  Between the church and the Franciscans, we have seven buildings and two parking lots in our immediate vicinity.  Our beautiful church and hall in this building, the parish rectory, with three friars staffing the parish living there, as well as our parish offices, our school on MacDougal Street, now being used by the Cooke Academy for Learning and Development, the largest private provider of school based special education services in the city; our convent on Prince and Sullivan, housing fifteen religious sisters from the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany and other orders;  and on Thompson Street, right behind the church, the Padua Friary, a residence for senior and special ministry friars, with 10 friars in residence; our former provincial headquarters at 147 Thompson Street, now being leased to the Jesuits, Saint Anthony Gym,  and the Provincial House of the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception Province at 125 Thompson Street (on the corner of Sullivan and Prince), where our Provincial, Vice Provincial, and Province Secretary reside, and where we have the offices for our Province. 

Saint Anthony’s is also home to several AA groups, including the SoHo Group, which is one of the largest in the city.

Shrine Church of St. Anthony of Padua
Staffed by the Franciscan Friars (Order of Friars Minor), Province of the Immaculate Conception