At 123 W. 23rd St., between 6th and 7th avenues, stands an empty church building that hasn’t seen any sign of life for several years. Occasionally, young people hang out on its steps, but most people just pass it by. It has been closed since 2012, and its fate is uncertain.
That building is the former Church of St. Vincent de Paul, built to serve the needs of the city’s French-speaking Catholics. While efforts to keep the parish active have failed, a petition to save the building has gone all the way to the Vatican.
The church had its origins in 1839, when several members of the Society of the Fathers of Mercy, a French order of priests, toured the United States. While in New York, one of the members of the order, Bishop Charles Auguste Marie Joseph, remarked in a sermon what while Irish and German Catholics had their own churches, the city had no church for French-speaking Catholics. He challenged the relatively small community of French Catholics here to start their own church.
In 1841, the first Church of St. Vincent de Paul was opened on Canal Street. The current building on West 23rd Street was dedicated in 1859, although the façade was rebuilt in 1939. From the beginning, it was an outpost of French culture and French identity in this country.
After World War I, a memorial to French and American veterans who had died on the battlefield in France was built in the church. In July 1940, according to The New York Times, the church held a service to commemorate those who had died in the Nazi invasion of France, and a representative of the French government in exile declared that “France will rise again!” Perhaps the most celebrated event in the church took place in 1952, when Edith Piaf wed fellow French singer Jacques Pills, with Marlene Dietrich as Piaf’s maid of honor.
After America’s immigration laws were liberalized in the 1960s, worshippers from France were joined by those from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Martinique and other French-speaking countries in Africa and the Caribbean. Until a few years before it closed, the church also housed an outreach program for homeless senior citizens.
The Archdiocese announced its decision to close the church in 2007, and an opposition group called Save St. Vincent de Paul formed. In addition to lobbying church authorities, it sought to have the church declared a landmark, but the Landmarks Preservation Commission told the Times that the 1939 façade was “designed by a little-known architect and lacked architectural distinction.” Local officials and even the then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, tried to keep the church open, but failed.
This February, according to city records, the church’s next-door neighbor, 131 W. 23rd St., which currently houses a bed and breakfast, was sold. According to the Real Deal, the owners, headed by hotelier Jeffrey Dagowitz, seek to build a 35-story building there. When asked whether these plans included the church property, a spokesperson for the new owners said in an email that “details for this project are not final, thus we have no comment/ information to share at this time.”
Indeed, the city Finance Department’s website shows no recent transactions for the church property itself. However, a November article in Crain’s New York said that a buyer had offered $50 million for the property, but the sale was stalled by the petition to the Vatican. The Archdiocese itself didn’t return several calls and emails asking about the fate of the church.