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Interior Artwork of Our Lady of Pompeii Church

The Center For Migration Studies has provided GVSHP with historic images in the past, and recently sent us several images of the interior artwork of Our Lady of Pompeii church. The church has stood on the northwest corner of Carmine and Bleecker Streets since 1928, but the congregation dates back to 1892, when Father Pietro Bandini, founder of the New York branch of what was then an international effort, the Saint Raphael Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants, gave the name Our Lady of Pompeii to the chapel in his agency’s New York headquarters. In 1896, Father Bandini went on to another mission, and his successor, Father Francis Zaboglio, could not keep the immigrant-aid agency going financially.  So he focused instead on turning the chapel into a church that would serve the needs of Italian immigrants in the area.

The history of Our Lady of Pompeii is tied to the Church of St. Benedict the Moor. Established in 1883 as the first northern church for black Roman Catholics, in 1892 St. Benedict the Moor moved into a beautiful Greek Revival church first built in 1836 for the Third Universalist Society at 210 Bleecker Street. The area was then a predominantly African-American neighborhood known as “Little Africa“.

Originally erected by the Third Unitarian Universalist Church in 1833 on the corner of Downing and Bleecker Streets, in 1883 this church was sold to the African-American Roman Catholic congregation of Saint Benedict the Moor, who in turn sold the property to Our Lady of Pompeii Church in 1898. They remained in the building until it was demolished to make way for the extension of 6th Avenue in 1926.

In 1883, St. Benedict the Moor had in its sanctuary a Crucifixion scene composed of three statues: the crucified Christ with the Blessed Mother beneath the elevated Christ on one side of the cross and Saint John the Evangelist on the other, a scene described in the Gospel of John, Chapter 19. In 1897 the congregation of St. Benedict the Moor moved to West 53rd Street and sold its Greenwich Village church to the congregation of Our Lady of Pompeii. Usually Catholic parishes stay where they are founded, but St. Benedict had been founded for African Americans. Proper pastoral care suggested the church follow the black community as it moved uptown. Racism suggested that blacks and whites be segregated into different congregations. St. Benedict’s took all its statues uptown, except, apparently, the crucifix in this set.
In 1927, in order to extend Sixth Avenue south to Canal Street, the city tore down the 210 Bleecker Street building that Saint Benedict’s and Pompeii had occupied, and Pompeii moved to its present church. In 1979, St. Benedict’s contacted Pompeii regarding the other two statues in the original Crucifixion scene. The late Brother Michael La Mantia, c.s., oversaw the statues’ transfer to the present Pompeii church. The pastor at the time, the late Father Edward Marino, c.s., was using the Crucifix as the centerpiece for a niche honoring donors to the church, so instead of reuniting the set he placed the statues of the Blessed Mother and Saint John in their present positions, before the mosaic of the Crucified Christ and the Souls in Purgatory.
The painting below depicts Our Lady of the Rosary with the Christ Child on her lap. They are both handing rosaries to Saint Dominic and Saint Catherine of Siena, who are the best known promoters of this devotion. This painting is an exact copy of the one at Pompeii. The original at Pompeii came from a convent of Dominican nuns at Port Medina, Italy. It was given to a devout layman named Bartolomeo Longo in 1875, apparently because Longo was interested in promoting the recitation of the rosary. Longo made the image the centerpiece of a shrine to Our Lady of the Rosary that he built in Pompeii, Italy.
Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan (serving 1885-1902) interested one of his donors, Annie Leary in Father Zaboglio’s cause of Our Lady of Pompeii church. Ms. Leary arranged for the purchase of the copy of the original Pompeii painting. Father Zaboglio then asked for, and received from Bartolomeo Longo, the status of a shrine, which enabled him to add to the church’s devotional life.  The painting (seen above) was originally rectangular. It was cut to the present shape to fit into the altar at the “new” church when the parish moved there in 1928.
Read more about the history of Our Lady of Pompeii here. Click here to view historic images from the Center for Migration Studies. Read about St. Benedict the Moor and see photos here.

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