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Why Isn’t This Landmarked?: San Isidoro y San Leandro Western Orthodox Catholic Church of the Hispanic Mozarabic Rite

We are starting a new blog series entitled Why Isn’t This Landmarked?, where we will look at buildings in our area which are worthy of landmark designation but somehow aren’t landmarked and we are fighting to protect. To kick off this series, our first stop is the San Isidoro y San Leandro Western Orthodox Catholic Church at 345 East 4th Street, between Avenues C and D in the East Village. This remarkably intact Gothic Revival church’s form, design, details, and history reflect the kaleidoscope of immigrants and ethnic groups which called the Lower East Side home and shaped New York over the last century and a quarter — making it not just architecturally significant but an embodiment of New York City’s and the East Village’s immigrant history.

345 East 4th Street

This structure was originally built in 1891-92 and designed by Edward Wenz for the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, serving the surrounding Slovak and Hungarian immigrant community. The church was the first national Slovak parish for the Slovak and Hungarian Catholics of New York and Brooklyn. Later the building was bought by the Russian Greek Orthodox National Association and became the Carpathian Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas. It served the emerging Russian immigrant community in the early and mid-twentieth century, as evidenced by the royal seal of the Russian Czars located on the church’s front gates. After 1975, the church housed San Isidoro y San Leandro Western Orthodox Catholic Church of Hispanic Mozarabic Rite, a highly unusual Western Orthodox Catholic Church – seemingly one of the very few in America, and one of the few or perhaps only to practice the Mozarabic Rite.

Two-headed eagle, symbolic of the Russian Empire, at the iron fence in front of the church

Edward Wenz was a successful architect well known for his design of many speculative builders’ work, particularly residential structures in upper Manhattan. Born in Germany in 1855, he migrated to the United States and settled in New York City in 1880. It is not clear where Edward Wenz received his architectural education, but it is recorded that he started to practice architectural design as early as 1887. One of his most notable works, the Park View Flats on Central Park West between 103rd and 104th Streets (1893, demolished) was a combination of nine handsome apartment houses that occupied the entire block front facing Central Park. The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide of 1893 described it as among the year’s most notable structures along Central Park West.

The early years of the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary were marked by instability and a constantly changing series of pastors and priests. From 1892 to 1895, in merely three years, three different pastors were appointed to replace the previous one. Conflicts between the Slovaks, who originally founded the church, and an increasing number of Hungarians that later became the majority of the congregation, intensified in 1895, resulting in the withdrawal of the Slovaks.

In spite of this instability in its early decades, St. Elizabeth’s eventually became a leading Hungarian church in the city. In 1905, under the direction of the church pastor Francis C. Denes, who replaced the previous Slovak priest, a Hungarian Catholic Club was established, for which the Hungarian Consul-General served as the chairman. Denes’ apartment, which was on the top floor of the church building, hosted the first meeting of the club.

As Central Europeans began to move uptown to neighborhoods like Yorkville, the Church of St. Elizabeth also relocated to East 83rd Street.  As more Eastern Europeans moved into the neighborhood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the church was sold to the Russian Greek Orthodox National Association, Inc. in 1918 for $18,500.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a form of Christianity that diverged from Roman Catholicism in late antiquity and centered in Eastern Europe and in the Eastern Mediterranean. Separate national churches would evolve and these Eastern Orthodox churches would have a major presence in America with the immigration of the Eastern Europeans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The see of the Russian Orthodox Church in America was moved from Alaska to San Francisco by 1880, but with the wave of immigration to New York from Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, the see was moved to New York City in 1905.

345 East 4th Street, westward view, 1935 (NYPL)

Given the density of this immigrant population in the East Village and Lower East Side, Russian Orthodox Churches were established in the area including the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection. Previous to World War I, the Russian Orthodox Church was under the jurisdiction of Russia. Following World War I and the Russian Revolution, turmoil ensued in the American Russian Church and three separate organizations developed, all headquartered in New York City.

345 East 4th Street, eastward view, 1935 (NYPL)

The Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church sold the property in 1975 and it became the home to San Isidoro y San Leandro Western Orthodox Catholic Church of the Hispanic Mozarabic Rite. Western Rite Orthodoxy, Western Orthodoxy, and Orthodox Western Rite are terms used to describe congregations and groups which are in communion with Eastern Orthodox Churches or Oriental Orthodox Churches, but which use traditional Western liturgies rather than adopting Eastern liturgies such as the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

Saint Isidore of Seville (c.560- April 4, 636) was the Archbishop of Seville for more than thirty years and referred to as ‘the last scholar of the ancient world’; his histories were the basis for medieval history-writing of modern-day Spain and Portugal. He and his brother Leander of Spain (also canonized) were involved with the conversion of the royal Visigothic Arians to Catholicism. He played a significant role in the Councils of Toledo and Seville; the Visigothic legislation which resulted from these councils is regarded by modern historians as an important precursor to the beginnings of modern representative government.

San Isidore of Sevilla

Mozarabs were Iberian Christians who lived under Arab rule. While they did not convert to Islam, they did adopt other aspects of the Moorish language and culture. Most were Roman Catholics of the Mozarabic Rite. Muslims who converted to Christianity were also known as Mozarabs, and were concentrated in large formerly-Muslim cities such as Toledo and Seville.

It is unclear exactly who the members of this congregation in the East Village were or why they subscribed to this relatively obscure and unusual Christian sect; if they were direct descendants of Spanish Mozarabs, Latin American descendants of Spanish Mozarabs, or some other group which was drawn to the unique qualities and history of this religious tradition.

While the origins of the most recent occupants of the church may be obscure, the structure’s architectural detail and intact condition are quite vivid and clear. The church is clad in painted brick and features pointed arch voussoirs at the window and entry openings with alternating white and brown painted stone blocks at the arches. While the polychromatic paint was a later addition, the scheme wonderfully seemingly references both the Ruskinian Gothic origins of the building and the Moorish influences of its later occupants at the same time. The arches at the openings rest on decorative pilasters and the center entry is capped by a large pointed arched window with a simple rose window. Both entries feature elaborate wooden doors with brass ornament. A painted wrought iron fence surrounds the front areaway and the centered entry gate is adorned with grapevines and swirls. Intact at this entry is a crest with a two-headed eagle, a symbol of the Russian Czar (no doubt added during its period as a Russian church). Hung from the cross at the top of the entry gates are the Greek letters alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and a title of Christ and God in the Book of revelations which are often used as Christian symbols. Behind the centered triangular projection at the parapet is a small steeple. This too is capped by a cross with alpha and omega hanging from it.

Upper stories and cupola of 345 East 4th Street

Churches and synagogues such as these, located on single lot sites filling the space of what was once a single home, were once found throughout the East Village and Lower East Side. They were reflective of the incredibly modest resources but bold ambitions of the immigrant communities they served. Increasingly few such structures survive today. The East Village remains woefully under-landmarked and therefore valuable historic resources such as these churches and synagogues are vulnerable to insensitive alteration and demolition. The highly unusual church at 345 East 4th Street retains nearly all of its original Gothic Revival details while reflecting the imprint and religious traditions of various important immigrant and migrant communities which shaped the Lower East Side and New York – Central Europeans in the late nineteenth century, Eastern Europeans in the early twentieth century, and Puerto Ricans and Hispanics in the mid-to-late twentieth century.

In response to information submitted by Village Preservation, the church was determined eligible for listing on the State and National Register of Historic Places in 2017. At the same time, we submitted a request to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) that they landmark the church.  At the time, the Commission refused.

There is now a new chair of the LPC, and we are waging a new campaign to seek landmark designation for this and other historically significant buildings in the East Village.  If you would like to help secure landmark designation for this and other buildings, please send a letter to the LPC and the Mayor HERE.

2 responses to “Why Isn’t This Landmarked?: San Isidoro y San Leandro Western Orthodox Catholic Church of the Hispanic Mozarabic Rite

  1. Thank you for posting this. I have lived around the corner from this little church for 28+ years and admired its mystery and beauty for decades. I saw that the church was up for sale at one point and was in danger of being torn down. What a tragedy that would be! We must stop this destruction of our historic gems.

  2. The world is moving too fast…..WE MUST PRESERVE OUR HISTORIC STRUCTURES!! The melting pot of NYC and the cultural settlements of our land of liberty should be available and documented in the buildings of our United States. Please keep cultivating our roots with the beauty of the past.

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