St. Benedict the Moor was the first Church for Black Roman Catholics in the North, dedicated on November 18th, 1883 at 210 Bleecker Street. St. Benedict the Moor Church opened in a Greek Revival structure that had been built in 1836 for the First Unitarian Universalist Church. The opening of St. Benedict the Moor was funded by the Irish-American Pastor of the nearby St. Joseph’s Church, who left $5,000 in his will to fund a church for practicing Black Catholics. The Pastor, named Father Thomas Farrell, funded the development of this church as a form of reparations for the unjust treatment faced by Black people in America.
When St. Benedict the Moor opened, the South Village was known as Little Africa, and was home to New York City’s largest Black population. The community was centered around Minetta Street and Minetta Lane, and sprawled through the neighboring South Village Streets.
On the day of the Church’s dedication, the surrounding streets were packed with people eager to see the newly dedicated structure. Tickets were required for the dedication Mass, and the seats inside were filled. Many who did not get tickets waited outside for the Mass to end, at which point the church opened for the public to explore.
Little Africa began to grow in South Village starting in the mid 1800s as many Black Americans began to relocate from the Southern United States. There were many Black owned businesses, which created an integrated community as these businesses would serve both Black and white clientele. In fact, when St. Benedict the Moor first opened, both the area’s Black and white residents wanted to attend the ceremony, and ultimately only Black visitors were able to attend.
The Black population of Little Africa began to decline at the end of the 1800s, as many European immigrants, especially those of Italian heritage, began to move in. Many of the area’s Black residents began to relocate uptown, and St. Benedict the Moor followed a similar path. It closed its doors in 1898, and moved to 342 West 53rd Street. The church’s building at 210 Bleecker Street then became home to Our Lady of Pompeii, a parish that primarily served the area’s Italian population.
The Church’s building at 210 Bleecker Street, along with many other remnants of Little Africa, were destroyed with the extension of Sixth Avenue in the 1920s. The location of the church, which had been at the corner of Bleecker and Downing Streets, was lost with the extension of Sixth Avenue, since the streets no longer met at a right angle. Our Lady of Pompeii, soon moved to a new building at 25 Carmine Street, where it remains to this day.
St. Benedict the Moor continued to operate at West 53rd Street until 2007, when it merged with the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on West 51st Street. In 2017 the Church was deconsecrated. In January of 2023, it was announced that the building had been purchased by a developer who has since announced plans to redevelop the site into apartments.
To learn more about Little Africa, check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.