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Kerouac and Catholicism in Greenwich Village

“…really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God.”

So said Jack Kerouac about his book, “On the Road,” soon after it was published in 1957. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, though known for his nomadic lifestyle, Kerouac had strong ties to Greenwich Village. Famous as a pioneer of the Beat Generation and infamous for his drinking, Kerouac was a regular at the White Horse Tavern and South Village mainstays like Cafe Reggio, Kettle of Fish Bar, and the Gaslight Cafe. He also lived at 3 West 8th Street for a time, the SRO (“Single Room Occupancy”) that additionally provided housing for several of his fellow Beats, including Neal Cassady -– whom the other “On the Road” main character was based on –- and poet Gregory Corso.

Jack Kerouac gestures expansively as he reads poetry at the Artist’s Studio (48 East 3rd Street), February 15, 1959. © Estate of Fred W. MacDarrah. Special thanks to the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah for their support of Village Preservation, and contributions to our Historic Image Archive.

An interesting, and perhaps unexpected, facet of the counterculture hero’s background is that Kerouac was raised as a devout Catholic, and he returned to that innate spirituality throughout his life. What we didn’t know until recently, though, is that in the 1950s, during the height of their cultural influence, Kerouac and his friends would attend Mass at several churches in the Village. One such place of worship, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on West 14th Street, is currently severely at risk, and Village Preservation has been advocating for it to be designated as an individual landmark for the past year. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church bears enormous significance as New York City’s very first church for a Spanish-speaking congregation, and the site has been at the center of Spanish and Latin American heritage for decades, ever since the early 1900s when this part of the neighborhood was known as “Little Spain.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at 229-231 West 14th Street. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This new discovery about Kerouac’s involvement with the Church sheds light on another layer of the significance that it has held for generations of Villagers, and strengthens our campaign seeking landmark status for the building.

So we set out to substantiate it.

Our first clue regarding the connection between Kerouac and Our Lady of Guadalupe came in the form of a guidebook, “Beat Generation in New York: A Walking Tour of Jack Kerouac’s City,” by Bill Morgan. While the book references many of the Greenwich Village haunts well-known to be frequented by Kerouac, as well as his former Chelsea apartment and other spots further uptown, we were drawn to this particular passage:

“Between Seventh and Eighth Avenues is the tiny Our Lady of Gadalupe, at 229 W. 14th St. When Kerouac was giving a series of poetry and jazz readings with poets Philip Lamantia and Howard Hart at the Circle in the Square they would come here daily for mass. All three had been raised as Roman Catholics.”

Image courtesy David Amram

This led us down a somewhat meandering but ultimately rewarding research path. Though currently located at 235 West 50th Street in Midtown, today’s Circle in the Square Theatre is named after its first location at 5 Sheridan Square in the heart of Greenwich Village, where it was established in February 1951 as part of the Off-Broadway movement. In December 1957, Jack Kerouac, Howard Hart, and Philip Lamantia, along with musician David Amram, held their first jazz-poetry performance at the Brata Gallery on East 10th Street. Soon after, their second iteration of what would become a poetry and jazz series was held at Circle in the Square’s original location, which is about a 12-minute walk from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church — certainly a plausible commute.

From left to right: artist Larry Rivers, author Jack Kerouac, composer David Amram, poet Allen Ginsberg, and poet Gregory Corso (in the white hat), 1959. Photograph by John Cohen, courtesy David Amram.

We next reached out directly to David Amram, who did a wonderful oral history with us in 2014, and he was gracious enough to speak with us over the phone about this topic. Amram, now in his 90s and still an energetic and active composer and performer, has many incredible stories to tell from his time in the Village during the 1950s and beyond. While he didn’t specifically remember Our Lady of Guadalupe Church by name, he recalled that he and the aforementioned Beats would attend “the church on 14th Street” following their jazz-poetry readings, and he referenced several physical attributes of the surrounding streetscape that further implied we were talking about the same place. Amram, who is Jewish, also humorously shared that during participation at Mass one day, he attempted to take Communion and was told by Howard Hart not to, but that Jack Kerouac piped in to say “it’s alright, you’re with me” (just a touch of irreverence!).

Our Lady of Pompeii Church (25 Carmine Street), designated as part of the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II.

Amram also mentioned another church that they would sometimes visit, Our Lady of Pompeii, located on Carmine Street within the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II, which Village Preservation helped secure landmark designation for as part of our South Village campaign. Thanks to that effort, at least one of the churches that Kerouac and friends frequented is safeguarded from demolition. It is now high time for the Landmarks Preservation Commission to move forward with landmark protections for Our Lady of Guadalupe Church as well.

To support our campaign seeking landmark status for Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, CLICK HERE.

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