St. Mary's Church (Albany, New York)

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St. Mary's Church
A brick church with elaborate stone decoration, greenish roofs and a tall square open tower at the front.
West elevation and south profile, 2009
AffiliationRoman Catholic
LeadershipPastor: The Rev. John T. Provost
'Deacon: George Witko
Year consecrated1870
Location10 Lodge Street
Geographic coordinates42°39′6″N 73°45′10″W / 42.65167°N 73.75278°W / 42.65167; -73.75278
Architect(s)Charles C. Nichols, Frederick Brown[1]
StyleItalian Romanesque Revival (exterior); Mannerist/French Gothic Revival (interior)
Construction cost$100,000
Direction of façadewest
Height (max)175 feet (53 m)
Materialsbrick and stone
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
Added to NRHPJuly 14, 1977
NRHP Reference no.77000933[2]
Historic St. Mary's Church

St. Mary's Church is a Roman Catholic house of worship on Lodge Street in downtown Albany, New York, United States. It is a brick structure with an Italian Romanesque Revival exterior. Built in the 1860s, it is the third church to house the oldest Catholic congregation not only in the city but in all of upstate New York. In 1977 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places; it is also a contributing property to the Downtown Albany Historic District, listed on the Register several years later.[2]

It was established in the late 18th century. Early in the next century, the first church was built on the present location when the city donated the land. It is supposedly on a spot where St. Isaac Jogues took shelter after escaping from captivity in the early 17th century.

Some important figures in the American Church visited or were associated with it. John McCloskey, the first bishop of Albany and later the first American-born cardinal, made it his procathedral briefly. John Neumann, later a saint, celebrated a Mass there as a newly ordained priest. Clarence A. Walworth, a convert from Episcopalianism who was the first advocate for the sainthood of Kateri Tekakwitha, among other contributions to the Church, was pastor of St. Mary's for most of the late 19th century, and responsible for much of the look of the current building, inside and out.

The church's interior is done in a combination of the Mannerist and French Gothic styles, in contrast to its exterior. Upon completion of the tower in 1894, the church was wired, making it the first church in Albany to have electric lighting.[3] In 1912 the original stained glass windows were replaced. Beyond that there have been no significant changes to the building since its construction.


The church and neighboring rectory, on its north, occupy the block between Steuben Street on the north, Chapel Street on the east, Pine Street on the south and Lodge on the west. It is on the western edge of the Downtown Albany Historic District. The terrain rises gently to the west, and descends to the level ground adjacent to the Hudson River, a half-mile (1 km) to the east. The surrounding neighborhood is heavily developed and urban, with a mix of government, commercial and other institutional buildings.

A parking lot across Lodge separates the church from the home of the New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. It is listed on the Register, like Albany City Hall to its south, just past some other older buildings. On the northwest is the main Albany County courts building. A parking garage is to the south, across Pine, while commercial buildings are on the north and east.

Two other listed buildings are within two blocks. The old YMCA building is on Steuben at North Pearl Street (New York State Route 32) and to the southwest at Lodge and State Street (New York State Route 5) is St. Peter's Episcopal Church, a National Historic Landmark (NHL) designed by Richard Upjohn and his son. Another NHL, the New York State Capitol, is across Lafayette Park from the Court of Appeals and City Hall.


The church is a two-and-a-half-story, three-by-six-bay brick structure with marble trim on a cut bluestone foundation,[4] gradually exposed towards the rear by the slope of the underlying land. The middle bay on the west (front) facade projects slightly, forming the lower stages of the 175-foot (53 m) bell tower. Atop the main block is a steeply pitched gabled roof. A five-section semicircular apse is attached to the rear.[1]

A stone water table sets off the foundation. Small barred windows are located in every bay along the basement. At the corners are slightly projecting stone columns. They are echoed by stone quoins on the tower. A stone cornice also divides the first and second stories on the west facade.

All three bays of the first floor have entrances in quoined triple-recessed round arches. On the outer two, narrow smooth round columns rise to the springline. Above the heavy wooden recessed-paneled door is a decorative transom with circular lights. On the second story, fenestration consists of round-arched stained glass windows, less recessed but flanked by more ornate columns.

On the side elevations, stone columns form round arches around all but the easternmost bay. Within their slight recesses are narrow four-paned stained glass. The rear bay is set off by columns like those on the corners and has no arch, but is otherwise similarly treated. At the roofline a denticulated cornice is below the overhanging eave. A small vestibule connects the church to its rectory on the north.[1]

Bell tower[edit]

There are four stages to the tower. On the first is the deeply recessed main entrance, with a treatment otherwise similar to the side entrances. The corners are quoined. A single narrow window with a round segmental arch in brick sits in the center of both side faces. Above them, and flanking a brass light fixture over the main entrance, are stone crosses with recessed middles set into the brick.

A sloped cornice, at a higher level than that on the main facade, sets off the next stage. It has the bottom of a two-stage recessed arch on both sides. Its sole fenestration is the ornate narrow double window on the east. Another cornice sets off the third stage, which has a four-part window topped by a small rosette-shaped window under an arch that becomes stone at the springline. The rosette becomes a semicircle on the sides, just above the gable apex.

Above the third stage a frieze of rusticated stone blocks and another cornice sets off the fourth stage. On all sides here stone-topped arches, rising from foliate stonecarvings at the springline, open into the belfry. They are supported by stone columns with a small balustrade at the base. At the top, brick corbels on stone bases support the broad overhanging eave of the pyramidal roof, clad in green tile. It is crowned by an Angel of Judgment blowing a trumpet.


A green-carpeted aisle between two sets of wooden pews with a golden-colored decorated ceiling, arches over the side galleries and an arched, painted nave at the rear
Church interior

In the church vestibule is its baptismal font, made of white Carrara marble with a pewter upper covering and silver basin.[5] Inside, a gallery runs around the sides and back on the upper story, supported by clustered columns in a French Gothic style. It ends near the chancel, creating the illusion of transept arms on either side. Near the altar the arches are styled in the fashion of the Italian Renaissance.[1]

The pews are of pine painted to look like pine grained to resemble oak, capped with black walnut. It is complemented by the communion rail, black walnut with oak spindles.[6] The Stations of the Cross around the side are carved painted reliefs set in wooden frames. Brown metal plaques, covering the original German text, describe each one.[7] Around the church are four separate altars, most in white with gilded trim. Atop one are carved wooden statues of four saints—Isaac Jogues, Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann and Kateri Tekakwitha—all of whom had at least a tangential connection to the church during their lives.[8]

Above the gallery there are statues and paintings of other architectural elements. Combined they create the impression of a clerestory. On the ceiling is further trompe l'œil.[1]


St. Mary's traces its heritage to the earliest days of Catholic missionary work in the New World. After formally becoming a church late in the 18th century, it went through two buildings in the 19th century to accommodate a population swelled by immigration before the construction of the current building.

1643–1797: Establishment of Catholicism in Albany[edit]

In 1643, Albany was still the small Dutch colonial outpost of Fort Orange. One day that year, visiting Mohawks brought a French captive along on one of their visits. He was a Jesuit priest, Isaac Jogues, who had come to them some time earlier as a missionary. That night, he sneaked away from them and hid in a Dutch barn on the fringes of the settlement, beginning his escape to New York City. This event is the earliest recorded presence of the Catholic Church in Albany. Jogues would later return to the Mohawk, and three years later he and two other missionaries were killed by the Mohawks at Auriesville. They were all later canonized by the church as the North American Martyrs.[3]

Later in the century, Fort Orange became the English city of Albany. Its citizens, reflecting the city's Dutch and English background, were predominantly Protestant, but among them were a small group of Catholics. By 1794, almost two decades after American independence, there were enough that they asked the Vatican for permission to buy land to build a church. Two years later, they formally incorporated, becoming the second Catholic church in the state after St. Peter's in New York.[3]

They had been celebrating Mass at the homes of one of their few prosperous members. The first order of business for the new church's board of trustees was to find land and build a church. Plans for a modest building were drawn up but land had not been found. In 1797, the city donated to the church the property where Jogues had hidden on his escape, and where it has been located ever since. The cornerstone was laid shortly thereafter.[3]

1798–1828: First church[edit]

The first St. Mary's Church building opened for services late in 1798. It was a plain brick building 50 feet (15 m) square with no belfry and a pyramidal roof with a cross. Above the main door the entablature contained a plaque with the name of the builders and a skull and crossbones. Inside were two galleries, one of which contained what is believed to be the first organ installed in a church in Albany. It was the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the state of New York, and the second permanent Catholic church built in the state.[3]

At the time the church's parish covered almost all of upstate New York, from Poughkeepsie in the south, north to the Canada–US border and west as far as Rochester. Its second pastor, Matthew O'Brien, helped establish St. Mary's within Albany society by giving sermons that the Protestant leaders of the city and state went to hear because of their quality.[3]

St. Mary's was still part of the Diocese of Baltimore, but only for three years. Pope Pius VII created the Diocese of New York in 1801. It would be 15 years until a bishop could be seated. The church's congregation continued to grow slowly, reaching 300 by 1820. Newer parishes were established in other cities in the Capital District and Mohawk Valley.[3]

Church lore holds that Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the Revolutionary War, attended Mass on one or both of his visits to Albany during his 1824–25 American tour. However, no contemporary newspaper records that he did. Later in 1825, the church was among the many that took part in official ceremonies marking the opening of the Erie Canal, an event that was to have a great impact on St. Mary's as it and the industrialization that it spurred brought many Catholic immigrants, particularly from Ireland, to the city and the region. In Albany, St. Mary's was initially enough for them, but in other cities they established their own churches, and the parishes with them, diminishing St. Mary's to Albany and its immediate vicinity in the process.[3]

In 1828 the church established its first Sunday school, taught in part by a Protestant volunteer. Later that year the congregation asked Bishop John Dubois for help in getting some nuns to run the school and take care of the parish's orphans. The Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg answered the bishop's call and were soon running not only the Sunday school and an orphanage but a separate parochial school.[3]

1829–1866: Second church[edit]

This level of growth was straining the church's available space, and plans were made to replace the 1798 building. Philip Hooker was commissioned to design a new building, one of his last non-residential structures. His Federal style structure had brick walls and columns, faced in stucco, with a three-stage bell tower.[3]

Among the many contributors to the $12,000 ($282,000 in modern dollars[9]) construction cost were Stephen Van Rensselaer III, a former lieutenant governor descended from the Dutch family that had owned and governed most of the Albany area as patroons during the colonial era, and another former lieutenant governor of Dutch extraction, Martin Van Buren, later elected President. Services continued at a nearby school while the new church was under construction. To support the larger building, it was necessary to cut into the hillside and extend Steuben Street past Chapel Street.

The new church was completed and opened within a year. A few years later the church was able to acquire a 1,300-pound (590 kg) bell, its first, for the tower. In 1836 the new church's space served both it and the city well when Albany was struck by the first of several cholera epidemics it experienced in the 19th century. Father Charles Smith, the pastor, devoted great time and effort to tending to the victims. With his assistance, the nuns opened a separate orphanage for the children of victims.[3]

Four years later, in 1836, the church received some important figures in the history of American Catholicism. In June, a newly ordained priest, John Neumann, celebrated a Mass at St. Mary's on the way to his first assignment in Western New York; he would later serve as the first Bishop of Philadelphia and was canonized in 1977. Less than a week later, Bishop Dubois visited to confirm 150, including some adults. Accompanying him was Father Charles Constantine Pise, the only Catholic priest to ever serve as United States Senate Chaplain.[3]

Immigration to Albany continued, bringing more Catholics, including some from Germany, to the city. In 1837, the city's second Catholic church, St. John's, was founded in the South End. St. Mary's parish, which still included the entire city, was divided to accommodate the new congregation. The 1843 establishment of St. Joseph's in the Ten Broeck Triangle led to another reduction. A parish that had occupied most of the state 20 years earlier was now limited to a single Albany neighborhood.[3]

New Bishop John Hughes, came into conflict with the trustees of St. Mary's and some of the other new churches upstate over their poor financial management and large debts. "What should belong to the present and the future is already mortgaged to the past!" he complained. "Sooner or later, the trustee system as it exists will destroy or be destroyed by the Catholic religion."[10] The church hierarchy was also disturbed by rumors that the St. Mary's trustees had used some Masonic rites, contrary to Catholic doctrine, when they blessed the new church in 1829.[11]

Hughes sent his coadjutor bishop, John McCloskey, to Albany to resolve the issues. He moved to dissolve the trustees and place the churches under direct diocesan supervision.[10] The trustees at first resisted, but in 1845 formally voted to dissolve themselves. Two years later, at Hughes' request, Pope Pius IX subdivided the upstate portion of the diocese into the new dioceses of Albany and Buffalo.

McCloskey was installed as the first bishop of the new diocese. For a time he sat at St. Mary's as his procathedral. However, he felt it inadequate to the task, and soon began raising money for a proper cathedral. In 1848, construction began a mile (1.6 km to the south on Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, designed by an Irish immigrant, Patrick Keely. McCloskey moved his seat to the new cathedral when it was complete in 1852. St. Mary's primacy among Albany's Catholic churches has since then been purely historical.[3]

The years before and after 1850 posed many challenges to the city. In 1848 a fire destroyed 600 buildings, and two more cholera epidemics struck Albany in 1849 and 1854. An assistant priest at St. Mary's founded the local chapter of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul after the fire to help the victims. The church was also threatened by the rise of the nativist, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party, which polled very well in Albany's 1855 municipal elections. Several members of the congregation who had become prominent in the community spoke out against the Know Nothings, and in 1859 exiled Irish nationalist leader William Smith O'Brien, a Protestant, broke a self-imposed pledge of neutrality to condemn them while speaking at St. Mary's.[3]

That same year another new parish, St. Patrick's, was created from territory formerly part of St. Mary's. During the Civil War in the early 1860s, structural defects in the church, possibly a result of its speedy construction three decades earlier, became apparent. Clarence A. Walworth, a converted Episcopal priest who took over as St. Mary's pastor after the war, made the construction of a new church his priority. Before that, he invited a friend and fellow Episcopalian convert, Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, to the church to give a lecture.[3]

1867–1900: Third church and Walworth[edit]

New York had amended its laws on the organization of nonprofit institutions during the war, and Walworth took advantage of this to reincorporate the church in a way more amenable to Catholicism. The new board of trustees consisted of the bishop, Vicar General and two lay members. The cornerstone of the new structure was laid in 1867 before a crowd that included Governor Reuben Fenton. The pews were removed, and a fair held to raise money in the empty 1829 church.[3]

Money came from many different sources. Prominent state and local politicians, some of them Protestants, made contributions. As with the second church, the architect was local, the firm of Nichols & Brown, whose design used the Romanesque Revival mode with an emphasis on the Italian interpretation of that style, reflecting the influence of another group of immigrants coming to Albany's parishes, Italians. It recalls the churches of Central Italy, particularly in the cities of Assisi and Perugia, many of which are similarly built into sloping hillsides.[1]

The new church was completed in 1869, at a cost of $100,000 ($1.88 million in modern dollars[9]). Walworth himself designed the original altar,[8] now the Altar of Reservation, and its baptismal font.[5] The Stations of the Cross had been purchased from a church in Germany five years earlier; bronze plaques with their English names cover the original German.[7] Bishop John J. Conroy presided over its consecration that year. A year later, his Vicar General, Edgar Wadhams, another longtime friend of Walworth's, presided over the consecration of a new marble altar, donated by state historian Edmund O'Callaghan, a parishioner.[1]

Wadhams returned to St. Mary's in 1872, along with John McCloskey, now Archbishop of New York, for another consecration. This time, McCloskey consecrated Wadhams as the first bishop of the newly created Diocese of Ogdensburg, split off from the Albany diocese's northern reaches. Three years later the church joined others in Albany and New York in celebrating McCloskey's elevation to cardinal, the first American-born priest to attain that rank. For St. Mary's, where McCloskey had briefly presided upon his arrival in Albany, there was the added element of a personal role in his success.[1]

Ten years later, the church celebrated again when Daniel Manning, once one of its altar boys, was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by President Grover Cleveland. Walworth, an advocate for the converted Mohawk populations of the state, argued for the sainthood of Kateri Tekakwitha, informally known as Lilly of the Mohawks, before the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884; the council voted to open the case for sainthood, leading to her eventual canonization by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, the first Native American to be so honored.[12]

In 1886 Walworth's research and historical knowledge were put to good use for the city when he served on city's bicentennial committee. As part of the celebrations a plaque was placed on the church and over 40 other buildings. At a special Mass attended by Catholic Mohawks, Walworth traced the history of the Church in Alabny from Isaac Jogues' escape on the site of St. Mary's to the present.[3]

Two years later, in 1888, Edward A. Maher, a member of the St. Mary's congregation, was elected mayor of Albany. He served a single two-year term. In 1892, Walworth told Bishop Francis McNeirny that his failing health and increasing blindness made it impossible for him to carry on his pastoral duties alone. He continued as the church's rector; his assistant John Dillon was named parish administrator and vice rector.[3]

Walworth had more to give the church, however. The two towers originally planned for the church were not built owing to a shortage of funds at the time. On one of his trips to Germany Walworth had seen a church with a single open-belfry tower capped by an angel supporting a weathervane; he believed the design would be perfect for St. Mary's and had paid for an architect to design one during the 1870s. A renovation project that began in 1891 ended with the new 175-foot (53 m) tower in 1895.[4]

Walworth paid for the statue of the angel Gabriel at its top himself. Electricity and lighting were also installed, making St. Mary's the first church in Albany with that amenity, and the new bishop, Thomas Burke, presided over the reopening service. The church's interior decorator hired an Italian painter to do the works on the ceiling and walls, since they could now be seen more easily.[6]

Burke returned two years later for the church's 1897 centennial celebration. He was joined by Archbishop Sebastiano Martinelli, Apostolic Delegate, or ambassador, of the Vatican to the United States, in celebrating a Pontifical Mass. A parade in front of the church culminated in fireworks in the evening. It was called "the greatest religious demonstration held thus far in Albany’s history."[3]

1900–1937: 20th century[edit]

Walworth died in 1900. He was buried in his family plot in Saratoga Springs, but the next year a well-attended secular memorial to him was held at the local Odd Fellows' hall. In 1912 the church's original stained glass windows were removed and put in storage.[1]

Pope Benedict XV appointed Edmund Gibbons bishop of Albany in 1919. This was another accomplishment the St. Mary's community took personal pride in, as Gibbons had been an altar boy at the church and been confirmed there. Accordingly, he chose St. Mary's for his first confirmation Mass as bishop.[3] In 1924 the church celebrated his 50 years of service to it with an altar to St. John the Baptist, Dillon's patron saint.[8]

In 1929 Dillon established Church of St. Philip the Apostle on Sheridan Avenue as a mission church within the parish. Two years later he opened a school in a building nearby, operated by members of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate, dedicated to the education of the African American community. In its first year 40 students were enrolled.[3]

Dillon died three years later, in 1934. He was replaced by Thomas Loughlin. In 1937 a new rectory was built north of the church; at some point later a garage was added to its rear. Brick was used for both structures so they would be sympathetic to the church.[3]


In 1955 Pope Pius XII named Loughlin a domestic prelate. He became the first pastor of St. Mary's to be a monsignor. Four years later, the first annual Red Mass, for lawyers and judges, was held at St. Mary's due to its proximity to the state, county and city government buildings of downtown Albany. When it was held in the following years, Fulton Sheen, Bishop of Rochester, gave the homily.[3]

By the early 1960s, the parish's numbers had declined. St. Philip's school, along with the parish's St. Mary's school, were closed in 1962 due to both that and further declines expected due to proposed urban renewal. The latter's building, Centennial Hall, was sold to the county in 1964.[3]

The later years of the 20th century were devoted to renovating the church. In 1978 a freestanding altar, made in Venezuela, was added.[8] The church's bells were reactivated in 1980; six years later an electrical system replaced the rebuilt wheel as the bell ringer due to the vibrations it created. In 1982 the paintings inside were restored.[6] The next year outdoor spotlights were installed to illuminate the tower and statue of Gabriel atop it.[4]

Seven years later the pews and communion rail were restored, removing the black stain that had been built up on them over time. For the church's bicentennial in 1997, an electronic organ capable of playing the long-dormant chimes was installed.[4] Inside, the interior walls were refinished and the columns and altar regilded.[6]


Mass is celebrated twice on weekdays, in the morning and at noon. After the three noon Masses in the midweek days, novenas are said. On Saturdays only the noon Mass is celebrated; with confessions heard in the afternoon. Sundays there are four Masses, all in the morning.[13]

Devotion to the Sacred Heart is held on the first Friday of every month. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament takes place after the early Mass. A prayer group meets afterwards and the First Friday Club meets after the noon Mass.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ralph, Elizabeth K. (February 1977). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: St. Mary's Church". Retrieved 2009-06-01. and Accompanying five photos, exterior and interior, from 1977 and undated
  2. ^ a b National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y "Historic Highlights". St. Mary's Church. 2001. Retrieved November 30, 2012.
  4. ^ a b c d "The Exterior". St. Mary's Church. 1999. Retrieved December 8, 2012.
  5. ^ a b "The Baptistry". St. Mary's Church. 1999. Retrieved December 8, 2012.
  6. ^ a b c d "Interior Architecture". St. Mary's Church. 1999. Retrieved December 8, 2012.
  7. ^ a b "Stations of the Cross". St. Mary's Church. 1999. Retrieved December 8, 2012.
  8. ^ a b c d "The Altars of St. Mary's". St. Mary's Church. 1999. Retrieved December 8, 2012.
  9. ^ a b Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  10. ^ a b Farley, John (1918). The life of John, Cardinal McCloskey: First Prince of the Church in America, 1810-1885. Longmans, Green & Co. pp. 165–66. Retrieved December 2, 2012.
  11. ^ Greenberg, Brian (1985). Worker and Community: Response to Industrialization in a Nineteenth Century American City, Albany, New York, 1850-1884. State University of New York Press. pp. 129–30. ISBN 9780887060465. Retrieved December 2, 2012.
  12. ^ Donadio, Rachel (October 21, 2012). "Pope Canonizes 7 Saints, Including 2 Women With New York Ties". The New York Times. Retrieved December 5, 2012.
  13. ^ a b "Schedule of Events". St. Mary's Church. 1999. Retrieved December 9, 2012.

External links[edit]