One of the things on my "Bronx Bucket List" was a visit to some of the historical Catholic Churches. So, who better to call for a tour than Alexandra Maruri, founder of Bronx Historical Tours - the first-ever company to show locals and tourists alike, the beautiful Bronx!
My day began with a quick breakfast before heading out into the rain for a car ride to the Belmont section of the Bronx, aka Little Italy.
My timing could not have been more perfect! In spite of intermittent downpours and the flooding of the Bronx River Parkway (which I avoided!), I arrived on 187th Street and Hugh’s Avenue at 9:50am, ten minutes early for my rendez-vous with Alexandra.
Call me crazy, but, I adore the rain and wet weather, and as a world traveler, it has never stood in the way of me touring.
With my slicker and umbrella in tow, we made our way through touring two Catholic Churches - what a delightful day we had!!
Our first visit was to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on 187th Street and Belmont Avenue. A bit of history about this magnificent church…
The late 1800’s and early 1900’s saw the arrival of large numbers of immigrants from Italy. Arriving via lower Manhattan, many Italians settled downtown, however, a large number of these made their way north to the Bronx, establishing large Italian communities.
At this time, there existed one Catholic Church located in the Northwest Section of the Bronx on the Grand Concourse and 202nd Street. St. Philip Neri Church, had an Italian-speaking priest, to which the newly arriving immigrants of Belmont would travel for Sunday Mass, sacraments and funerals. However, it was a long and difficult trip in those days.
Realizing that a burgeoning Italian neighborhood was evolving, a mission was opened in a store front at 659 E. 187 Street to serve the faithful of Belmont, with the first Mass celebrated on June 13, 1906.
From the store front, a basement Church was built on 187th Street and Belmont Avenue in 1907, and then, ten years later, in 1917, the upper Church was built and dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
This history explains the two dates, prominently featured on the church.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel would become the largest Italian National Parish in the Archdiocese of New York. At the height of its history in the 40’s and 50’s, more than 40,000 Italians made Our Lady of Mount Carmel their parish.
The inside of the church is just lovely, with its beautiful stained glass windows throughout, painted frescoes on the ceiling, and stately marble columns.
The church has undergone much restoration, breathing new life into the beloved church. Many necessary modifications were made to keep up with the neighborhood’s changing demographics and serving a whole new wave of latino immigrants arriving from Central and South America.
Combining reverence for the old with the implementation of the new, restoration included replacing worn out floors, painstakingly matching original Italian marble used to repair church columns, refurbishing ceiling frescos, relocating existing statues of saints within the church and adding much-needed exterior lighting.
Additionally, new statues of saints, held in high esteem by the new neighborhood immigrants from Mexico and Latin America were added. New paint colors were used to brighten certain interior spaces, such as the baptism area, and a new church organ was purchased.
The church also uses new candles that do not emit soot, in order to better preserve the ceiling frescos.
Spanish language masses were added to the existing English and Italian ones for more inclusiveness to the members of the community.
One gorgeous church down and one more to go! With the rain coming down on and off, we made our way to the Allerton section, about five miles away from the Belmont section (and our visit to Our Lady of Mount Carmel) to St. Lucy’s Roman Catholic Church in the East Bronx.
The atmosphere and mood on this visit was a bit different. Whereas Our Lady of Mount Carmel is located in the very populated and hustle bustle area of Little Italy, with its stores, restaurants and cafes, St. Lucy’s is situated in a more residential, less congested area.
Parking, as a result, was no problem, and there were no meters to worry about. As we walked up Bronxwood Avenue from my parked car, we approached a tall fence, which enclosed the caves and catacombs on the grounds of the church, located behind the infamous Grotto!
Once again, allow me to digress and present a bit of history about St. Lucy’s and the Grotto …
The history of The Grotto dates back to 1937 when it was built under the leadership of Pastor Monsignor Pasquale Lombardo.
After traveling to the famous Grotto in Lourdes, France, Monsignor Lombardo set out to build a replica of the Lourdes Grotto on the church grounds of St. Lucy's.
Lourdes is a French town in the Pyrenean foothills which was home to eighteen sightings of the Virgin Mary beginning with Bernadette Soubirous’ vision on February 11th, 1858.
Monsignor Lombardo’s goal was to provide parishioners, as well as visitors, with the spiritual experience of the Lourdes, France Grotto without the transatlantic pilgrimage.
Situated within the churchyard, but clearly visible from the street, Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto is made of stacked stones that form a thirty foot “cave.”
Completed in 1939 at a cost of $10,000, the Grotto has a large two-level catacomb section underneath and behind it, filled with statues of saints. Unfortunately, it is rarely open to the public, and the gates were closed and locked during our visit.
As with the original French cave, the water from the waterfall near the Bronx Grotto is said to be holy.
Each Sunday, the bell at St. Lucy’s is rung, creating the same D natural tone as the church in Lourdes, France. The Grotto is open daily, morning to sunset, weather permitting.
During my visit, it started to rain a bit, but, it was still beautiful to behold. There were a handful of visitors who came to collect the holy water. Some arrived with small plastic bottles, while others arrived with gallon-sized ones.
I noticed many rosary beads hanging around the Virgin Mary statue, that had apparently been placed there by visitors. Standing beneath the Grotto was a wonderful experience and I felt very fortunate to have visited a place with so much history and spiritual meaning to so many so close to home.
Inside St. Lucy’s Church, a rather humble and unassuming space, is the most gorgeous tile mosaic on the wall closest to the entrance. Alexandra informed me that it was originally behind the altar, but was subsequently moved to its current location. As we were exiting the church, the church bells were playing Ave Maria, which was more lovely than I could ever describe.
Attached to the church through a separate entrance is the Hall of Saints and a door and staircase that led up to a small gift shop. I enjoyed perusing through the shop, with its many interesting items, including holy water from the Lourdes France Grotto, as well as empty bottles for which to fill with water at St. Lucy’s Grotto.
The store manager, Michael was extremely helpful and most knowledgeable about the church.
In a word, my Bronx Church Tour Day was Divine!!
Till next time,
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Elisa is a travel blogger and freelance writer. She is co-founder of TravelinCousins.com travel blog and writes a weekly column for ThisIsTheBronx.info.