French Language and Social Justice:
An Enduring Legacy
A French Priest in Pre-Civil War NY Champions Equality
There is a lot to be said for not minding your own business. In the early 1840s, a French missionary priest refused to mind his own business, and established a church that has been a beacon of racial tolerance and equality in this city for over 160 years.
The story begins in the 1830s, when word got back to French religious leaders of the day that the French Catholics in New York were migrating to French Protestant services because these services were being offered in French. Alarmed at this trend, the Archbishop of Nancy preached a mass in French at St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, urging the French to establish their own church, as the Germans and the Italians had done, in order to preserve the cultural link to France for their rapidly Americanizing children. The French heeded the call, and by 1841 the French had their own church, St. Vincent de Paul. In the 1850s, the parish moved from Canal Street to its present location in Chelsea.
The pastor, Annet Lafont, was a French priest from the order of the Fathers of Mercy, a French Missionary order. By all accounts, he was an extraordinary leader. He founded orphanages in New York City and Tarrytown, homes for the elderly, young women’s residences. What is now known as Manhattan College grew from his parish school.
Father Lafont, however, was not content simply to mind his own flock. In a document celebrating the centenary of the Fathers of Mercy, we learn that Father Lafont was moved by the plight of African-Americans in New York City. One of Lafont’s contemporary supporters, the Frenchman Henry de Courcy, describes the struggle of New York City’s Black community in an 1846 letter to Paris, writing “The blacks are citizens, but if they want to exercise their political rights, a riot chases them from the balloting places. They are Christians, but when they go into a church, the whites turn them out of doors…there is everywhere between the two races a line of demarcation that cannot be crossed.”
Father Lafont’s response to this condition was swift and radical. The author of the Fathers of Mercy centenary history tells us he was “the first white man in the Northern States who dared to open a school for [blacks]. Though they were not French, and often not Catholic—in short, none of his business—Father Lafont did his greatest work among people of African descent, and the fruits of that work can be felt 160 years later in the life and ministry of St. Vincent de Paul church.
When some white families threatened to remove their children from St. Vincent de Paul’s School, Father Lafont simply opened his own house to the children and became their teacher himself. He was supported with funding from Pierre Toussaint, the Haitian former slave who became the successful hairdresser to the elite and a principal donor to the school. Thus the establishment of a Catholic school for children of African descent and racial integration of the parish took place about 70 years before these events took place anywhere else in New York. St. Mark the Evangelist parish in Harlem, was not integrated until 1912.
Father Lafont was not satisfied with only reaching the children. He also organized the St. Ann Society, the first black mission in New York. Through the society, the children and their parents were given weekly religious instruction classes in the basement of St. Vincent de Paul. And on Sundays was seen, as is noted in the centenary history, “perhaps for the first time in the United States, the happy spectacle of both white and black approaching the altar of God, in the Church of St. Vincent de Paul, to partake of the Bread of Life of which Jesus Christ had said all must eat if they would not perish.”
The New York Archdiocese recognizes the greatness of Father Lafont, describing him “one of the most dynamic priests in the antebellum history of our diocese” and goes on to tell us that “His pastoral skills as founder of the French parish, St. Vincent de Paul, as well as his strong social conscience were a benchmark for the clergy of the city.”
Indeed, Father Lafont took the first step in what has been an uninterrupted legacy of racial and religious tolerance and social justice at St. Vincent de Paul. The tradition has included giving safe haven to those new to the city. After World War II, as outlined in a letter by Professor Irene Finel-Honigman, French Jewish refugee children found warmth and belonging at St. Vincent de Paul. In the 1960’s and 1970’s after the devastating rise of Haitian dictator Duvalier, Haitians sought and found community at St. Vincent de Paul. These days, the church is attended not only by those of French, Belgian, Canadian, Haitian and American descent, but has become a spiritual center for New York’s French-speaking African immigrants as well.
Center of the French Community in Chelsea
The Chelsea area had a large French immigrant population in the last half of the 19th century and through the early 20th century. St. Vincent de Paul became the center of that community. The first French Hospital moved to the neighborhood in 1888, from 14th Street to West 34th Street, to serve the large French population. The French Hospital moved eventually to West 30th Street in 1929, where it operated until the 1970s. The École Maternelle Française was located within the London Terrace complex in Chelsea.
The New York Times in 1906 described the French colony in New York, stating that about “26,000 sons and daughters of sunny France are mingled with the nearly four million inhabitants of the American metropolis….” Many of the French cultural organizations were located in the West 20s and 30s. The Times described the social center as the clubhouse of the Cercle Française de l’Harmonie on West 26th Street. A battalion of the Guards of Lafayette was headquartered on West 25th Street. Father Lafont’s Orphanage of St. Vincent de Paul began behind the church on West 24th Street and then moved to West 39th Street. There were a number of food-related organizations in the areas well, including L’Art Culinaire, on West 28th Street, Cuise Cosmopolite on West 3rd Street, and Cuise Philanthropique, on West 31st Street.
More recently, the community of St. Vincent de Paul Church established a not-for-profit charitable organization, Carrefour Pastoral de la Francophonie, to meet the spiritual and physical needs of French-speaking immigrants of every religion. It runs a food pantry, a clothing distribution center, a scholarship fund, parenting and language classes as well as immigration and battered women’s referral services. People of every extraction—French, African, Haitian, Swiss, Belgian, Canadian, American—and every economic level are involved in running and funding the programs.
A Hub of French Culture: The Delmonicos, Edith Piaf and Beyond….
In addition to being at the vanguard of social justice, St. Vincent de Paul has been through the years a magnet for the French “beautiful people.” It was the first church in New York to have a crèche scene at Christmas, and newspaper archives are rife with references to its candlelit ceremonies, noblemen, organ concerts and society weddings.
In 1961, Edith Piaf, with Marlene Dietrich as her maid of honor, was married at St. Vincent de Paul. And after the opera star Armand Castelmary tragically died on stage at the Met, his funeral mass was sung at the church.
St. Vincent de Paul was also the site of a fundraiser in 1868, catered by the Delmonico family and affording journalists covering the event the opportunity of, it was noted, “viewing a large amount of French female beauty and elegance.” The family of Louis Keller, publisher of the social register, chose St. Vincent de Paul as the place in which to hold his funeral.
Over the years, the congregation has remained true to Father Lafont’s ideals. One parishioner recalls her Haitian mother in her Creole earrings sharing the pew with a row of older ladies in the traditional head gear of Brittany. And of course, being a French church, St. Vincent de Paul’s coffee hours were never really coffee hours, but wine and cheese receptions, with smelly cheeses and baguettes aplenty.
When the church’s electro-pneumatic organ, installed in 1939, was restored in1983 the occasion was marked by an inaugural concert by Pierre Cochereau, the titular organist of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. These days, global Franophone parishioners attend a diverse mass where African music regularly punctuates the classical service.
Memorial to French and American Veterans, Visited by Charles de Gaulle
St. Vincent de Paul is also a special place of remembrance. In the church, there is a memorial to French and American
volunteers of the Lafayette Squadron and the American Field Service who died for France during World War I, and 337 French-American men who died during the two World Wars. Following World War II, the memorial was rededicated in person by Charles de Gaulle. Among those listed on the entablature are Antoine de St. Exupery, author of The Little Prince, and Charles Nungesser, the pilot. To this day, twice a year, commemorative masses are celebrated for the veterans.
Save St. Vincent de Paul!
St. Vincent de Paul Church is an extraordinary institution the merits of which extend far beyond its architectural refinement, uniting elements of Architecture and Art, Multiculturalism and Racial Tolerance; Beauty of Form and Beauty of Spirit. We urge you to lend your support to the effort to have St. Vincent de Paul Church designated a New York City Landmark.