Walking East 3rd Street: Church of the Most Holy Redeemer

Walking East 3rd Street is a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2012 Intro to Public History course. Each pair of students was tasked with researching the cultural history of one particular block of East 3rd Street and sharing with us something fascinating they discovered along the way. All posts in the series are written by students.

The fourth post in the series, by Burke Blackman, Daniella Lurion and Anne Marie Marten, focuses on East 3rd Street between Avenues A & B.

East 3rd Street between Avenues A & B

A view of the block today, with the Most Holy Redeemer’s bell tower visible in the background

In the mid-nineteenth century, the block of East Third Street between Avenues A and B lay in the heart of “Kleindeutschland,” a large German immigrant community that began forming in the Lower East Side in the 1830s.  The initial settlers of the block came largely from southern Germany; many were Catholic and attended service at the first German-language parish in New York City—St. Nicholas—located one street over on 2nd.  When St. Nicholas became overcrowded by 1844, New York Archbishop John Hughes approved the establishment of a second German parish, the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, at 173 East Third, which still serves the neighborhood today.

The block circa 1875, before the shortening of the bell tower

The church, consecrated in November of 1852, was built in the ornate German Baroque style and reflected the strong monetary support of its parishioners, who viewed financial contribution as a sign of individual religious commitment.  Its lavish features, still impressive despite the weathering of time, include a marbled interior, imported German stained-glass windows, and eight small side chapels.

Views of the church interior

In 1865, the parish community numbered 15,000, and it was estimated that between 6,000 and 9,000 people attended Sunday Mass on a weekly basis.   Indeed, the New York German Catholic community often referred to Holy Redeemer as their “cathedral.”  By 1870, the church’s treasury was large enough to enable the parish to loan $40,000 to a new church in Boston.   Its wealth and grandeur, however, sometimes made it the subject of burglary attempts.

New York Times, October 27, 1897

In October of 1897, neighborhood police officer Frederick “Schmitty” Smith was killed in the church while trying to arrest a burglar who, it was soon discovered, was the leader of a gang of criminals responsible for a burglary and murder at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Brooklyn.  After shooting Smith and attempting an unsuccessful escape through a church schoolroom window, a man giving the name of “Fritz Meyer” was apprehended and taken to police headquarters.  Detectives there noticed Meyer was missing his left index finger above the first joint, which matched a bloody handprint left at the scene of the murder of Holy Trinity bellringer George Stelz two months prior.  After further inquiry, police confirmed that a pocketbook in Meyer’s possession had belonged to Mr. Stelz.  The subsequent trial of Mr. Meyer, whose real name was Constantine Steiger, made headlines in the New York City dailies throughout the following month.

Illustrations from The World, October 28, 1897

Illustrations from The World, October 28, 1897

Officer Smith achieved hero status both among the New York City police force and the neighborhood in which he lived and served. His funeral was held the Saturday after his death and consisted of two separate services—a Masonic service at Mott’s Hall on Sixth Street and a Catholic service at Holy Redeemer.  Though Smith had been a Mason (and probably a Lutheran) in life, Holy Redeemer Father Aloysius Engelhardt had administered last rites to him as he lay dying, mistakenly believing him to be Catholic.  After his death, friends and family came forward claiming he had indeed expressed a desire to become Catholic, and so the two services were arranged, with a mourning procession between them winding through the neighborhood.  The World reported that nearly ten thousand supporters thronged to bid Officer Smith a final farewell.   In 1912, he would be further memorialized by being one of the first thirty-two officers recognized for death in the line of duty on a marble “Roll of Honor” placed at the entrance to the Police Headquarters building at 240 Centre Street.

Frederick Smith’s story would continue to live on at Holy Redeemer in a less tangible form, intertwining with the church’s collection of religious relics to give rise to a legend regarding his final resting place.  A 1947 article in The Milwaukee Journal reported that hundreds of Catholic visitors from across the United States visited Holy Redeemer on Maundy Thursday of that year to view what they believed to be the preserved remains of the fallen officer.  In reality, they were viewing the wax figure of a certain Saint Datian, whose bones were gifted to the church from Italy in 1892.  This story is a testament to the continuing significance of the church to the Catholic community well into the twentieth century.

This wax likeness of Saint Datian is still on display today in the northeast corner of the sanctuary.


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