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Our History

Our Church is administered by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), a Roman Catholic religious order founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1540.

Rectory of St. Lawrence from 1850 to 1860

Our Parish was founded in 1851, by newly arrived Irish Catholics to New York City, who had been forced to flee their homeland during the deadly potato famine of 1845-49. Most of the 1.5 million Irish who left Ireland during that period emigrated to the United States, settling in where they landed—most of them in Eastern Seaboard cities from Philadelphia to Boston without the means to pay their way to travel inland. In New York City, these new arrivals lived mostly in the tenements of Yorkville, a predominantly Irish neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Working for low wages but keen to preserve their religion and communities, the tens of thousands of Irish immigrants to Manhattan during the mid-1800s built more than a half-dozen Catholic churches and parochial schools and mutual aid societies in the area. In 1852, those who established our Parish pooled their new but meager earnings to erect the simple wooden church of St. Lawrence O’Toole, named for an Irish Bishop, near the corner of East 84th Street and Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue).

Just two years later, as the Catholic population of the neighborhood and the city continued to expand quickly, the Pastor, the Rev. Eugene O’Reilly, spearheaded the construction of a more permanent, Romanesque-style building on that same site – but his ambition was larger than what parishioners could afford at the time. Though the new building was unassuming, its cost nearly bankrupted the still-impoverished church, putting it in debt for years, until 1866, when the administration of the Parish was given to the Jesuits, who were able to keep the doors open and provide a hub in the neighborhood for their much-needed work ministering to Yorkville’s burgeoning poor and marginalized of the era.

Park Avenue and East 84th Street, circa 1925.

During those early years, the Jesuit priests kept a tight reign on costs, initially turning to contribute their salaries to relieve the financial stress on the Parish, and by 1881, the Parish had enough money to start planning a new building. The decision was made quickly—and, some said, by divine intervention—when a large section of the old church ceiling fell into the sanctuary during Mass one Sunday in 1881. By 1895, the new limestone facade of the present-day church began rising as a classical adaptation of 17th-century Italian church architecture.

The unfinished Church, the original version of the building seen today, cost $250,000 at the time of its dedication on December 11, 1898. When it was completed in 1900, its doors opened onto an interior executed in marble and mosaics, pink granite columns and inlaid stone from Venice, with stained glass windows reflecting the Jesuit philosophy of honoring God through beauty and permanence. The growth of the Church would continue throughout the early years of the 20th century; a New York Times article covering the 50th anniversary of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on November 26, 1916, reported that more than 10,000 attended Mass at St. Ignatius that day, a crowd that was beginning to include some of the nation’s most successful business and political leaders of the time.

 

Hook and Hastings Organ in 1915

Our Church and Parish continue to grow in diversity and reach, as well as in size and stature. Its dedication to excellence in education spawned the founding more than a century ago of its highly reputed grammar schools and faith formation programs, which today are among the best in the region. Over the years, the St. Ignatius music program has also grown in cultural stature, featuring an array of reputed Parish and professional choruses, orchestras, and concerts. In 1993, the church installed a 30-ton mechanical tracker-action pipe organ —the centerpiece of its renowned music program. With 5,000 pipes, it is the largest tracker organ in New York—nearly the equivalent of a New York City subway car—and a source of pride for many St. Ignatius parishioners.

Today’s Parish also is highly active, with 34 different ministries – now highly diverse in income and ethnicity, though still true to its founding values of ministering to the poor and marginalized and welcoming all into its doors. In the words of the current Pastor, the Rev. Dennis Yesalonia, S.J., “From the outset, St. Ignatius has stayed true to its roots, ministering in the Ignatian way of prayer, community and service. In reflecting on our past, we are reminded that we are called and blessed by God’s grace to be a community of true disciples, gathered in prayer and worship, to meet the needs of our parishioners and be available to provide assistance to all who approach us.”