36 years ago in 1980, Immaculate Conception Church in the Melrose neighborhood of The Bronx, along with its convent, rectory, and priests’ residence was calendered for landmarking by New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission but nothing happened.
Until this past Tuesday.
LPC removed 65 properties from the calendar, many of which sat for decades waiting for action, but kept Immaculate Conception and prioritized for designation as a landmark by year’s end pending further hearings and a vote.
Personal disclaimer, I grew up attending mass at Immaculate Conception and my parents have been heavily involved with the parish for decades and even further with my grandmother has been attending the mass on a daily basis for almost 44 years.
Although I am no longer a Catholic, I have always had a strong connection to the building. I was always fascinated by its beauty both on the inside and outside and I respect worshippers believe that it is not just a building to them but a living, breathing entity.
Its cavernous interior with tall vaulted ceilings made you feel so small and it was no wonder Immaculate Conception Church is referred to as the Cathedral of The Bronx by its parishioners.
The stained glass windows are magnificent works of art telling the story of Mary—in German since the parish was founded by the German population who founded the village of Melrose in the 1850s.
The windows were imported from Germany and were made by the famous Franz Mayer & Co of Munich who created these beautiful windows for churches and cathedrals (mostly Roman Catholic) throughout Europe and across the world.
According to parish documents, here’s a brief account of this magnificent church and parish (with our comments in parenthesis):
A Brief Story of How Our Church Came to Be (dated 2012)
“September 25, 1887, 125 years ago, the ground was broken for our beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Story of the parish and the school begins much earlier in 1853. Mr Ignatius Vossing and Mr Caspar Braudlacht had built a wooden church and then went to Archbishop John Hughes to ask for a priest. This is how Rev. Caspar Mtzler became the first pastor of Immaculate.
Help was needed and it came. The Redemptorist church on East 3rd Street was being torn down and they donated pews and stations of the cross to their german friends in The Bronx (then the village of Melrose in Westchester County) and most importantly they donated a statue of the Immaculate Conception from its niche in Most Holy Redeemer Church. They probably never suspected that one day Immaculate would become a Redemptorist parish.
1873 saw the Sisters of Christian Charity come to administer Immaculate Conception School and as the parish and school grew there was need for bigger buildings. Attempts were made, but problems with the city led to many postponements. (By this time, Melrose and the West Bronx had been annexed to New York County becoming a part of NYC). Rev. Joseph Stumpe, the fourth pastor of Immaculate, gave his little school wings, the east side for the Sisters of Christian Charity and the west for the Christian Brothers. A large top floor of the building would be the new Immaculate Conception Church as the city tore down the little wooden church on 150th Street. The new church was blessed on October 3rd, 1875 and Immaculate had a pastor and now two associate pastors.
The neighborhood grew even faster and Father Stumpe knew he needed bigger church. His health was not up to the task and when he returned from Europe in 1886 he found that Archbishop Michael Corrigan had asked the Redemptorists to administer the parish and to build a bigger church.
On October 26, 1886, Father Jacob Keitz C Ss.R. was appointed the first Redemptorist pastor. The first Redemptorist community consisted of 5 priests and two brothers. Father Keitz began the work and it was left to Father John Liebfritz, who was appointed pastor on January 24, 1888 to complete it. With their German roots the Redemptorists commissioned Father Schauer C.Ss.R., who was returning to Germany, to look into stained glass windows; he found what he was looking for with Mayer of Munich and the story of Mary was told in our beautiful stained glass windows. The total cost of the church was $152,000.00
Someone might ask why didn’t they build the church on 150 and Melrose Avenue. There was no Melrose Avenue then and the city steamrolling the hills, it was safer in the middle of the street. Immaculate started as a church for German Catholics but the predecessor of the Redemptorists, Father Stumpe, had introduced sermons in English. Archbishop Corrigan told the Redemptorists that Immaculate was to be for German Catholics, but Father Keitz saw the wave of the future and insisted on having the 9:00AM Mass with English sermon and English bulletins. 70 years later Father Walter Reinhart C.Ss.R. saw the new wave of immigrants and celebrated the first Mass in Spanish. “
And since the 1950s, mass has been celebrated in both English and Spanish. Today on Sundays, Mass is held 4 times with 2 English Masses and 2 Spanish Masses.
The parish and church has witnessed Melrose transform from a nascent village where just 3 years prior to the founding of Immaculate, in 1850 Matthias Haffen and his wife Catherine Hayes moved to 152nd and Courtlandt Avenue where a man by the name of Louis F. Haffen, their son, would be born and go on to become the first Borough President of The Bronx.
Immaculate Conception has withstood the test of time for almost 130 years watching a small village turn into a bustiling downtown area and hub which would eventually give birth to The Bronx as an official County at the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse back in 1914 in Melrose.
Louis F. Haffen himself attended mass with his family at Immaculate Conception and completed the sacrament of First Holy Communion there.
Now the church also serves as a haven for the influx of Mexican immigrants and is a base for pathways to citizenship by providing classes to those in need as well as free immigration services.
Considering the number of churches that have fallen to developers’ crains such as St Augustine up in Morrisania and countless others, let’s hope that by the end of the year, Immaculate Conception is saved from that same possible fate in the future by it receiving landmark status.
More images below the break: