Shhh! Today we are in Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street in Manhattan. It has been newly restored and I must say is a jewel of a place. The church was founded in 1852 to accommodate the influx of Irish Catholics in the neighborhood and expanded as the area population grew, eventually to include a school and convent on nearby streets.
The building in place now is the second incarnation which replaced the lightning damaged and unstable original structure in 1868. According the the church’s web site, it is the oldest building on 42nd Street from river to river.
Holy Cross is perhaps most commonly known as the pulpit of Reverend Francis P. Duffy, the highly decorated Chaplain of the 69th Regiment’s “Fighting Irish” in World War I.However, the reason I visited Holy Cross was a more personal one: almost 92 years ago, on June 1, 1919 my grandparents John Tierney and Mary Egan were married here.
As a native New Yorker, I can’t imagine how many times I walked near this church or any number of other locations in the city without the slightest idea that something of familial significance occurred there.
Of course, for most of my life even if I had known I was passing the church where they were married it likely would not have registered to me very much. To be honest, it still amazes me how little I asked about family stories. Oh, I was interested as they were told to me, but they didn’t feel a tangible part of my experience or background – more like faint echoes that you can’t quite understand.
My mother’s written family narrative helped jumpstart my interest and when I finally started scanning all of our family photos something developed. As I handled the photos of both known and unidentified family I began to discern patterns.
More importantly, I began to understand the importance of context. Grandma wasn’t just the memory of the stern-looking lady at right, the big suffocating hugs in my youngster’s memory or her drinking tea with condensed milk straight out of the can. She became also a sophisticated looking young woman. A step-mother of three very young children on a family outing. One of a pair of girlfriends sitting and posing on the Coney Island boardwalk wearing high-laced boots.
Was this photo of she and my grandfather their wedding portrait? How come I hadn’t realized she had volunteered to knit warm clothing for WWI submariners?
I began to think of her from the point of view of a contemporary and lost most of my own one-dimensional perspective that had tarnished the larger image.
In the midst of an amazing year of family research and reconnections, I now know more than ever before that she had both a terribly hard young life in Ireland and later more difficulties in New York.
But as I stepped into the vestibule of Holy Cross Church and looked down the aisle toward the sanctuary, I imagined her on June 1, 1919 standing right before me and seeing my grandfather waiting for her down at the altar. Grandma Mary wasn’t there; May Egan was.
I sat quietly in the church for awhile and admired the architecture, the beautiful chancel windows and the Tiffany designed tile work and clerestory windows. But at regular beats I could not help but peer back over where in that moment between the harshness of her youth and later life, May stood at the altar with hope, love and optimism in her heart.