Updated: Jul 17, 2021
A Blue and White editor goes church-hopping.
By Luca Marzorati
Despite its reputation as an academic acropolis, Morningside Heights is actually closer to a holy city. In a neighborhood that covers less than a quarter of a square mile, there are no fewer than eight religious institutions, along with three seminaries, one independent chapel, and an office building nicknamed “The God Box” that headquarters dozens of national religious groups. Braving unusually crisp fall weather, we went out to see them all.
Our starting point is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Approaching from the cathedral’s front on Amsterdam Avenue, we wonder why foreigners make the church an incontrovertible stop on the uptown tour bus circuit. The few tourists lingering on the sidewalk look cold and confused. Haven’t they seen enough cathedrals on their own continent? Isn’t this just another misguided American attempt at super-sizing?
At street level, calling the building “unfinished” is a compliment. It is dirty, crumbling, and certainly uneven. An official plaque outside the main doors doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that the cathedral was intended to be Romanesque in style before the second architects attempted to make it a Gothic revival.
These aesthetic inconsistencies are enhanced by the seemingly forgotten construction materials that scatter the site. Scaffolds block an entrance. Caution tape surrounds a chipped alcove. Halfway up the façade, the keen eye can see a pulley system dangling dangerously, a vestige from some past restoration project.
And now, after selling the southeast portion of the property to developers building a modern glass apartment building, the cathedral is making room for more construction. The Episcopal Church has agreed to deal in more land in order to raise funds to finish the building. As more apartment towers rise, we’re trying not to think of the cathedral as an addict, selling pieces of itself in the futile quest for completion.
Yet as we attempt to flee the staccato pounding of jackhammers and walk into the garden on the cathedral’s south side, we begin to reconsider. What if the famed Episcopalian inclusivity has found its structural parallel? Sure, it may have started as a cathedral, but now the grounds host a school, a sculpture garden, and various other religious buildings. So what if a few luxury high-rises move in? Times change. God would understand.
We wrap around the block, and walk up the hill alongside Morningside Park. Only a few blocks north stands St. John the Divine’s aesthetic counterpoint, the Church of Notre Dame—or Église de Notre Dame, as is spelled out on the lintel. The church is Catholic; its design is not. The limestone is impeccably white, and imposing gates clearly demarcate where church ground ends and the world of heathens begins. There are even upturned spikes on all horizontal surfaces to keep out birds, whose shit would undoubtedly smear the sacred walls. All the holy water in the church comes from France. Despite our Catholic upbringing, we cannot detect the difference.
Sunday services at Notre Dame are offered in three languages. The French mass, once catered towards a continental elite transplanted to New York, now attracts Haitians and Africans, as Catholicism increasingly becomes the provenance of the Global South. Dressed in vibrant garb, parishioners exiting a morning sacrement seemed blissfully unfazed by the church’s austerity.
Ironically, it is the church closest to Columbia’s campus that is perhaps the least memorable. Broadway Presbyterian Church, which sits at 114th Street and Broadway, undoubtedly upholds the charitable Protestant ethic, but at what cost? There is a cruel irony in worship, one that has bothered the pious for centuries, if not millennia. On the one hand, the vast majority of religions stress generosity as an act in tune with the wishes of God, or Yahweh, or Allah. On the other hand, we’re more likely to find God in the first place if we’re praying in the midst of opulence, or at least decoration.
So, may God bless the Broadway Presbyterian Church for its countless soup kitchens, its self-described “quirky-beautiful crowd,” and for lending those without roof over their heads a perch on its steps, if only briefly. But there’s no denying that the church could use some work. Photographs from the early twentieth century depict a tidy chapel—a holy rejoinder to its secular cousin across Broadway. But now its façade is stained, and the church’s steeple only reaches the sixth floor of Nussbaum. Our conclusion? In matters celestial and sexual, size matters.
As we walk north, the composition of the neighborhood becomes downright theological. Between the Barnard campus and the Manhattanville construction site, we see countless signs of outward adoration. Whether they are wearing turbans, frocks, or tallits, all passers-by can agree that the wind blustering off the Hudson is utterly hellish.
Though they are out in numbers on a Sunday afternoon, we wonder how much this crowd truly impacts our neighborhood’s vibe. It seems that Chipotle running out of carne asada would cause a bigger ripple among Morningside Heights residents than if all the aspiring seminarians were to take part in a neighborhood exodus.
Here, as elsewhere, it all depends on the context— any priest at a local watering hole in the wee hours of the morning would surely have some (non-scriptural) questions to ponder. But the area in the northwest corner of Morningside Heights is the most concentrated and most diverse religious zone in the city. Institutes for Jewish intellectuals adjoin institutes for their Muslim counterparts. But, only blocks south, religious and political debates show no sign of losing vigor, or even moving to new ground. Sharing a library is not the same as sharing a viewpoint.
As we walk into the wind towards Grant’s Tomb (the final resting place of a man who only went to church to please his wife) we begin to think that the religiosity of Morningside Heights may rest in the mind, not in the heart. Despite the proliferation of churches, we would be reluctant to call Columbia a “religious” school. Say what you will about a liberal arts education, but the intellectual outweighs the vocational around here.
So perhaps it is no surprise that the crown jewel of the neighborhood’s houses of God—Riverside Church—professes no denomination. The church, which towers over Riverside Drive at 120th Street, was a Rockefeller project, symbolic of the American industrialists’ utopian notion that capitalism could solve moral rifts of time immemorial.
Riverside Church is the tallest in the United States; addled crammers leaving Butler in the hazy predawn have been known to espy the Eye of Sauron atop the steeple. Like Tolkien’s Lidless Eye, the church seems to be from another time. It is also deceptively large: only after two perambulations did we come to terms with the fact that it’s as big as a conference center.
Riverside Church’s architectural merits are up for debate; its role in twentieth century American progressivism is not. From its start, the church has conceived of its role as equal parts justice and salvation. It hosts various social justice projects, and served as the site for Martin Luther King’s famous speech protesting the Vietnam War in 1967. If the neighborhood could be embodied in one religious building, it would be this one.
As the sun sets over the Hudson, we are left only with paradoxes—an intellectual limbo. Our monumental cathedral is falling victim to the all-too-tangible forces of the global economy. Our massive embodiment of religious acceptance is now a political symbol. And if the pews of the dozens of other churches are packed on Sundays, the congregants remain unknown to us. To paraphrase Sylvia Plath: we tried talking to God. As darkness spreads, the sky seems empty.