Observations: Moneychangers

Don’t even think of eating your lunch on the steps of the Church of St. Andrew, which faces the broad plaza now called Cardinal Hayes Place in downtown Manhattan. For visitors to the plaza — bordered on the north by Pearl Street and just a shout from the Brooklyn Bridge — the steps of St. Andrew’s, especially the steps in front of the doors obviously locked behind signs which say “Use Side Doors,” look like a welcome respite from overpriced restaurants and crowded municipal cafeterias.

But not so fast, buddy. I mean, whaddya think this is? This is a church, here, you know, this ain’t no public park. I paraphrase the injunctions of a man who identified himself as “Charlie, I’m in charge here.” Charlie said yes, he was the sexton. He wore blue pants, brown shoes, and an air of authority. Charlie the sexton became quite disagreeable when poor travelers tried to reason with him. There are three sets of doors to St. Andrew’s. Two sets were open, their steps clear of tired luncheoners. The center steps, before the locked doors, held visitors in suits, alone or in couples, quietly eating sandwiches. The shiny aluminum cans they upended held diet soda. Wassamater, Charlie inquired, can’t you read? Behold, a lone and tattered plastic sign, affixed to a very statelypillar with fishing line, not-so-subtly chided “ENJOY YOUR LUNCH. PLEASE DO NOT SIT ON CHURCH STEPS. THANK YOU.”

Too bad. I mean, half the city seems to have lunch on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and nobody seems to mind. It is a prime spot for watching the people in the passing busses and taxis watching the people on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral watching the people…anyway, you get the picture. Maybe because St. Andrew’s is a few years older than St. Patrick’s it claims the right to keep people from resting quietly on its steps. It’s sort of famous. When it was known as Carroll Hall it was where the New York Archdiocese’s parochial school system was hatched.

When Charlie the sexton wasn’t looking, I slipped inside. Just beyond those decorous steps is a panoply of merchandising that would make even Mr. Bloomingdale himself envious. Two large pamphlet racks displayed a garden variety of brochures, newspapers, pamphlets, and cards. Four large tables displayed plastic necklaces, plastic earrings, and plastic rosaries. Some plastic crucifixes were interspersed among the plastic bangle bracelets. Even a plastic bas-relief of the Last Supper. Religious key rings were advertised, at one dollar each. They included such wisdom as “Happiness is keeping you smiling.” A large assortment of twenty-five-cent greeting cards, with such poetry as “I’m sorry to hear / That you’ve not been yourself / So I’m sending some cheer / And wishing you health,” were there for the perusing. All the while a lady chanted in the background, “Buy a chance, one dollar, buy a chance, one dollar.”

It is, however, possible to get past both Charlie the sexton and the chance lady. The contrast is remarkable. Here is St. Andrew’s, a church first built in 1938 to replace other structures, with a 144-year history of service to the downtowners. In 1906 it became the first parish in the city to offer noon masses for the business and government workers in the City Hall area. Its interior is wood-paneled; there are beautiful hand-sculpted wood statues of Mother Cabrini, St. Therese, and St. Anthony. On either side of the main altar, similar statues of St. Andrew and St. Peter sit in the light of the nine stained glass windows depicting other saints. On one side of the altar in large letters the words of Jesus are quoted: “A new commandment I give unto you: that you love one another as I have loved you.”

New York has never been a very hospitable city. The subways are hot and noisy, the sidewalks are dirty. Everyone is rushing, everyone is tired, everyone is preoccupied. It is nice inside St. Andrew’s church downtown, if you can get past Charlie the sexton and the chance lady to sit quietly for a minute or two before lurching out into the passing stream of humanity. I think if I were pastor, I’d want to encourage more people to come in. If I were pastor, I’d burn that plastic sign disgracing the 48-year-old pillar. I’d make a smaller one, maybe in wood, with gilt letters. It would say: “This is the Church of St. Andrew. You are as welcome inside as you are outside. Whether you are a regular or a first-time visitor, we hope you will contribute to the support of this church. Welcome, and God bless you.”

But then again, if I were pastor, I wouldn’t have to eat my lunch out of a brown bag on the steps.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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