The history of the Church of Notre Dame has been rich and exciting, as has been the century in which it has flourished. We are a twentieth-century parish and we have shared in the changes and challenges which have made this century such an interesting time in which to be alive and to be Catholic.
Notre Dame began in 1910 - not first as a church, but as a chapel; not first as a parish, but as a mission. It is hard to realize, looking at the busy, cosmopolitan area of Morningside Heights today, that not so many years ago, even within the memories of some still living, this area was undeveloped with open land and a sparse population. That, however, was the case as Notre Dame began life as a mission of the Church of St. Vincent de Paul (on West 24th Street). A French community of priests, the Fathers of Mercy, was entrusted with the care of this mission in the early years of this century as there were many French immigrants in this community.
In time the French community was integrated with other ethnic groups that found Notre Dame to be their home: Irish, German, Italian, African-American, Hispanic and Filipino. Notre Dame today is as ethnically diverse as the city and neighborhood in which it thrives.
The passage of time has seen the responsibility for Notre Dame transfer from the Fathers of Mercy to the Archdiocese of New York (1960). Time has brought not only change but growth as Notre Dame became an official parish in 1919 and grew from a small chapel to the present church in the late 1920's and early 1930's.
Throughout its history, Notre Dame has remained a center of devotion to Our Lady, especially to the Mother of God who revealed herself to St. Bernadette at Lourdes as the "Immaculate Conception". The beautiful grotto of Notre Dame is a replica of the grotto where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette, marks the place of Notre Dame's first altar and was the focal point of its first chapel. Today it stands behind the church's main altar and it remains the defining element and spiritual center of the Catholic community of Notre Dame.
The present community of Notre Dame is enriched by its association with St. Luke's Hospital where many of its parishioners work and where our pastoral care is so important. In 1988, a new stage in Notre Dame's history began when its other great neighbor in Morningside Heights, Columbia University, was officially included in its pastoral mission. For the first time, the Pastor of Notre Dame was appointed the Catholic Chaplain at Columbia.
In 2003 responsibility for the parish and all its ministries was transferred to Polish Province of the Dominican Order.
On March 25, 1910, plans were first adopted for a chapel to be built in Morningside Heights. The architectural firm Dans and Otto was chosen to develop the project which included both a chapel and a replica of the Grotto where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette in France in 1858. The grotto chapel was dedicated by Archbishop Farley (later Cardinal Farley) on October 2, 1910. The chapel was completed in October 1911.
Very soon, an expansion of the church became necessary - an expansion which would go on intermittently for nearly 50 years. The architects for the new church were Cross and Cross. They modeled the structure after the Church of Saint Louis in Paris, better known as L'Eglise des Invalides and as the final resting place of Napoleon the First.
The larger church was dedicated on February 11 (the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes), 1915 by Cardinal Farley who returned on October 2, 1916 to consecrate the grotto altar. The altars to the Sacred Heart, Saint Joseph and Saint Joan of Arc were dedicated on December 2, 1916 by Auxiliary Bishop Patrick J. Hayes (who later became the Cardinal Archbishop of New York).
In the fall of 1919, work on the interior of the expanded church began in earnest. The entire project would continue through the next decade. On February 15, 1925, Notre Dame's beautiful organ (built in Quebec by the Casavant Brothers) was inaugurated. Two years later the main altar of Carrara marble arrived from France for installation.
The designer of Notre Dame's altar was Edmond Becker, a French artist. Becker worked in white marble and gilt bronze, and created a matching altar, pulpit, and Communion rail. The focal point of the altar is an eight-foot-high Crucifix, with the Blessed Mother and Saint John flanking Jesus on either side of the Cross. Bas-reliefs around the altar illustrate the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Coronation of Mary. Bas-reliefs of the four evangelists adorn the pulpit. When the altar was first displayed, observers were intrigued by the halos about the heads of Christ, His Mother and His Beloved Disciple. These are made of enamel and illuminated electrically. The altar and pulpit were consecrated on Wednesday, April 20, 1927, and formally dedicated on Sunday, April 24th.
In the early 1960's the original plans to crown the Church of Notre Dame with a high dome were finally abandoned and the current shallow dome and low roofline were finished. At that time the garden between the church and the rectory was created and adorned with the statues of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady.
In 1988, a renovation was made in the church which allowed the main church altar to be used for the celebration of Mass once again.
When the New York City Landmarks Commission designated the Church and the Rectory of Notre Dame as landmarks in January, 1967, the buildings were described as follows:
"The Church of Notre Dame is an outstanding example of the French neo-classical style adapted to a relatively small ecclesiastical design.... The building achieves a sense of monumentality through the imposing front entrance portico. The interior of the church is also perceived as a grand space because of the ingenious use of colossal marble columns at the side aisles which spring into soaring arches, dwarfing its visitors. The Rectory, based on Italian Renaissance precedents, is skillfully related to the church and well designed to fit the unusually narrow site."
Please visit Church of Notre Dame NYC History Archive by Miss Valerie Coates for more detailed history on Notre Dame.