If you live somewhere between 100th and 125th Streets on the West Side of Manhattan and you happen to open your window at about 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, you will hear the clarion of churches ringing out the hour of the High Mass; you will hear the great bells of St. John’s Cathedral and of the high-spired tower that is Riverside Church; the Catholic churches of the Ascension; of Notre Dame and of the little church of Corpus Christi, calling people to their services. You get a kind of intoxication from this, the impression that all is well with the world, even if the newspapers convey a different message. A feeling comes to you: that religion is in the air, and so you step out; during a walk down Broadway or Amsterdam Avenue, you will encounter the nattily dressed members of the Seventh Day Adventists, genteel African Americans and Latinos handing out copies of Awake! on street corners. Or should you wander eastward towards Columbus around 106th Street, you will pass by a storefront church and hear a heart-elating Baptist choir, lively with tambourines, cheap electric guitars and organ, voices singing out the praises of religion with the vivacity of musicians in a jazz nightclub. Or if you happen to be walking along 107th on Good Friday, around 3 o’clock you will observe the Passion of Christ, reenacted on the street, a man dressed as Jesus carrying a large wooden cross on his back followed by a choir, and a minister, usually a woman, singing out in Spanish the Stations of the Cross and exalting the crowds who line the sidewalks to pray, as this procession winds its way through the neighborhood.
And there is Christmas--blocks and blocks of tenement windows, lit by warm, flickering lights, carols on the carillons, tree vendors everywhere . . . Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, when I was a kid, I used to attend the midnight Christmas masses at Corpus Christi, on 121st Street, joining my childhood friends for the celebration of the Catholic Mass; this was the greatest time—with the nave of the church decorated with pine branches and flowers, the sophisticated choir singing Bach and Palestrina, the joyous celebration of the holiday, unfolding in an atmosphere dense with candle wax, incense, and congeniality. The families in attendance were mainly working class Irish and Latinos, often recently arrived. I would see the Cruz and Alonso and Ortiz families, the O’Briens and Sullivans. Peace reigned in the world, and although few could understand the whole sum of the Latin service, the general drift—that mankind was loved by God—was understood and savored by all. The sermons were conducted in English—none of the Irish priests spoke Spanish then—but, I do remember a number of parables being told about a brother and sister, Jose and Maria. I recall a New Testament style to these tales and of feeling deeply affected by them, as were the other kids, who, with some exceptions, were as well-behaved as New York City kids could be. Taking communion, you departed the Mass in a happy and confident state, returning home to await the next morning’s gifts, and arrival of the bells.
From “City of Beliefs” by Oscar Hijuelos and Tony Carnes in The New York Pop-Up Book, Edited by Marie Salerno, Contributing editor Arthur Gelb. New York: Universe Publishing, 1999. Illustration: Miklos Suba, Storefront Mission, Brooklyn, 1943/Museum of the City of New York.