Saving St. Anselm's

The call for action to restore the irreplaceable Byzantine Revival artwork and Romanesque Revival architecture of St. Anselm's Roman Catholic Church in the South Bronx must not go unheeded. Perhaps the only one of its kind throughout the nation, architects Gustave E. Steinbeck and Anton Koster modeled St. Anselm's Church on Istanbul's Orthodox patriarchal basilica, Hagia Sophia, also known to Christians as Saint Sophia. St. Anselm's architecture and artistic representations resonate with Eastern Orthodox imagery.

Today, the building, its finely detailed interior, Romanesque Corinthian marble columns, exquisite geometric mosaics, and golden haloed sacred figures are rapidly deteriorating. There is little doubt that extensive and costly restoration is needed to preserve the church's unique artwork, painted domes, arches and archways, and its 93 stained glass windows. Otherwise, the church will soon become a distant memory preserved only in the hearts of its past and present parishioners.

Certainly the largely Latino residents of the parish have heard the clarion call for restoration. In the past three years, they've initiated the monumental task of raising funds to repair and restore the artwork under the direction of Colombian conservationists, Ruben Dario Cano and Paco C. Cano. But faithful commitment at the grass roots level does not always translate into much needed funding from philanthropic foundations, or church coffers, or the deep pockets of those who wield the power and the finances of this great city. Much more needs to be done. A broader base of support is needed to proclaim the church's importance at the highest levels.

I, for one, am concerned. When I first stepped into St. Anselm's I was not yet five years old but the experience remains with me to this day. During my grade school years, I must have attended mass every day of the week and on Sundays.

In those war-torn days, I imagined myself shielded by vividly painted domes and arches, serenely protected in rounded structures while the outside world tore itself to pieces. I spent hours observing every detail of the church's interior as my mind roamed away from priestly ritual, drawn to the array of Biblical scenes and gilded scripture that surrounded me. Eyes wide with awe, I mentally wandered in and about the painted figures, Byzantine crosses with symmetrical arms, and redemptive morality tales. Artistic representations of winged, dark haired Archangels intrigued me as did the sainted figures, their heads sanctified with gold leaf aureoles, who stood eternal watch over the dying Christ amidst gilded palm trees. In contemplative thought, I'd marvel at intricate jigsaws in the geometric mosaic patterns.

Clearly, the church's design and artwork left a strong impression during my formative years. To this day, most of the churches I've visited in this country and abroad have been measured by comparison to St. Anselm's uniqueness and beauty.

Like me, there must be others who care about St. Anselm's and its deteriorating state. Since 1892 the church has been the spiritual cradle for countless generations of immigrants who've shaped the South Bronx, its schools and institutions.

Immigrant families, their children and their children's children received First Communion and the Holy Sacraments at St. Anselm's ornate iron railing, eventually growing into the recipients of honors and accolades upon completion of their scholastic studies. St. Anselm was, after all, an early pioneer of scholasticism.

Some sixty plus years ago there were the Kelleys, the McGoverns, the O'Briens and the Breens. St. Anselm's resounded with their Irish jigs and accomplished step dancers. There were the Popes, the Cobuccis, the Aragons, and the Milanos. Rooted in the mid-century Mediterranean Catholicism of Italy, Sicily, or Spain, their Bronx experience was far removed from the political and economic strife of their European counterparts. There were the Arroyos, the Ferrers, the Perezes and, yes, the Sanchezes, slowly imprinting their Caribbean culture into the neighborhood's soul.

Generations came and went. Some individuals became leading figures in politics, education, community service, the health and other professions; others brought their experiences and concerns to less poverty stricken neighborhoods, the suburbs or other states. As they moved up the ladder from blue to white collar jobs, they also moved away from the South Bronx not knowing what they had taken for granted, and never realizing that their appreciation for artistic expression may have been influenced by the subdued, symbolic embraces of boldly painted Romanesque domes and semi dome structures.

St. Anselm's unique architectural elements and artistic value should be recognized by all New Yorkers concerned with the city's cultural heritage. It belongs to us all. The church's irreplaceable artwork should be restored to its former splendor, and action taken for conservation. I would even go one step further: St. Anselm's Church deserves to be nominated for Landmark status.