Our First 100 Years
1906, John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York, decided to create a new parish between West 86th Street and 93rd Street to serve the West Side's growing Catholic population. A new subway, the IRT, was transforming the neighborhood. The next year the parish of St. Gregory the Great was established with Father James Fitzsimmons becoming pastor in 1908. The congregation first would meet for services in an old stable on West 89th between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, while the priests lived in rented apartments. Christmas services were held in the same building on West 90th Street that parishioners worship in today. That building was designed as a four-story parochial school with the first floor serving as a church until a separate building could be erected. It never was!
October 19, 1913, a Sunday, the new building was blessed by Cardinal Farley. Masses began in the parochial school where Sister Louise Mary Mattimore of the Sisters of Charity was principal. The Sisters served the school until 1943, when the Presentation Sisters replaced them.
In 1914, the shadow of World War I fell across St. Gregory's. Of the 700 young men from the parish who served in the Armed Services, 28 died. A special requiem mass was celebrated on the nation's first Armistice Day, 1918.
After Father Fitzsimmons' death in September 1918, Father William Hughes, president of Cathedral College, became pastor and launched a renovation program. In 1919 Father Hughes converted unused 4th floor space in the school into a rectory. An elevator was installed, as well as a sky-lighted gallery and eventually a library and even a roof garden with a fish pond.
During the next 10 years St. Gregory's became well known for its banquets that drew guests from the worlds of culture, scholarship and religion and usually ended on the roof garden. These also were years of intense reaching out to the community.
1922 saw large crowds gathering for pulpit dialogues with non- Catholics. Meanwhile annual missions began in Spanish for the small, scattered Hispanic Catholic population of the Upper West Side. After Father Hughes' death in 1929, Father Patrick O'Donnell served as pastor for 16 years.
The 1930s was a time of financial consolidation. Although the physical plant of the church was in good condition, parish debt was almost as large as a decade earlier. Yet despite unemployment and the Great Depression, St. Gregory's managed by 1939 to reduce its debt by 50%.
Wartime again made an impact in the 1940s. After peace returned again, the postwar years passed quickly as the parish, like the neighborhood and the nation, prepared for the 20th century's tumultuous second half.
Even though the1950s began uneventfully for St. Gregory's, by the end of the decade, changes were occurring that mirrored change in the neighborhood itself. The parish became involved in political and social developments. The number of Catholic parishioners was much the same as in the previous decade, with weekly attendance at Mass slightly higher. The parish school still numbered just over 250 students, but religious instruction for public school children rose dramatically.
While a 1959 census showed 2/3rds of those attending Mass bore Irish names, the number of Hispanic parishioners was growing rapidly. The first Spanish-speaking priest was assigned in 1955, and in 1959 the first Spanish Mass was said in the upper chapel.
The 1960s saw St. Gregory's emerge as a powerful voice for affordable housing for the poor. Together with Holy Name Parish and the Strycker's Bay Neighborhood Council, our parish helped convince the city to raise the number of low-cost housing units from 400 to 2,500. In 1963 the first relocation housing opened across the street to provide living quarters for 399 families.
Father Henry Browne was a central figure in these efforts. He had been a parish priest at St. Gregory's before assuming the mantle of pastor in 1968. His two-year pastorate may have been brief -- he left to teach at Rutgers University -- but it was dynamic. The activism that led to his presidency of Strycker's Bay grew into his opposition to the Vietnam War. He rallied large numbers of people for local peace vigils, as well as for bus trips to Washington, D. C., to protest the war.