Although St. Joseph’s Parish was founded in 1873, its origins go back more than a decade before that – to the time when the German-speaking Catholic immigrants who were clustered in Yorkville worshipped in the chapel of the now defunct St. Joseph’s Orphanage, located on Avenue A (as York Avenue was then called) and 89th Street.
The large German Catholic population had no church of its own until, in 1873, a delegation from Yorkville approached the Jesuits of St. Lawrence O’Toole Church (now St. Ignatius Loyola), the first church on the Upper East Side, and asked for a German-speaking priest to provide for them.
The Jesuit authorities entrusted this ministry to Fr. Joseph Durthaller, S.J., and that same year Archbishop John McCloskey established the Parish of St. Joseph as a German national parish. In 1874 a modest brick church was built and dedicated. St. Joseph’s was now the mother church of Yorkville.
In 1880 St. Joseph’s School was founded to educate the children of the German-speaking immigrants and was staffed by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a congregation started in Bavaria whose chief mission was primary and secondary education. More than 500 children attended the school in its first year of operation.
The parish passed from the Jesuits to the Archdiocese of New York in 1888, and the first archdiocesan pastor was Msgr. Anton Lammel. Msgr. Lammel saw that the church that he had inherited, which was less than twenty years old, was already too small for his growing congregation, and he decided to construct a larger one in its place. The new church, which is the present one, was built in 1894-95. This handsome example of the Romanesque Revival style was designed by Williams Schickel, a prominent New York architect. In addition to its outstanding stained glass windows, the new St. Joseph’s soon boasted a splendid organ, built by Mueller and Abel; that organ, which has been maintained in excellent condition, is still to be heard today.
During the tenure of Msgr. Gallus Bruder, who was pastor from 1911 to 1943, a new school was built (in 1925-26) and the top of the church’s bell tower was completed (in 1926). Improvements were also made in the interior of the church, although all that remains of them today are the ceiling paintings, which depict episodes from the life of St. Joseph.
Msgr. Bruder’s pastorate coincided with what was probably the heyday of the German presence in Yorkville, which had grown steadily since the first decade of the twentieth century, when the even larger German-speaking community on the Lower East Side began to disperse and move uptown. Then World War II and the post-war building boom took their toll on Yorkville, and by the late 1970s and early ‘80s relatively little remained of the numerous German restaurants and shops that had crowded 86th Street, the “German Broadway,” and the rest of the neighborhood.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which called for liturgical renewal, made its effects felt at St. Joseph’s just as it did elsewhere. In the period immediately following the Council, many of the church’s elaborate furnishings, some of them dating from an earlier renovation in the 1950s were discarded in the name of liturgical and architectural simplicity. A sense of architectural and decorative tentativeness prevailed until the early 1990s, when the church finally assumed its present appearance, which successfully combines simplicity and refinement.
In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI made a pastoral visit to New York and, because of the parish’s German heritage and because the pope of German, St. Joseph’s was chosen as the place where he would preside at an ecumenical prayer service on April 18th. The church not only received the privilege of a rare papal visit but also became, along with Yorkville itself, the object of much media attention. The following year, Pope Benedict’s coat of arms, designed in mosaic, was installed in front of the sanctuary to mark the historic occasion.
There is even less of a German presence now in the 2010s than a few decades ago, but St. Joseph’s remains a vital, beautiful and beloved feature of the Yorkville landscape.
Photos of St. Joseph’s Church by Kent G. Becker.