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A BRIEF HISTORY OF SAINTS PETER AND PAUL CHURCH

Saints Peter and Paul Church at 736 West Main St., Rochester, NY, was built as a Roman Catholic Church in 1911. However, its parish congregation began in 1842/3 being the fourth parish in the city of Rochester and the second German one.

The original German Catholic congregation of Rochester was St. Joseph’s founded in 1836 by the Redemptorist Fathers with their original church being on Ely Street off South Avenue. In 1841, when they considered moving to a location on Franklin Street, also on the east side of the Genesee River, the west side parishioners decided to put up a small frame church on the corner of Maple and King Streets while getting permission from the bishop to do so. This new church was named St. Peter’s. Later, in 1859, the church was reincorporated as Sts. Peter and Paul’s at the time when a larger church of brick was erected on the same site as the original on August 15, 1859. This church continued in use until approximately 1910 when it was sold to the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh Railroad which needed to enlarge its facilities in the vicinity of Maple Street.

In order to accommodate a growing congregation, this third church (the present one) was built after buying property on “West Avenue” (now West Main Street) running through to Brown Street. This was supervised by Father J. Emil Gefell, pastor since 1907. The laying of the cornerstone was on Sunday, October 1, 1911, as well as the 1843 and 1859 stones, which were removed from the old church on Maple Street.

The new church was dedicated with the initial celebration of Holy Mass on Sunday, June 30, 1912. The main and side altars, a dozen statues, the pulpit and other adornments had been removed from the old edifice and placed in this new one.

The architects were Gordon and Madden of Rochester who built the church with a Lombard-Romanesque style. The entire edifice walls were built with tan, tapestry brick, Red Spanish tile covered the barrel-shaped roof and the spacious façade was ornamented with marble and stone inlays. It was built to seat 1,100 people.

Due to various factors, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester sold this church complex including the church, rectory, and school building, to the Coptic Monastery of Saint Shenouda. The closing was made on February 9, 2007, the Feast of St. Paul the First Hermit in the Coptic calendar, and the Feast of Saint Cyril of Alexandria and Saint Apollonia, an Alexandrian martyr, in the Roman Catholic calendar. One of the major requests of the Coptic Monastery in this purchase was to keep all of the sacred artwork intact in order to preserve the rich history of this church with all of its beauty and service. This church complex is now the monastery’s Coptic Mission Center.

INTERIOR DESIGN

Due to the heavy debt incurred by the church project, the interior decoration was delayed for 17 years.

Professor Gonippo Raggi, one of the most talented church interior decorators in the United States of his time, carried out the extensive plans of the interior design assisted by his son Luigi and a crew of artisans. Before coming to the United States at the turn of the 20th century and establishing his studio at East Orange, NJ, he had won distinction in his native Rome and throughout Europe for artistic creations exhibited in many leading galleries. He not only decorated Sts. Peter and Paul Church here in Rochester, NY, but also Our Lady of Victory (popularly known as the Virgin of Lackawanna, which adorns the National Shrine and Basilica in that city in Erie County), and the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee, WI, amongst other churches (Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Newark, Immaculate Conception Seminary Chapel in Darlington, Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Newark, St. Lucy’s Church in Newark, St. Mary of Mount Virgin Church in New Brunswick, St. Patrick's Pro-Cathedral in Newark, and Villa Walsh Convent Chapel in Morristown, churches Scranton, PA, Stockbridge, Brighton, Roxbury, and Newton Upper Falls, MA, Baltimore, MD, and Lima, Peru). He passed away at the age of 84.

He began his work on Sts. Peter and Paul in the beginning of June 1929 and five months later had transformed the church’s interior into full integration with its classic style, with a striking blending of ivory, tan, gold, and blue of varying shades, on walls, ceilings and arches. Completion of the project was celebrated on Sunday, November 10, with a Pontifical Mass, offered by Bishop John Francis O’Hern.

+ The Last Supper: In the sanctuary rear just above the main altar, is a mural replica of Rafael’s “Last Supper” painted by Professor Raggi. It is a modification of the original, with Christ standing and holding up a chalice, instead of being seated.

+ The Dome: Above the altar plaster squares of the dome diminish in size until the apex is reached in a sunburst. Prior to restoration of the church approximately a decade ago, there were 21 different shades of blue in the dome, ranging from smokey at the top to a midnight hue at the bottom.

+ The Main Archway: In the main archway before the sanctuary are five medallions – the four Evangelists and their symbols copied from Pinturchio, with Rafael’s Christ in the archway’s center.

+ The Ceiling: The unique, barrel-shaped ceiling is supported by nine hoops of steel, representing nine choirs of angels. The ceiling is in gold and ivory, with arches of pale blue, and along the arches are medallions of cherubs – 20 in all, and all different.

+ The Windows: Sunlight is admitted through Renaissance gold glass windows, imported from England.

+ The Lunettes Over the Corinthian Columns: In lunettes over the Corinthian columns are represented prophets, patriarchs, and some Apostles, copies of notable paintings in Roman galleries and churches.

+ The Crucifix: A life-size crucified Christ is on the epistle side of the sanctuary main arch.

+ The Pulpit: On the gospel side of the sanctuary main arch is a marbleized, Romanesque pulpit.

+ Murals: Over a confessional on the epistle side of the nave is a mural depicting St. Paul before Herod Agrippa, which was painted by Professor Raggi for his master’s degree while studying in Rome. On the other side of the transept, similarly placed, is a mural of St. Peter being liberated from prison. There are other smaller paintings that represent for example, the Resurrection and the Annunciation.

+ Stations of the Cross: The Stations of the Cross around the walls are refinished in ivory with gold, mosaic background.

+ Baptismal Font: A marble baptismal font was installed to replace one which had been brought from the old church.

+ Electric Organ: The electric organ, made by Baldwin Company, was installed in the choir loft at the back of the church and blessed by Fr. Father Fox on March 16, 1958. It was one of the finest in the Roman Catholic Diocese being of grand proportions, having eleven amplifiers and 20 speakers, equipped with a percussion section, an echo organ and set of Deagan chimes, all controlled from the console in the choir loft. It is installed behind casework of the original pipe organ of 38 stops, transferred form the old church on Maple Street. It is currently inoperative after having the inner pipes sold several years ago.

There was a long-range plan of remodeling and refurbishing the entire parish plant, including renovation of church decorations and restoration of Professor Raggi’s paintings in 1950.

Once again, the interior of the church was restored by Henry Swiatek and his son at the turn of the millennium.

BELLS AND BELL TOWER

The tower, rising 145 feet at the southeast corner, is an exact replica of the bell tower in the Cathedral at Lucca, Northern Italy.

The three bells that hang there were removed from the old church where they had been used not only for church services, but also as a fire alarm for the community.

RECTORY

This building to the east of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, 720 West Main Street, was originally a large, Queen Anne style frame residence owned by Charles Everest (c. 1878). It was purchased along with the other property at Saints Peter and Paul and extensively remodeled in 1911 by architects Gordon and Madden as a rectory for the church complex.

After this building was no longer used as a rectory, in the 1980’s to 1990’s, the lower floors of the former rectory were used as Saints Peter and Paul Day Care Center. In the mid-1990’s the day care direction was transferred to another agency and then in 2002 relocated to another place. Some of the Sisters of Saint Joseph were living in the rectory for a few years around this period of time.

A grassroots advocacy group, Neighborhood United, also began in the rectory basement in the early 1990’s.

The rectory is now where we hold monthly dinners on the Feast of the Archangel Michael, the 12th of every Coptic month. Besides a dinner, there is a spiritual word, clothing distribution, and food pantry, by the grace of God.

SCHOOL BUILDING

St. Peter’s had a parochial school from its inception in 1843. When the School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived in Rochester in 1853 to teach girls’ classes at St. Joseph’s, they took over the girls’ school at St. Peter’s in 1855.

The school began with 100 girls. The Catholic Almanac for 1859 lists 200 pupils in this school and the Catholic Directory for 1869 lists 516 pupils (256 boys and 260 girls). When the new church property was purchased extending from West Main Street to Brown Street in 1910, it included the land for the new school (681 Brown Street). This building is two stories with a basement, of tapestry, tan brick with cut-stone trimmings. The architecture is Italian Renaissance, prevalent in Northern Italy, in keeping with the church, convent and rectory buildings.

Originally, each of the two upper floors had 6 classrooms with office space for the principal and nurse. The basement was used as a large meeting room, small meeting room, kitchen and two classrooms.

In 1972, due to low enrollment and high costs, the school closed with 161 students. For a few years, the school was used as a tutoring center by the City School District but later became vacant for a period of time.

In 1982, the basement of the school building became the home for St. Peter’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen that provides lunch Monday through Friday, run primarily by the parishioners of Sts. Peter and Paul Church. Shortly thereafter, Priceless Clothing, a clothing ministry also in the basement, began. These services continue until today, by the grace of God.

In the late 1980’s, the upper two floors and classrooms were renovated into 6 apartments on each floor to become Saints Peter and Paul Mutual Housing. Later, these apartments became Fairchild Place, housing associated with Sojourner House.

CONVENT

To the west of the church building at 750 West Main St., was originally a High Victorian gothic style brick residence owned by J.D. Chamberlain (c. 1881). It was purchased along with the other property in 1910 and was extensively remodeled with a front section added by architects Gordon and Madden in 1911 for use as a convent for the church complex. The Sisters of Notre Dame resided at this convent until the school closed.

In the mid-1990’s, Main Quest, a drug rehabilitation program, moved in next to Sts. Peter and Paul Church and purchased the convent building incorporating it as its administrative building.

Main Quest has now left this area and demolished its buildings where other housing structures are being built. But the convent building remains intact.