With Father John H. Dooley as our first pastor, Corpus Christi Parish was established in 1906 to serve the growing Catholic community of Morningside Heights.
The first Masses in the new parish were celebrated in a temporary chapel in the corner building at 533 West 121 Street (between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway) in West Harlem (now the Olive Tree Market). It was the first Sunday of May 1906, with a congregation of 226.
The cornerstone of the new church, school, and rectory was laid on November 11, 1906. Construction progressed rapidly. On June 30, 1907, the new church was dedicated by Archbishop John Farley.
Our parish school opened in September 1907, staffed by the Sisters of Charity of New York. The first two were Sisters Mary Adrian Murphy and Mary Zelia Burns; there was also a lay teacher.
After Father Dooley’s death in 1934, Father George Barry Ford was named pastor. Father Ford had been Catholic chaplain at Columbia University, and he continued in that position. Under the pastorate of Father Ford, the building which houses the current church, school, and convent was dedicated on October 25, 1936.
Thomas Merton, the American spiritual writer who was converted to Catholicism while a student at Columbia, wrote in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain that the church of his baptism has a “seventeenth-century, Oratorian character about it, though with a sort of American colonial tinge of simplicity. The blend was effective and original. . . .”
A popular and well known New Yorker, Father Ford inaugurated programs which became the parish’s hallmarks. The beautiful church with superb acoustics became the site of liturgical and musical traditions which continue to this day. Father Ford engaged William McDonald as music director, and a full program of choral and congregational singing was launched. In 1956, the fine Holtkamp organ was installed.
Father Ford believed in excellence in education. In 1936 he welcomed the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, to bring the best of progressive education to the children of the parish. Currently, the tradition of Catholic education continues to thrive with more than two hundred students attending Corpus Christi School.
Photographed by the Wurts Brothers.