Church Hopping LIVE: Church of St. Anselm

Arts, Church Hopping, Columns, Featured, Visual Arts — By on August 29, 2011 at 6:00 am

Late afternoon on the day before the second live Church Hopping event, I got an email.  The tour guide who was supposed to lead the architecture talk had suffered a heart attack.  He was alright, but he wouldn’t be able to lead the tour.  The person emailing me asked if I could lead it without the tour guide and told me he’d support me no matter what I decided.  A second person on the email suggested that I  cancel the tour.  I had never been to St. Anselm’s before and was not prepared to give the talk.  Canceling was the practical thing to do, but I had a group of people who had registered a month in advance and who had already acquiesced to an earlier schedule change.  Besides, I’d been really looking forward to the event.  My whole family was together in Greece, and I wasn’t able to join them due to vacation constraints, so these Church Hopping events were my big summer plans.  I couldn’t just cancel the one thing I’d been looking forward to all summer.  I figured God, in all His omniscience, knew from the very beginning that the tour guide wasn’t going to be able lead.  Everything happens for a reason, and He had everything in control, I told myself.  I decided to go forward with the tour.  I canceled my Friday night plans and got to work researching the history of the neighborhood we were going to and the formation of the church.  I kept repeating to myself, God has everything in control.  God has everything in control.

The next morning was the day of the tour, and I got to our meeting spot at the Columbus Circle fountain near Central Park in Manhattan.  The night before there had been a terrific thunderstorm.  In fact, the past two weeks we’d experienced record-breaking rainfall.  The day of the tour was perfectly blue skies.  I’d done a ton of research in preparation for the tour, and was feeling at least semi-confident given the circumstances.  Then, I called the assistant at St. Anselm’s to confirm the tour group was on its way.  “What tour group?” he asked.  I explained I’d been given his number and that my colleague, the tour guide who’d had the heart attack, had told me he’d spoken to him the day before and I was just following up.  “I know nothing about this.  I can’t authorize this,” he replied.  What?!

God has everything in control.  God has everything in control.

Okay, I thought to myself, we’ll just have to show up at the church and hope they take mercy on us and let us in.  If not, at least we’ll get to see it from the outside.  The people who had registered began arriving at the fountain, and I introduced myself.  I asked them about themselves, as I fielded phone calls from someone who was at a fountain other than the Columbus Circle one and wondered where everyone was and someone who wanted a play-by-play of our exact arrival and departure so that maybe they could meet up with us at some point.  “I don’t even know if we’ll get to see the church!” I wanted to scream, but didn’t.  And where was the person who had informed me that the tour guide couldn’t make it, knew the sudden stress I was under, and told me he’d support me?  Apparently, he’d decided not to show up after all.

God has everything in control.  God has everything in control.

The Church Hoppers and I rode the subway out to the southwestern-most section of the Bronx, where more than half the population lives below the poverty line.  Passing by a long, chain-linked fence we came to St. Anselm’s, which from its brick exterior resembled an old mill.  As I began “regaling” everyone with stories of how the Mott Haven section of the Bronx is the supposed birthplace of the term “pig” for “cop” (back in the day there was a tough Irish police officer nicknamed Paddy the Pig, a name that got shortened to “Pig” and became a derogatory name for cops in general), the woman who had originally suggested canceling the tour sprang into action, saving the tour by convincing that church assistant to let us take a peak around inside.

What lay beyond the rough exterior amazed me.  Colorful Byzantine mosaics tantalized my eyes.  Romanesque arched columns added grace and elegance to the room.  Not one but two domes swept my eyes upward.  Coming from the altar were two men, an older one with a fantastic beard and one who looked to be in his twenties or thirties.  “I apologize for not having shoes on,” said the younger one, as he approached in thick white tube socks.  He explained that they were father and son, working together to restore the church.


Dario Cano and Paco Cano


You can see here where the Canos' restoration is taking place.


We walked over to the apse with them, where the father was restoring the gold leaf.  We could see where smoke from the candles had darkened the once-beautiful mosaics.  We could see whole chunks of art that were missing and needed to be replaced.  A strand of yellow “Do Not Cross” tape lay in a pile on the floor.  Thirty-five years ago the artwork at St. Anselm’s was destroyed when artists painted over the original artwork instead of cleaning it, the son translated from his father’s Spanish.  It had happened under the best of intentions.  Congregants of St. Anselm’s had offered their artistic services or that of other hobbyist relatives and friends and the priest had obliged.  It began to dawn on me just how renowned the restoration artists we were now casually chatting with were.  R. Dario Cano A. and his son Paco C. Cano P. had come from Colombia to restore churches in the United States, and Dario’s artwork is on permanent display at the Colombian General Consulate in New York City.  Father and son were both completely humble and unassuming but passionate about their work.  Paco said something that stuck with me, “When we’re born we all have gifts.  We just have to use them.”

Dario told us about the gifts of the artists who originally designed the Church of St. Anselm.  When Brother Clement Frischauf, a liturgical artist trained in the Beuronese school of religious art, came to St. Anselm’s to paint, he just sat in the back pew for three weeks, looking at the church.  Everyone thought he was crazy.  For him as an artist and a Christian, though, he needed to closely observe and feel for the space before he began his work.  Instead of coming in with preconceived notions of what should be done, he allowed the space to dictate his art.  I wonder how often we come into situations in life, eager to “fix” something we don’t fully understand.  It seems so easy to let our vision gets in the way of God’s vision.

God has everything in control.  God has everything in control.

The tour at St. Anselm’s was a humbling and awesome experience.  Three months of “perfect” planning had crumbled before my eyes, and yet the tour turned out even better than I could have ever planned it.  In spite of my research on the history of the church, I had no idea the church was currently in the midst of being restored and that we’d have the honor of meeting artists Dario Cano and Paco Cano who graciously gave us a private tour.  In the end, even the assistant who at first wasn’t going to let us in, wanted to know each of our names.  God is in control.


Church: Church of St. Anselm

Location: 685 Tinton Ave., in the Mott Haven area of the Bronx, NY

Built: 1918

Architect: Gustave Steinback and Anton Kloster, depending on sources

Style: Byzantine Revival and Romanesque Revival

History: The church community was founded in 1892.  St. Anselm’s used to be staffed by the Benedictine Friars from Minnesota.  They were followers of Benedict of Nursia, whose writing focused on a community-driven monasticism.

Today, it is staffed by the Order of Augustinian Recollects.  Augustinian Recollects are monastic reformers who emphasize a life of simplicity and community prayer.

The architect behind St. Anselm’s is debatable.  The architect usually credited for designing St. Anselm’s, and who stated himself that he designed St. Anselm’s is Gustave E. Steinback.  More recently, the AIA Guide to NYC credited Anton Koster as the architect.  Steinback (1878–1959) was an American architect who studied at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and Columbia University of Architecture, who also spent time studying in Germany and France.  His most recognizable buildings are Our Lady of All Saints in Fort Greene, Brooklyn; Chapel of St. James in Chicago; and St. Catherine of Seinna’s Church in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Little is known about Koster, and it has been conjectured that he may have worked for Steinback.

Exterior design: The church is made out of brick, known for its strength and common to Neo-Byzantine, or Byzantine Revival, architecture.

There are three inset portals.  The portals are shielded by a porch-like entryway with three corresponding archways.  It’s possible that Steinback picked up the Rundbogenstil (rounded-arch) style when he was studying in Germany, as it was a popular early form of Romanesque Revival architecture.

Columns uphold the archway leading to the middle door.  Columns appear in some examples of Romanesque Revival architecture, such as the entrance to Old City Hall and University College, both of which are located in Toronto.

There’s also a bit of a blind arcade going on, as each arch features a different colored stone than the brick that emphasizes the shape of the actual arch.  There is also a larger arch shape and arch design in the area above the portal.  Arches and arcades are common to Romanesque Revival style, but it’s this larger arch shape above the portals that is more reminiscent of Byzantine Revival style.

Another Byzantine Revival feature of St. Anselm’s architecture is its dome.  The dome however, is not as round and prominent as most Neo-Byzantine domes; it lays a little lower, flatter.

Interior design: The church was modeled after Hagia Sophia in Turkey.  The Neo-Byzantine vibe, with its colorful mosaics and domes, makes the church feel intimate.  There are very few windows, and the windows that do exist are small and/or stained-glass.  The church is therefore colorful but dark.


Byzantine cross in the dome. Notice also, the small, inset windows.


There are two domes above the pews in St. Anselm’s.  The first dome shows a Byzantine cross, a cross whose arms are all equilateral.  The second dome, the one closer to the church’s entryway, was painted in 1924.  In fact, there are actually several semi-domes throughout the church, all of which contribute to making the heavens and God seem close at hand, as opposed to an arched ceiling which would point toward the sky.


The dome in the back of the church, closer to the door.


Half dome in the apse


Neo-Romanesque archways flank both sides of the churches, allowing people to walk from the back of the church to the front without causing as much distraction as going down the center aisle.



Much of the church is made of marble.  As an organic material, it brings an aura of warmth to the church.

The church is highly ornate, each painting and sculpture designed to instruct the worshipper.

Education: St. Anselm’s has had its own parochial school since 1908. 


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