The Roman Catholic Church of the Guardian Angel first saw life in a cluster of townhouses on West 23rd Street back in October 1887. It ministered to seamen, dockworkers and others on the waterfront at the then bustling New York City harbors. As such it came to form part of the inspiration for the movie On the Waterfront, starring the young Marion Brando. When the New York Central railroad needed the buildings for a marginal railway, it purchased property for the erection of a new church on the corner of 10th Avenue and 21st Street. The new church was consecrated on November 8, 1931.
Architect John V. Pelt, a fan of Pugliese style, fashioned Guardian Angel’s design after Puglia’s Cathedral of Bitonto. The stunning yet understated exterior is made of brick, limestone and marble panels that flank a row of stone columns across the front of the church. A main frieze depicts the religious history of the world with periods separated by guardian angels. Hand-sculpted limestone angels, at work casting out evil spirits, grace the areas above the panels and over the entrance doors.
The main altar, made of rare and richly colored marbles that reflect Puglia’s medieval style, was built at the Italian studios of the Bermardini Statuary Company whose craftsmen also carved the statues on the side altars and the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The docks and warehouses that used to be the hallmark of Chelsea have long since given way to, or been converted into, condos, gymnasiums, art galleries and night clubs. The railway too fell into disuse after the shipping moved away from the piers. It languished for many years as a wasteland until it was wonderfully transformed into the now famous High Line.
The people and character of West Chelsea have thus changed considerably from Guardian Angel’s first days, but the mission of the church continues. It is still here to serve the spiritual needs of the people: artists, residents and visitors. Not only is the church building an architectural gem in itself: it is also a perfect setting for the display and exhibition of religious and sacred art. The church is open for visitors and can by special arrangement be made available to any artist or galleries that would like a religious setting for the display of contemporary sacred art.