Church History

We hope that your visit among us will be physically and spiritually refreshing.

Our church is administered by the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540.


The Founding of the Society of Jesus

St. Ignatius, born Iñigo López de Loyola in 1491, was a man whose life was marked by deep desires.  While recuperating from a battle wound, the young courtier began to experience the fading of his romantic desires to perform chivalrous and gallant deeds at the same time his desires to follow Christ as his new lord began to grow strong.  Full of zeal, Ignatius became a hermit, embarking upon a life of poverty and corporal and spiritual penance.  Transformed by an experience of spiritual consolation and the accompanying insight that God’s love is freely given, Ignatius cast aside the zealous penitential practices that were leading him to despair. It was at this time that Ignatius began to learn the ways of “discerning spirits.”  These experiences and insights became the foundation of his Spiritual Exercises – Ignatius’ singularly important contribution to the life of the Church from the Counter-Reformation onward.  Ignatius was filled with a new desire to help people find God at work in their own lives.  Tempered by recognition of the need for advanced learning in Philosophy and Theology, Ignatius undertook studies at Barcelona, Alcala and Paris, all the while guiding people through the Spiritual Exercises.  It was through this work that Ignatius drew to his side a band of companions who took vows of poverty and chastity.  Soon after the completion of their studies, this band of men was hard at work in northern Italy preaching and tending the sick and the poor.  Eventually, these companions, now numbering nine, made a communal discernment, based on their experience of joy and effectiveness together, that God was calling them to band together formally.  In 1540, Paul III formally recognized these men as a new religious order – The Society of Jesus. 

Building on their experiences and desire to work for “the greater glory of God,” these first Jesuits, and all successive generations of companions following in their forebearers’ footsteps, dedicated themselves to teaching, preaching the Word of God, working with the poor and sick, and bringing the Good News preached by the Lord to those who knew not his name.


click to enlargeA Walking Tour
On December 11, 1898 the Roman Catholic Church of St. Ignatius Loyola was dedicated by the Most Reverend Michael Corrigan, third Archbishop of New York.  The building stands on the site of the former St. Lawrence O’Toole Church, founded in 1851 and named for a twelfth-century bishop of Dublin by the parish’s first pastor, the Rev. Eugene O‘Reilly from Ireland.  The parish was entrusted to the care of the Society of Jesus in 1866 and marked the Jesuits’ first major apostolate in the Yorkville area of New York.  Replacing a modest brick building dating to 1853 which replaced an even more modest wooden structure built in 1852, the present grand limestone edifice stands as testimony to both the growing affluence and confidence of the Catholic community on New York’s Upper East Side near the turn of the century as well as the ambitious determination of Fr. Neil McKinnon, S.J., pastor of the parish from 1893-1907.

St. Ignatius Church was designed by Schickel and Ditmars. Two unbroken vertical orders, a Palladian arched window, and a tri-part horizontal division suggesting the central nave and side aisles beyond, lend a Classical balance to the Park Avenue exterior.  Yet St. Ignatius’ façade is not static; the central division raised in slight relief beyond the side divisions and the varying intervals between the symmetrically positioned pilasters (columns that are not free standing) create a subtly undulating dynamism that introduces a note of syncopated rhythm reminiscent of the exterior of Il Gesù , the Jesuits’ mother church in Rome.  The original plans for the street front of St. Ignatius, presently 90 feet high and 87 feel wide, included a pair of towers designed to reach 210 feet above the ground, but this feature of the project was abandoned early, leaving only the two copper-capped tower bases on either side of the central pediment as hints of the grander scheme.  Located directly beneath this pediment are the motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (To the Greater Glory of God) and the Great Seal of the Society, composed of a cross, three nails, and the letters I H S (the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek which later became a Latin acronym denoting Jesus the Savior of Humankind); together they proclaim to all who pass by that St. Ignatius is a Jesuit Parish.

St. Ignatius’ interior is distinguished by a magnification of the exterior’s subtle dynamism.  Passing through the great bronze outer doors one enters the first interior space, the narthex (or foyer).  Revetted (sheathed) in Bottincina-framed grey Cipollino marble and paved in pink Tennessee marble, the narthex is purposefully subdued, both in color and light, in order to heighten one’s experience of the visual drama waiting beyond the leather-clad inner doors.

click to enlargeCrossing the threshold into the church’s main interior is to enter into an unmistakable and unique sacred space.  In true Baroque fashion, one is swept up in a fluid and vivid space awash in changing light, the play of bright and subdued colors, and a rich iconographic program.  The basic design is that of a Roman basilica; a central longitudinal west/east nave, here supported by two side aisles and interrupted only by shallow vestigial north/south transepts, culminates in the curve-walled sanctuary apse that creates a 160 foot long space well suited to concentrating one’s attention on the drama of the liturgy.  The visual drama continues in the vibrant interaction of the side aisles’ richly decorated and illuminated domes with the central nave’s 70-foot high gilt coffered barrel vault suffused with light from the multi-colored clerestory windows, a donation in memory of Elizabeth Hamilton Brady.  Adding to this vitality is the magnification of visual space created by the lateral recession from free-standing polished pink granite columns, supporting the arches of the central nave, to the marble pilasters, supporting the arches of the side aisles, to the much smaller marble pilasters framing the Stations of the Cross. 

click to enlargeEnhancing the church’s interior dynamism are the rich and diverse colors and textures of the European and African marbles with which the walls are revetted.  The wainscoting and pilasters throughout the church are covered in red-veined Numidian marble.  The majority of the wall panels are Yellow Sienna, though some panels are the black-flecked Sienna brecciata.  The door frames and frames for the Stations of the Cross are done in light grey Convent Sienna marble.  Throughout the church, but especially notable in the sanctuary, these marbles are outlined and separated from one another by inserts of varying shades of red Jasper.  Most of the marble work in the church was done by Betterson and Eisele of New York. 

Two iconographic programs comprise the pictorial decoration of the church; the first celebrates the salvific truths of Christianity while the second commemorates moments in the life of the patronal saint, Ignatius Loyola, and the Jesuit order he founded.

Most likely the first image one encounters upon entering the church is that of the crucified Christ in the sanctuary apse’s semi-dome located directly above the Pavonazzo marble and gilt-bronze main alter.  The painting’s tessellated appearance is meant to simulate the look of mosaic, the medium in which almost all other images in the church are rendered.  Sprouting from the foot of the cross is the expansive scroll of a colorful flowering vine painted against a gold leaf background – a vivid and beautiful image reminding the faithful that they are the branches whose life flows from the vinestock who is Christ the Savior.  This foliate image is also found in the semi-domes above the Sacred Heart and Blessed Mother altars, similarly done in Pavonazzo marble, and serves in the unification of the entire chancel area that stretches from the seventy-eight foot width of the church.  This visual unification of complimented by a theological one: the Sacred Heart, surrounded by the visionary St. Mary Margaret Alacoque and her Jesuit spiritual director, Saint Claude de la Colombiere, as well as the Blessed Mother, surrounded by the Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation and the Prophet Isaiah, who foretold the virgin birth, bespeak God’s salvfic love which found its supreme expression in Christ’s self-sacrifice upon the cross.The Blessed Mother Altar 

Rising directly above the central semi-dome is the great sanctuary arch where one finds, located in an aureole, the glorified Christ seated in judgment surrounded by the Blessed Mother, here crowned Queen of Heaven, and St. Michael the Archangel who, as the defender against all powers of darkness, is pictured wielding a fiery sword.  On either side of this central group are located Sts. Peter and Paul, and Moses and Elias; these figures represent the New Law and the Old Law which were conjoined in the person of Christ.  Though some may find this pictorial program severe, it should bring to life the words of Psalm 63 and inspire the faithful who gaze upon it:

Longing, I come before thee in the sanctuary
To look upon thy power, and thy glory.
Thy true love is better than life;
Therefore I will sing thy praises.
And so I bless thee all my life
And in thy name lift my hands in prayer.

click to enlarge
Reflecting the shape of the sanctuary apse on a smaller scale at the opposite end of the church, the baptistry is also composed of half-drum surmounted by a semi-dome.  An anonymous benefaction, the baptistery was the first part of the church’s interior to be decorated and clearly no expense was spared in the creation of what is undoubtedly the most precious unit in the church.  First to be noticed are the gilt flaming swords emblazoned on the semi-circular iron screen designed by the architect, William Schickel, and wrought by the hands of Mr. John Williams.  Just as the fearless St. Michael and his fiery sword protect the precincts of heaven, these swords designate the precincts of the baptistery to be a special place in the church’s sacred space, and serve to remind the faithful that at baptism each person becomes “a child of the light” emboldened to stand against the powers of darkness.

Mosaic pavement with font - click to enlarge
The marble mosaic pavement of the baptistry depicts four rivers flowing from the foot of the Carrarra marble font – a design suggesting Eden’s river, the fountainhead for the four rivers of the world mentioned in Genesis 2.  These rushing waters gather into a pool where lilies grow and fish frolic.  Among the smaller fish is a large fish resting on an anchor, a second-century Christian symbol for Christ (the five letters spelling “fish” in Greek, i ch th y s, comprise an acronym for “Jesus, the Christ, of God, Son, and Savior”).  Drawing on this ancient symbolism, the motto at the edge of the pavement, taken from Tertullian, states, “We little fishes are born again in the water of our fish Jesus Christ” and reminds the faithful of the utterly transforming power of the sacrament of baptism.  This pavement was designed by Heaton, Butler & Bayne of London, with slight modifications made by Mr. John Buck of the Ecclesiastical Department of the Gorham Company of New York; the Gorham Company was also responsible for cutting and installing the mosaic’s tesserae (the pieces comprising the mosaic). 

Because the baptistry is also the Chapel of John the Baptist, its ornamentation illustrates the saint’s ministry, his prophecies about Jesus, and Jesus’ pronouncements about John.  For example, the three mosaics decorating the walls depict important moments in the Baptist’s earthly life: his sanctification at the time of the Visitation; the culmination of his ministry in baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan; and his martyrdom.  These murals were also designed by Heaton, Butler and Bayne. The Venetian glass tesserae were cut and laid out by Salviati & Company of Venise.  The expertise of the Gorham Company was called upon again to install this new mosaic program; the company also designed and executed the lectern with its inlaid brass images of the Lion of Juda and the Sacrificial Lamb.

Central mosaic panel: Cousins Christ and John as children - click to enlargeThe baptistry’s altar, like the curved walls surrounding it, is of Pavonazzo marble and is inlaid with mosaics; it was designed and executed under the direction of Mr. Caryl Coleman of the Ecclesiastical Department of the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company.  These mosaics, composed of that company’s justly famous opalescent Favrile glass, are as delicate as the Venetian glass mosaics above are bold.  The tabernacle door is decorated with a mosaic of the Lamb of God whom John attested Jesus to be (John 1:29).  The panels that front the base of the altar have an art-historical as well as scriptural and theological significance. The two side panels are mosaic renditions of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael after the Florentine Renaissance master, Sandro Botticelli.  The central panel, after the Umbrian Renaissance master, Pinturicchio, depicts the cousins Christ and John as children engaged in the everyday task of collecting water in a ewer at a country stream – a foreshadowing of the sacred drama played out on the banks of the Jordan long years after.  The inscription above this panel, “Behold, I send my Angel” (Ecce mitto Angelum Meum), refers to Jesus’ prophet-based acknowledgement of John as his forerunner (Mt. 11:10). Completing this mosaic program and located on the columns supporting the mensa (horizontal surface) of the altar are the frail reeds swept by the wind which, Jesus says, John, the Angelum, surely is not (Mt. 11:8).

Baptistry gate with Tiffany semidome - click to enlargeTiffany Glass and Decorating Company was also responsible for the creation of the baptistry’s semi-dome.  Composed of irregularly faceted glass slags referred to as “jewel” glass in the Tiffany lexicon, the dome suffuses this special precinct of the church with brilliant and sparkling light.  At the apex of the design is a dove representing the Holy Spirit; rising from the waters of the font under this image symbolizes God’s claiming the newly baptized as his beloved child in the same way that Jesus was publicly claimed by God as His beloved Son on whom His favor rests (Mt. 3:17).

The marble mosaic Stations of the Cross form the panels which comprise the majority of the wall space in the church.  These murals, designed by Professor Paoletti for Salviati & Company of Venice, are subdued both in color and design befitting the gravity of the story they tell.  Especially worthy to note in these panels is the cast of the sky mirroring the drama of the Lord’s Passion:  the progressive subtle darkening of the sky culminates in the crepuscular atmosphere of the Twelfth Station – The Crucifixion.  So pleased was the company with the quality of its work that some of the panels were publicly exhibited in Turin before making their way to St. Ignatius Church.  The manufacture and installation of the Stations was made possible through a combination of memorial and anonymous gifts.

Bronze Door [detail] - click to enlarge
Bronze doors- click to enlarge
The great twelve-panel bronze doors located at the sanctuary end of the side aisles were gifts of the Simpson Family in 1929 and mark the close of a generation of very generous pre-Depression benefactions. The doors were designed by the Rev. Patrick O’Gorman, S.J., pastor from 1924 to 1929; the north-side doors depict the saints who personify one of each of the eight Beatitudes while the south-side doors depict the saints who personify one of each of the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Crafted by the Long Island Bronze Company, these one-of-a-kind portals are beautiful compliments to the fenestrated bronze sanctuary doors on either side of the main altar, given in 1928 by Mrs. William Simpson, the bronze high pulpit, given in 1929 as an anonymous gift, the hanging bronze sanctuary lamp, gift of Mr. And Mrs. John Agar in 1914, and the bronze choir screen, given in 1907 by Mrs. Nicholas Brady in memory of her father, Patrick Garvan.

St. Ignatius 1540 - click to enlargeThe second icongraphic program in the church commemorates moments in the life of St. Ignatius (1491-1556) and the religious order he founded.  Most prominent amount these decorations are the three murals, double framed in pink Algerian marble and bronze bands, adorning the walls of the sanctuary’s apse.  These mosaics were also manufactured by Salviati & Company after designs by Professor Paoletti suggested by the Rev. David Hearn, S.J., pastor from 1909 to 1915.  Owing to the rich hues of their Venetian glass, these panels display a colorful exuberance well suited to the life of the saint they celebrate.  The mural on the left depicts the wounding of Inigo (later Ignatius) de Loyola in the battle of Pamplona – the “happy fault” of the saint’s youth that was the occasion for his convalescence and conversion to serve Christ as his new master.  The mural on the right portrays a scene set in 1540; St. Ignatius and three of his companions kneel before Pope Paul III begging approbation of the rule for the religious order they wish to found, namely the Society of Jesus.  The central mosaic depicts the Apotheosis of St. Ignatius – the glorification of Ignatius at the time of his canonization.

The church’s shallow transepts are each composed of two arches.  On the south side, in the arch nearest the Sacred Heart altar, is a stained glass window depicting the appearance of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary in the chapel of her monastery at Paray-le-Monial; in the second arch is an altar and stained glass window dedicated to St. Joseph as the Patron of the Universal Church.  Counterbalancing these elements, the north transept features two memorials that continue the story of Ignatius and his companions.  In the arch nearest the Blessed Mother altar is a stained glass window picturing Ignatius in the cave at Manresa, below which is placed a replica of The Black Madonna – the famous Romanesque wooden sculpture in the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat located near Barcelona.  Together the sculpture and window recount an important period in the saint’s life.  After returning to health following his convalescence and conversion at home in Loyola, the young man traveled to Montserrat where, in front of The Black Madonna, he formally renounced his previous life as a courtier and all associated vanities, put down his sword, dedicated himself to the service of Christ, and embraced a regime of poverty and corporal and spiritual penance.  Having moved into a cave at nearby Manresa on the banks of the Cardoner River to live out his new life as a hermit, Ignatius found himself driven to the edge of guilt-laden despair.  It was while sitting in prayer on the banks of the river that Ignatius came to experience the consolation and the accompanying insight that God’s love is freely and wholly given; this experience and insight form the very foundation of his Spiritual Exercises – a seminal document of Christian spirituality that has aided people of all generations in discerning God’s will in their lives.  The window pictures Ignatius, having now cast away the three instruments of his distracting bodily penance much as he had put aside his sword and the unfulfilling life associated with it, kneeling before a crucifix and looking up at the Blessed Mother who inspires his writing the Spiritual Exercises.  Armed with his transforming experience and insight, Ignatius left Manresa and engaged the world. 

Since their composition, the Spiritual Exercises have helped bring to Ignatius’ side many loyal companions desiring to serve Christ and work for “The Greater Glory of God” by following the saint’s rule for religious life.  Fittingly, the altar “Consecrated to All the Canonized Sons of St. Ignatius” is located next to the Manresa window and The Black Madonna in the transept’s adjoining arch.  Above the altar is a stained glass window which pictures, in its upper Order, Ignatius and his brother Jesuit saints gathered around their Lord whose name they bear, and, in its lower Order, all of the Society’s Blessed and Martyrs, bearing palm branches denoting their sufferings and victories.

Notable amount the saints of the Society are St. Francis Xavier, the great “Apostle to the Indies,” and St. John Francis Regis, the great evangelist of the Alps for whom the adjoining scholarship high school is named.  Befitting their heroic apostolic works, heroic-sized Carrarra marble statues of these two saints, carved by the Joseph Sibbel Studio of New York, are located in the sanctuary on the south and north sides, respectively, of the main altar.

Boy Saints Statue - click to enlarge
The equally worthy of note, and held in great affection because of their youthful zeal, are the “Boy Saints” of the Society – John Berchmans, Aloysius Gonzaga, and Stanislaus Kostka.  The altar dedicated to them as “Patrons of Youth” bears their statues, rendered in Carrarra marble, set within a rich frame of Pavonazzo and Convent Siena marbles profusely dressed with gilt bronze decorations.  This altar, located directly across the choir end of the nave from the equally splendid but differently designed baptistry, furnishes yet another note in the dynamic decorative rhythm enlivening the church interior.

Mander Organ - click to enlarge
The rhythmic notes of a different sort must also be acknowledged.  St. Ignatius’ unique sacred space is filled with sacred music that both compliments the visual dynamism of the building and deepens devotion at the liturgy and other rituals that occur within its walls.  Much of this music comes from the church’s magnificent new organ.  Built by N.P. Mander of London, this instrument is New York City’s largest mechanical action (tracker) pipe organ, and the largest mechanical action pipe organ ever to have been built in the British Isles.  The exterior case, rising 45 feet from the floor of the choir loft to within inches of the top of the barrel vault, is fashioned from French oak harvested from huge trees planted in the 18th century.  The organ contains over 5,000 pipes and weighs approximately 30 tons.  Dedicated in 1993, this instrument has come to the church through two extremely generous donations, one anonymous and the other made in honor of Sandra G. Montrone by her family.

It is in the lofty heights of the barrel vault that the last motifs to be looked at are found.  Located in the seven spandrels (triangular architectural features) at the base of each side of the vault are octagonal gold medallions intended to be filled with portraits of the Prophets, on the north side, and the Doctors of the Church, on the south side.  Only one portrait on each side has ever been completed – the prophet Isaiah and St. Augustine.  Along the median line of the vault, alternating with the four great bronze star-burst light clusters, are four ecclesiastical heraldic devices.  From the sanctuary end they are: the coat of arms of Leo XIII, Pope at the time of the dedication of the church; the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of New York; the seal of the Society of Jesus; and the Seal representing the consecration of the United States to Mary Immaculate.  These various devices illustrate the levels of the Church which this church building embodies.

It is our hope that a visit to St. Ignatius, whether for a liturgy, quiet prayer, a concert, or a simple tour, will engage your heart and senses, and dispose you to experience more deeply the reality of God’s unfailing salvific love, the story of which unfolds within these walls, within the Church, and throughout the world in which we love and work.


(Text derived from: St. Ignatius Loyola, A Pictorial History and Walking Guide of New York City’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, 1999; Photos by Laurie Lambrecht)

For their generous services in creating the Walking Tour (available for sale at the Parish House) the Parish wishes to extend a sincere note of thanks to its author, Rev. Paul Tabor, S.J., to Laurie Lambrecht for her wonderful photography, and to designer, Rudy Hoglund.