Where do actors go to pray?
The obvious answer is church, or temple or a mosque. But if they are in New York City, they can also go to the Actors’ Chapel.
At 239 W. 49th St., between Broadway and Eighth, and right near Times Square, is St. Malachy Catholic Church. It sits right in the middle of the theater district, near the Ambassador and Eugene O’Neill theatres (the later currently staging “The Book of Mormon”).
Built in 1902, the church became part of the 1920s’ growth of Broadway’s “Great White Way” and a place where many Catholic stage actors went for Mass before a performance. In 1925, Madison Square Garden (its third site) opened nearby, adding to the draw for St. Malacy’s.
In 1920, an artist’s shrine with St. Genesius, patron of actors, as the focal saint, was built inside the church and that was when it came to be known as “the Actors’ Chapel.” Other saints are honored in the chapel, including St. Cecilia (for musicians) and St. Vitus (for dancers). Today, the sign over the church entrance proclaims: “St. Malachy’s — The Actors Chapel.”
Over the years, St. Malachy’s adapted its schedules for Masses and confessions to meet nightclub and theater schedules. The parish’s website notes that, “as late as 1968, over 16,000 people monthly attended St. Malachy’s; and on opening nights, many in show business came to light candles for the success of their shows.”
For 40 years, stage luminaries graced the aisles. For example, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., married Joan Crawford there in 1929. The silent film star Rudolph Valentino was buried from there in 1926. And St. Malachy’s claims that Jimmy Durante was an altar server there and attendees included Perry Como, Spencer Tracy and Rosalind Russell.
By the 1970s — Madison Square Garden had moved away in 1968 — St. Malachy’s was in a decline, left behind by other big names as well. A new pastor, Fr. George Moore, sought to revitalize the parish by making it an active part of the neighborhood. One effort involved setting up “Encore Community Services” for area seniors. The parish also developed a strong music program and, when the theater district became revitalized in the last decade or so, its crafts people and actors were naturally drawn back to St. Malachy. Fr. Moore even arranged for the St. Malachy’s bell carillon to play “There’s No Business like Show Business” one-half hour before curtain call on performance days.
Another person connected with St. Malachy was Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who was serving as an auxiliary bishop of New York when he came to TV fame in the 1950s. While he never met the archbishop, the current pastor of St. Malachy’s, Fr. Richard Baker, has commissioned a 10-foot-tall statue of Archbishop Sheen for the parish. Archbishop Sheen was declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
Dublin-based sculptor Dony MacManus is creating the statue, which was blessed in Dublin by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on July 23 this year. Plans are to have the statue installed at St. Malachy’s next year.
But St. Malachy’s is not the only church frequented by actors. Across the country on the West Coast, there is St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in North Hollywood, founded in 1921. It is probably best known as the church that Bob Hope attended. (It was actually his wife, Dolores, who was the long-time member. Bob Hope became Catholic in 1996, very late in his long life.) The couple funded Our Lady’s Chapel adjacent to St. Charles Borromeo, and a 2013 charity sale of many of the Hopes’ belongings benefited St. Charles’ Holy Family Service Center.
Hope’s costar on his “Road to…” movies, Dorothy Lamour, was also a member at St. Charles and her funeral was held there in 1996. Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, attended school there as a boy and now lives in retirement at St. Charles.
Another Bob Hope costar, Bing Crosby, had ties to St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica. The present church, dedicated in 1926, was used for some filming of “Going My Way” in 1944. Crosby’s character in that movie, Fr. Charles O’Malley, was based on one of St. Monica’s pastors, Msgr. Nicholas Conneally.
In England, there is an Episcopalian church called “the Actor’s Church.” St. Paul’s is the parish church for Covent Garden. It was built in 1631 by Francis Russell, the fourth Earl of Bedford.
St. Paul’s got its acting title because of its proximity to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, built in 1663. This is the oldest functioning theater site in England. In 1723, the Royal Opera House also opened in Covent Garden.
The Actors’ Church Union has its offices at St. Paul’s and, each year in May, it is the site of the annual Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival, featuring Punch and Judy. While the Punch and Judy characters were developed in Italy, their first recorded performance in England was at Covent Garden in May 1662. The 17th century archivist Samuel Pepys saw the show that day and recorded it for history.
From puppets and carillon music to opening night Masses, actors’ churches and chapels remind us that the Lord is always near to his people. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “Prayer begins by talking to God, but it ends by listening to him.”
Sources: Actorschapel.org; Catholic News Service; sideways.nyc; DiocSCG.org; The Los Angeles Daily News at dailynews.com; The Tidings online; scbnh.com;seeing-stars.com; actorschurch.org; actorsguild.org; stmonica.net and coventgarden.com.