Letter 63 published 12 September 2015


Paix Liturgique’s attendance at the Sacra Liturgia conference in early June in New York was an opportunity to discover the only parish in Manhattan that offers both the ordinary and the extraordinary form of the Roman rite daily: Holy Innocents, on West 37th Street, a stone’s throw from Broadway. The pastor there, Fr. Leonard Villa, was named to that parish in December 2014; he agreed to tell us about it and to recount his experience of the serene and generous application of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.


The church of the Holy Innocents was erected as a parish in 1866 in south Manhattan, at the heart of what was then the red-light district of New York and has since become the Garment District. It has long been considered as the actors' parish because of its proximity to Broadway and its theaters. Attendance declined in that business and entertainment district where there were few residences, and the parish was recently under threat of being closed down during a diocesan restructuring plan-until Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, acknowledged the parish's value as a spiritual oasis in the area. The parish offered the extraordinary form of the Roman rite since 2009 in addition to the ordinary form. Indeed, Sunday Mass attendance has tripled since then. As a result, the Cardinal not only confirmed the status of Holy Innocents but also assigned a new pastor there, even though there hadn't been one since 2013.

The main attraction of this 1870 neo-Gothic church is its altar fresco of the Crucifixion by Costantino Brumidi, the artist responsible for the Washington Capitol rotunda. This fresco recovered all of its luster in 2013 after Fr. Kallumady, pastor 2007-2013, restored it. It was that priest, who was ordained in his home country of India in 1973, who reintroduced the traditional liturgy to the parish. He explained in the diocesan paper:
"It is a commuter church and I was looking for a supporting community on Sundays. We now have anywhere near 100 people attending Sunday Latin Mass. They are very active and supportive of the parish and that’s what I was looking for. They come from all over: Long Island, New Jersey, some from as far as 80 miles away. They are all welcomed here. And so this is a parish with a difference."

After Fr. Kallumady's departure the parish was administered by Fr. Rutler, the famous New York preacher and evangelist, who knows the traditional liturgy and kept up its renewal until Fr. Villa's nomination last winter. Fr. Villa had served in the U.S. Navy prior to his entrance to St. Joseph Seminary. During his seminary years he served the homeless and alcoholics in New York's Bowery as an apostolic assignment. Fr. Villa served in St. Eugene's parish for twenty-two years in Yonkers, the fourth largest city in New York State north of the Bronx. He introduced the extraordinary form of the Roman rite there on 14 September 2007, the very day Benedict XVI's motu proprio took effect. A leader of men at the service of the salvation of souls, Fr. Villa showed the way in his very first sermon at Holy Innocents: Consecration to the Sacred-Heart of Jesus and to the Immaculate Heart of Mary; devotion to the Blessed Sacrament; and confession. Indeed Fr. Villa is convinced that before bearing witness to Christ through words, one has first to live in His presence, just as the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph did.

And so besides the four Masses celebrated Monday through Friday (one in the morning and two at lunchtime in the ordinary form and one evening extraordinary form) and two Masses Saturdays and Sundays (extraordinary form at one o’clock on Saturday afternoons and at 10:30 Sunday mornings), Holy Innocents offers eucharistic adoration every weekday afternoon and traditional Vespers on Sunday, in addition to daily Rosary. The extraordinary form is usually sung, except Mondays and Thursdays.


Paix liturgique: When did you get to know about the extraordinary form (EF) of the Roman Rite ?
Fr. Villa: I grew up with the EF before Vatican II and knew it well due to the diligent teachers at my boyhood parish, Most Holy Redeemer, New York, NY staffed by German Redemptorists.

PL: How did you learn it and how long did it take for you to feel comfortable with it?
Fr. Villa: By age 13 I was able to be Master of Ceremonies so the EF was easy to offer. It all came back to me.

PL: You are what we call an "in utroque usu priest", that means you are used to saying Mass in both forms of the Roman Missal: has the celebration of the EF changed your way of celebrating the Novus Ordo (NO)?
Fr. Villa: I was always comfortable with the EF and even before the Motu Proprio it influenced my offering of the ordinary form given the lacunae in the rubrics of the NO. I tended from ordination to be influenced by the usus antiquior.

PL: How did the faithful react to the EF, in Yonkers as in Holy Innocents?
Fr. Villa: The faithful reacted very well to the EF. It was well-attended and approached in numbers the NO parish Masses. I celebrated it also for the school-children twice a year and the servers were trained in both forms of the Mass. The dialog Mass was used and the faithful made the responses very well in Latin. Also the parish choir sang for both forms of the Mass doing Gregorian chant and polyphony.

PL: What strikes anyone who comes to Mass at Holy Innocents, either on Sundays or on weekdays is the variety of your faithful: all social, age or ethnic groups are represented. Has the EF been welcomed equally by all of them?
Fr. Villa: What strikes people at HI with the EF is one word: reverence. I would say the EF has been very well received by most people although both forms of the Mass are offered.

PL: New evangelization, which is often re-evangelization, is one of the major topics of the Church today: as Holy Innocents stands in the very busy and industrial heart of Manhattan (the Garment District) but also on the shore of Broadway, we figure you have much to do and say in the matter?
Fr. Villa: Well the new evangelization is simply evangelization: teaching the Catholic Faith. There is an opportunity to evangelize here through the liturgy, the confessional, pamphlets, devotions, street-witness. The Legion of Mary is re-starting at HI which I hope will be a vehicle for evangelization through a mobile Catholic information center on wheels called the “book-barrow” and for an apologetic format called the Patricians which seeks to get Catholics to be confident in discussing their faith. The parish bulletin also serves for evangelization.

PL: Pope Francis regularly invites Catholics to "go out": do you, literally, go out of Holy Innocents and provide initiatives, either social or liturgical, in the streets of Manhattan or elsewhere?
Fr. Villa: Well I do go out in the street for various reasons always dressed as a priest. People sometimes greet you and I actually heard Confession in the street. We are working with an inter-parish outreach to street people which just took place this past Sunday. Our parish hall which is open during the day attracts people coming in for various reasons and there is a parish religious articles store there. We also have processions in the streets from time to time: Corpus Christi, San Martin and so forth.

PL: Pope Francis will be in New York on next September 24-26: will the parish participate in this event and, if you were to meet the Pope, what would you like to tell him?
Fr. Villa: Yes I expect the parish to participate according to the plan the Archdiocese has developed for parish participation. I would tell the Holy Father that the parish is full of devoted hard-working people dedicated to the Catholic Faith and grateful to have both forms of the liturgy.

PL: In Europe, it's a fact that secularization has taken over on Christianity but, seen from Manhattan, is there something that you long for in European catholicism?
Fr. Villa: Well many of the roots of the Faith are in Europe and very many holy places.  In France alone I look to many of the ancient centers of the Faith and shrines associated with great saints: Notre-Dame, Saint-Sulpice or the Sacré Coeur in Paris, but also Ars, Paray-le-Monial, La Salette, Lourdes, so many places.

PL: Something specific you would like to add?
Fr. Villa: I think the EF will continue to have a great effect on the Church and it continues to grow.  I pray that it will continue to influence the NO and contribute to the elimination of the many abuses which plague the NO.

Fr. Villa celebrating a weekday Mass at Holy Innocents (EF, June 2015).


1) “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!” A parish faced with being shut down introduces the extraordinary form of the Roman rite to revive itself—and it works; this in Manhattan, the very heart of modernity, to boot. That is what is called “making the experiment of tradition,” which in practical terms is all that Catholic priests and laymen attached to the Church’s traditional liturgy have ever asked for. Unfortunately, on the European side of the Atlantic, men with deaf ears choose to shut down churches—or even promise them to the Muslims!—rather than to open them up to the people of Summorum Pontificum.

2) This very American pragmatism is echoed in the attitude of the archbishop, Cardinal Dolan: having noted the parish’s growth since its adoption of the extraordinary form, he decided to save it and to give it a new pastor who is well suited to keep up and further expand its life in utroque usu. This realism explains the ease with which Ecclesia Dei communities obtain so many parishes and apostolates in America, often after negotiations with the local ordinary for a veritable contract whose concrete clauses are then scrupulously respected. This also explains why Summorum Pontificum seminarians are accepted as such in many seminaries which, as a result, have incoming numbers apt to make European houses of formation pale with envy.

3) Ever since we discovered Holy Innocents, many friends who have had an opportunity to travel to New York have reported that their visit within its walls left a mark on them too. They were struck by the dignity of its celebrations, the vigor of the homilies, and the fervor of the faithful, but also by this surprising, and characteristically New York, melting pot, where UN diplomats are side-by-side with Fifth Avenue Filipina housekeepers and African-American families from the Bronx. Considering that it was an East Indian priest who allowed for the “Latin Mass” to return to this Manhattan parish, one can only be fascinated by the authentically Catholic, i.e. universal, character of the traditional liturgy.