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Where Broadway's finest go to pray

St. Malachy's Church, located in the heart of New York's theater district

By Sopan Deb and Johanna Cerutti
Rock Center

It is about 10:30 on a Saturday night at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City and Andy Richardson is in the midst of his frenetic weekly routine. Richardson is tired, sweaty and bowing; soaking in the cheers from an appreciative audience to his eighth performance of the week playing Romeo in the hit Broadway adaptation of “Newsies the Musical.” The curtain closes and he rushes off to the dressing room.

Richardson doesn’t have much time. He tears off his costume – boots, knee-high socks, knickers, an undershirt, a vest, a microphone, a microphone belt, a hat and other assorted items.

The 17-year-old runs downstairs, out the stage door, where he stops to sign a couple of autographs.  He continues to greet his fans while walking briskly at a pace resembling a jog.

He has to get to church.

“How many churches have an 11 p.m. Mass?” Richardson asks.

St. Malachy’s Church, located in the heart of New York’s theater district, is the only one.

Nicknamed “The Actors’ Chapel,” St. Malachy’s has stood tall for more than a century as the spiritual home for actors, playwrights, directors, stagehands, stuntmen, pit musicians and anyone who is involved in the entertainment industry.

The list of well-known celebrities who have attended the church is long. Martin Sheen, Antonio Banderas and Mario Lopez are among those who have expressed their admiration for St. Malachy’s. 

Florence Henderson, who played Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” once wrote a letter to the church that said, “It’s very hard for me to put into words what St. Malachy’s has meant to me. It was ‘my church’ and my place to go and regain my strength, my confidence and my soul.”

The Rev. Richard Baker has headed the church since 2003.  The church was given its name because St. Malachy’s was one of the many successors of St. Patrick and the church was located in a highly Irish concentrated neighborhood. One of St. Malachy’s unofficial patrons is St. Genesius, who Baker refers to as the “Jay Leno of his time.” Genesius was an outspoken comedian in the 3rd century who was put to death after declaring he was a member of the Catholic Church during a performance.

Thirty minutes before the curtain rises on Broadway, the church’s bells ring and tourists on the street, in an odd moment of recognition, jerk their heads upward.

That’s because the bells play “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from the musical “Annie Get Your Gun.”

The Rev. George Moore, who took over the church in 1976, installed the bells in the late seventies to serve as an audible reminder of the church’s presence.

In those days, Times Square was ripe with drugs, pornography and prostitution – not exactly the ideal place for a church. There were questions raised as to whether St. Malachy’s could even continue to survive. In the first two years of Moore’s tenure, instead of shutting the church down, he reached out to the owners of pornography shops, the theater runners and local businesses in an attempt to change the area.

“I think maybe because he was a priest, he had the ability of bringing people together who were faced with a lot of challenges or struggles,” Baker says. “Maybe he brought an element of hope to it.”

“There is always going to be a revival if you bring that hope to it.”

You might not know John Roney, but you have likely seen him – or at least parts of him. He is a stuntman with a diverse portfolio who appears in Tina Fey’s new movie, “Admission.” Like any good stuntman, he has been cast a victim on “Law & Order” multiple times. Roney started attending St. Malachy’s more than 30 years ago after graduating from college in Philadelphia and moving to New York City.

He discovered the church after hearing the quirky bells outside his window. 

“For me, Philadelphia was like Mars compared to here,” Roney says. “And I think when I moved here, to find a place I could identify with, it’s gratitude primarily.”

“It’s like this lightning bolt moment where I know it’s something I can rely on.”

After taking over the church, Baker learned that Roney was a stuntman and asked him to go above and beyond his normal churchgoer duties. 

“To get to the light fixtures in the center of the church, you have to go to the crawlspace in between the actual ceiling of the church and the false ceiling that you see,” Baker says. “The false ceiling is just a decorative gothic plaster work to make it look like there are these gothic arches that are holding the roof up. You have to go out on the roof of the church and climb up a ladder that is angled on the roof, you have to open the hatch and crawl into it.”

“So, only the most daring of persons would do that. Well, who best than a stuntman?”

St. Malachy’s might be the only church in the world where a professional stuntman changes the light bulbs.

Matthew Gumley, 15, has been attending the church almost as long as he’s been on television, where he’s appeared on Nickelodeon and the hit ABC show, “Modern Family.”  His first television appearance was when he was four on a Sci-Fi Channel show called “In Search Of.”

The biggest draw for Gumley to St. Malachy’s is the music. Gumley is a cantor on Sundays, which means he occasionally leads the music throughout Mass, a task usually performed by a choir.

“What keeps me going there is the fact that the music is just absolutely glorious,” Gumley said. “With the new pipe organ, it sends chills down my spine every time I walk in that church and it’s just someplace that I just want to keep going back and I want to keep hearing it.”

The church choir is filled with professional Broadway singers, but Baker doesn’t frame the music of St. Malachy’s in those terms.

“Music is not performance when it comes to liturgy at all,” Baker says. “It’s a real transition from performance to service. Very, very different. It is very difficult even for some of our cantors, to get up there and to sing the song without performing. To not sing the notes, but to sing the words. It’s very difficult to do, but it’s an absolute priority here and I made that the basis of the music program here.”

When Baker delivers Mass in front of hordes of professional entertainers, he has to, in essence, give his own performance. He is not a physically imposing presence. However, peering through his glasses, he delivers an animated sermon that fills the room and keeps the actors coming back for more.

Baker studied music in graduate school at Catholic University, specializing in voice and church music, which he says helped him relate to his parish.

“I understand what it means to practice, to rehearse, to keep an instrument up or talent up,” Baker says. “So I guess I bring that integrity to the whole game. It doesn’t bother me, per se, but when it comes to Mass itself, that’s where I’m free to use my gift.”

The demographic of the parish might make for some unique prayers.

“I think they’re praying that they sustain their talent,” Baker said. “I think they’re praying to help them through the amount of rejection that comes with being in this field. They’re praying that it is worth it, to go through it.”

“Because I see the suffering these people go through for the sake of their craft – incredible. In society today, it’s all about the star, and the real stars are the ones that nobody knows their names because they’re the ones that are really, really struggling. They’re the ones who really believe in their craft so much that they will give up so much to be able to sustain it and keep it going.”

And through it all, Baker says he does not get caught up in the fact that he is the head of the so-called Actors’ Chapel.

“I encounter real people. Real people with real faith and when I see them on TV - to know the person – ‘That guy comes to church!’ It’s enriching. When they are here, are not treated in any different way.”