When the choir director told him that TV news was calling about Katie Holmes’s becoming a new parishioner, the pastor at St. Francis Xavier Church on West 16th Street in Manhattan was at a disadvantage.
“I didn’t even know who she was,” says Father Joe Costantino, who subsequently learned that Holmes is the estranged wife of Tom Cruise and is said to have left him for fear her child would be raised as a Scientologist. It made no difference to the priest.
“I told our choir director, ‘If she wants to join the choir, I’ll take her,’” Father Costantino says.
Still, on Tuesday, the priest could not confirm that Holmes had, as reported by the New York papers, officially joined his parish.
“It’s news to me,” he told The Daily Beast.
He allowed that the registration now can be accomplished online. She also might show up in the communion line without him knowing.
“I wouldn’t recognize her,” he says.
Had Holmes been among those who attended the 12:05 p.m. Mass on Tuesday, she would have heard a homily sure to resonate with someone who had left Scientology, along with her husband, to return to the Catholicism of her youth. Father Costantino spoke in his sermon of the need to shun false idols such as the Golden Calf of scripture.
“Worship the true, living God,” he told the two dozen people gathered for the Mass.
Weekday Masses are held in the small, unadorned Mary’s Chapel behind the main church. The worshippers sit on plain chairs rather than pews, and the overall simplicity accords a sense of what it must have been like for the early Christians, only with a delightful New York diversity of race, nationality, even sexual orientation.
“Families, singles, same-sex people,” Father Costantino says.
On Sundays, the Mass is held in St. Francis Xavier Church itself, a century-old structure modeled after a Roman basilica with all-American touches; a Native American feather motif and stenciling such as adorned Colonial homes. The church had become grimy and dilapidated over the decades, but recently underwent a $13 million renovation.
“We worshipped under scaffolding for a year,” Father Costantino says. “The parishioners were real troopers. There was dust and dirt.”
Now that the work is done, St. Francis Xavier may be the most magnificent church in New York, having won a prestigious New York Landmarks Conservancy award for fusing functionality and restoration. The new marble around the altar matches exactly the gray marble of the century-old columns. The figures of the murals are no longer blackened beyond recognition.
“We knew that was the Japanese martyrs, but we couldn’t really tell,” Father Costantino says of one.
The 20-ton altar was shifted a dozen feet forward by a team of expert Amish monument movers, making room for a new sacristy that has a glass ceiling.
“Our Apple Store sacristy!” Father Costantino says. “Isn’t that great?”
The architectural splendor has not led the parish to forget the poor. It serves 1,000 meals to the needy every Sunday and runs both a men’s shelter and an “L Step” life skills program that teaches the fundamentals of preparing a résumé, obtaining a job, and securing housing to people in need. Pot washers are needed for cleaning up after the Sunday dinners, and Holmes would, no doubt, be welcomed as a volunteer. She could also sign up for the upcoming choir cabaret.
“I know it’s going to be spectacular,” Father Costantino says.
One notable whom Father Costantino has recognized in the church is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose daughter lives nearby. Another occasional communicant is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who attended Xavier High School next door.
“Every once in a while he shows up,” Father Constantine reports.
The combination of the simplicity of the chapel and the grandeur of the main church, along with the pastor’s lively energy and the inspiring devotion of the volunteers, makes St. Francis Xavier what the church calls a “destination parish,” one that attracts people outside the immediate vicinity.
And even as it draws the faithful from beyond the parish boundaries, St. Francis Xavier sends them forth with a working theology that can guide them far from home—one that might even stay with Holmes wherever her celebrity existence might take her.
“The Jesuit spirituality, trying to find God wherever you are,” Father Costantino says.
Holmes, perhaps, could find no better parish for a daughter who will soon be making her first communion.