A Stairway to Havens
Amid the swirl of humanity to be found where Old Bellevue and New Bellevue intersect, the bottom steps of a staircase jut out into the ground-floor corridor, as if beckoning passersby to some quieter, loftier place. Those curious—or enlightened—enough to follow this marble path soon leave behind the medical world and enter another realm of healing.
At the top of the stairs, a pair of closed doors leads to four more pairs of closed doors, behind which are four unique inner sanctums. This is Chapel Hall, home to a Catholic chapel, a Protestant chapel, a Jewish synagogue, and a Muslim prayer room.
Bellevue, the oldest public hospital in America, has been staffed by chaplains since 1816, when Rev. John Stanford of the Church of England arrived. In 1893, Countess Annie Leary donated $1 million for a Catholic chapel, complete with stained-glass windows, built in the courtyard of Old Bellevue. (Leary was not married to a count; hers was a papal title granted in recognition of her charitable gifts, among them the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle.)
Chapel Hall opened in the newly built administration building in 1940. In its coverage of the consecration of the Catholic chapel, The New York Times reported that “the ceremony brought to Bellevue the distinction of being the first hospital in the world to have separate houses of worship for each of three major faiths.” (The Muslim prayer room was added in recent years.)
The new Catholic chapel, resplendent with stained-glass windows salvaged from the demolished one, was placed in the center of the hall. The Protestant chapel and the synagogue are much simpler than their Catholic counterpart but just as serene. Each one seats about 300 worshippers.
These sanctuaries have witnessed many kinds of solemn occasions over the years. In 1949, Dan O’Brien, “King of the Hobos,” died at the age of 90. Thanks to two affluent friends, he was honored with an impressive funeral in the Protestant chapel, “graced by all the pretensions he had spurned during his life as a simple man,” as The New York Times noted. In 1951, a young couple was married in the synagogue because the bride’s father was in Bellevue recovering from a heart attack. As Rabbi Henry Schorr described the event, “The bride’s father is a fireman. The bride is a court clerk. The bridegroom works for the post office. The city owns the hospital and provides the synagogue. A civil service wedding in every respect!”