As the population in Harlem increased, so did the need for more religious facilities to serve the neighborhood, since many residents of the area came originally from Ireland and Italy. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Church of All Saints was among seven Catholic parish churches that were constructed (or altered) in central Harlem to meet the religious needs of the burgeoning immigrant population in the area.
The area was a large one however, so that even as rural tracts and big estates began to be developed, there were still large open spaces. In 1879, New York’s Cardinal John McClosky created a new parish incorporating the blocks between Eighth Avenue and the East River, from 124th Street to 150th Street on the east side, and 124th and 130th Streets on the west side. The congregation of this parish first met in the abandoned streetcar barns located at Third Avenue and 129th Street. The Reverend James W. Power, who had been serving at St. Theresa’s Church on Rutgers Street in Manhattan, was appointed rector of the new church. After several months, the congregation moved to Lincoln Hall, at 129th Street and Fourth Avenue, a site that they used for two years. In 1882, the site of their services was again relocated to the old Harlem Courthouse and Market, at 125th Street near Third Avenue.
The property at 129th Street and Madison Avenue, which would eventually be the site of the new church, was transferred by Cardinal McCloskey to the Roman Catholic Church of All Saints in 1882. The architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell was hired to create a design for the new building, and the foundation stone was laid in 1883. By 1886, a basement chapel was completed and the congregation met there for the next several years. Raising money for the new structure was difficult and slowed the construction of the church, which was not resumed until 1889. By that time, the local population had soared and the church had 5,000 members. Finally, on December 10, 1893, there was an elaborate dedication ceremony for the new church, presided over by Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan. Local critics called the structure “one of the handsomest in the city.”
During the break in the church construction, the same architectural firm designed and built the rectory, located just to the east of the church. It served as home to Rev. Power who led the church until his death in 1926. He oversaw the founding of a church school for boys and one for girls in 1900, and the construction of the school building located just to the north of the church, on the corner of 130th Street and Madison Avenue. It was designed by James Renwick’s nephew, W. W. Renwick and built between 1902 and 1904. The schools were run by the Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers of Ireland, as Rev. Power and many of the parishioners were of Irish origin.
The bell in the large tower was dedicated on September 13, 1908 in a ceremony led by Right Reverend Bishop Thomas F. Cusack from the Archdiocese of New York. The bell, which was inscribed “Queen of All Saints, pray for us” symbolized the important role of the church and its many services to its neighborhood. During the 1920s and 30s, the population of the area changed from Irish to African-American and although other area parishes were losing population, the fine reputation of All Saints school helped maintain its membership. In the early 1950s, there was a sharp increase in the black population in Harlem generally and particularly at All Saints.
Urban unrest of the mid 1960s brought a sudden and steep decline in church membership and a threatened school closure, which ultimately did not happen. (All Saints School closed June 2011.) At that time and under the leadership of Msrg. Gerald Mahoney, the church also began to attract Hispanic members through the development of a Spanish Mass.
The Church of All Saints has continued its long tradition of serving the religious, educational and social needs of its parishioners as its Harlem neighborhood has undergone drastic social and economic changes.
In 2012 the congregation celebrates the 133rd anniversary of its founding.
The ornate Venetian Gothic building for All Saints Church was designed by James Renwick, Jr., who was also the architect for St. Patrick's Cathedral, Grace Episcopal Church, and the Smithsonian Institution. Dedicated in 1893, the imposing and quite grand church is often called the "St. Patrick's of Harlem", and is noted for its patterned brickwork, terra cotta details, wheel windows at the clerestory level, and tall bell tower. The vaulted interior is also rich in details, including comfortable hand-carved pews, murals and stained glass.