A Half Block Off Broadway, Father George Moore Oversees the Miracle of 49th Street
updated 04/27/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/27/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Five years ago, when Father Moore was asked to leave his middle-income Roman Catholic parish in Riverdale, N.Y. to take over the 73-year-old Actors Chapel, St. Malachy's had all but given up its struggle to survive among the derelicts, porno impresarios and prostitutes. "It was awful! The doorbell never rang; the phone never rang," Moore recalls. "Oh, you got your occasional drifter coming by for a handout, but it was like living in a tomb. And we had $60,000 worth of unpaid bills. I wondered what I had gotten myself into."
But Moore, 54, also knew that St. Malachy's had for years served as the special parish for show business folks in every capacity—from dressers, stagehands and usherettes to Broadway stars, including Spencer Tracy, Bob Hope, Don Ameche, Ricardo Montalban, Irene Dunne and Perry Como. Fred Allen, Jimmy Durante and Dom DeLuise had been married there. Rudolph Valentino's massive funeral had been conducted from the altar.
Moore began a three-month walking tour of the area, "talking to anybody who would listen," to get to know the people and their problems. "This was like no other parish I had ever heard of," he says. "We had one of the largest concentrations of elderly poor in Manhattan. The theater mission had to be revived. We had thousands of business people who came into the area every day, and on weekends the tourists. It was a crazy bag."
Moore set about tackling the problems in often unorthodox ways. He applied for and received federal government grants to set up a senior citizens' center and provide hot lunches. To make room, he closed off and renovated the seldom-used lower chapel, sold off its pews and converted a religious shrine into an Astro-Turfed underground garden alive with parakeets. Two confessional booths were turned into a photo gallery of former showbiz celebs. A pay phone was installed. What used to be the organ space is now a lending library, and Sam Goody, the music dealer next door, donated an $8,000 sound system and tape decks.
Almost all the furnishings were given by hotels, businesses and theaters. "I begged," Moore happily admits. "But I never use my collar to embarrass them into a gift, and I never ask for money, only tangible contributions—lamps, chairs, paint, a television set."
Soon St. Malachy's had linked hands with its Broadway community again. Besides the bells (which were also donated), the church provides "prayers, a cup of coffee and a shoulder to cry on" for aspiring actors and actresses fresh off out-of-town buses. The church also has started what Moore calls "the only off-off-Broadway shows on Broadway," staged by an in-house theatrical group.
St. Malachy's provides Saturday Masses to fit performers' odd-hour schedules, with post-matinee and pre-and post-theater services. "This way, anybody in the theater—or going to the theater—can get to Mass and have their Sundays free," Moore says.
Moore was an unlikely candidate for the priesthood; in fact, he was almost raised a Southern Baptist. His real estate and insurance broker father converted to Catholicism before George's birth in Kingston, N.Y. Both parents were widowed with a child when they married. "I was theirs," explains Moore. "So it was a case of your kid and my kid fighting with our kid."
As a teenager Moore spent two years in the Navy during World War II. He was a second-year premed student at Ohio State and engaged to a classmate when he decided, quite suddenly, to became a priest. The call came during a sermon. "To me it was the strangest thing," he says even now. "No one in my family had been a priest. Not that my family wasn't religious, but they weren't rabid about it. They just lived it seven days a week."
Soon after, Moore entered Dunwoodie Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., and last May he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination with a $75-a-plate benefit for St. Malachy's. The orphans of Annie and Chita Rivera showed up; Frank Sinatra sent a check for $5,000.
Moore isn't surprised that St. Malachy's has come alive. Simply a matter of faith, he declares, and giving people a chance to help you. "We've had the church painted for the first time in 40 years," he says. "We got the money when a friend called me in off the street for a cup of coffee and introduced me to another man. He asked me what the church needed and then said, 'Well, whatever it is, you'll have a check for $5,000 tomorrow morning.' " Adds Moore, smiling, "You couldn't be here and not have faith!"