Created By: The History Center in Tompkins County
The parish has been in existence since 1848, when Mass was celebrated in the former City Hall by the first pastor, Rev. M. Guilbride, although Catholicism first came to Ithaca as early as 1825. The first church, called St. Luke’s, was built on the site of the present Parish Center in 1851.
A second church, Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was built at the corner of Geneva and Seneca Streets in 1863. The cornerstone for the present church was laid by Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid on September 20, 1896 and was dedicated on September 11, 1898. The Ithaca Journal reported on September 12 that the congregation “packed the building so that hundreds of people stood closely in the three wide aisles from the altar stairs to the three front entrances. Hundreds more stood outside who could not even glance into the building. The vast audience, because of the bright and variegated colors and flowers on the hats worn by the ladies, looked like a flower garden in full bloom.”
The exterior is mainly Gothic Revival-style but with Romanesque Revival-style features, such as the use of large, rusticated stone blocks for the exterior walls. The stone is pinkish below the water table and orange/buff above it. There are three entrances, each with a Gothic arch, in the west (front) façade; the arched transoms are filled with stained glass. Above the central entrance is a rose window. There are two towers, a large one at the northwest corner and a small one at the southwest corner. On the northwest corner of the bell tower is a carved Madonna in a niche, with arched vents and a quatrefoil above. The stained glass windows in the apse are covered on the inside.
The interior of the church was originally decorated in the neo-Gothic or Second Gothic Revival-style popular at the end of the 19th century. In the 1940s, the church was remodeled to roughly its present appearance, retaining major original features. Entering the foyer, on the left, are steps leading to the organ and choir loft, which is located below the western rose window. Above the main entrance into the nave are frosted glass windows. Side aisles are formed by large Gothic arches supported by pink marble Corinthian columns; within the side aisles are paired stained glass windows. The trusswork in the ceiling is of wood.
The altar area contains a wooden altar of Gothic design that features inlaid Florentine mosaics. Above this is a reredos of carved oak that supports a tapestry hand woven in Belgium and purchased from the Rambusch Decorating Company of New York. The tapestry is a version of Antonio Murillo’s The Immaculate Conception and was installed in 1998, concluding a multi-year renovation of the church to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the founding of the parish and the 100th anniversary of the building’s construction. Immaculate Conception received Historic Ithaca’ s Preservation Award for excellence in 1997.
Facing the altar, on the left or Gospel side, is the Altar of Christ the King, made of marble. The walnut reredos contains four paintings showing Christ as teacher, with Mary and Martha; as priest at Emmaus; as the Good Shepherd; and as king. The statue above the altar represents Christ and the Sacred Heart. On the right or Epistle side (facing the altar) is an altar dedicated to St. Joseph. The table is supported by columns and has a reredos of carved Italian marble. The reredos contains altar cards of black Belgian marble with gold lettering. Above is a statue of St. Joseph with a canopy of walnut and gold. The south transcept forms a small chapel with an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Associated with the church is the Parish Center, located in a former residence next to the church on North Geneva St.; the Immaculate Conception Shop, also located in a former residence next to the church on West Seneca St.; and Immaculate Conception School on West Buffalo Street, near North Plain St.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Religious Buildings in Downtown Ithaca