If you are going to visit Niagara Falls, there’s one more stop every Catholic-traveller must make: The New York Power Authority on Route 104 between Niagara Falls and Lewiston, NY. It’s right between the Lower Niagara River and the Vincentian Niagara University.
You must see this because, by all standards of current political correctness, it should NOT be there. In an age where America is becoming quickly de-Christianized while ISIS runs roughshod over great patches of the Middle East, there is—still—an massive Judeo-Christian outdoor monument to peace on public, state-owned property at what was at the time the world’s largest power-plant: The Robert Moses Power Dam at Niagara aka “The Power Vista.” And inside that same Power Dam? A huge mural of Father Hennipen, OFM, Cross in hand, “discovering” and blessing Niagara Falls, painted by American legendary artist Thomas Hart Benton.
The outdoor Psalm Eight is carved in a truly colossal bulk of white stone and placed near the entrance to The Power Vista aka The New York Power Authority nee The Robert Moses Power Authority, which is right across the street from Niagara University and overlooks the stunning Lower Niagara River. In an even more remarkable turn, at the end of the Psalm is carved “donated to the Greater Glory of God by the churches and synagogues of Niagara Falls.” (Emphases added.) This was in 1963, before the Second Vatican Council officially ok’d ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.
But quite possibly by the time you read this some humorous atheist will certainly have filed a court-complaint to take down the beautiful ivory-white poem-sculpture. I’m half-surprised that the State—make that THE STATE—itself hasn’t quietly removed it. Why? Because indeed, the very same building known as “The Power Vista” used to display (and light) Thomas Hart Benton’s enormous mural of Franciscan Father Hennipen “discovering” and blessing Niagara Falls and placed it so that this huge testament to the discovery of Niagara could be seen by drivers on Route 104 and The Robert Moses Parkway … but someone was offended by it, and it has now been moved to the basement of the Power Project. Still, if you are visiting Niagara Falls, it’s worth driving four miles down the road to view all twenty-by-seven-feet of it.
One can almost (almost) understand the motivation to decorate the interior of the Power Project—after all, it’s a pretty bleak, almost dystopian place. And Thomas Hart Benton was as American as proverbial baseball and clichéd apple pie, so his mural “fits,” even as it “offends” atheists and Native Americans (who choose to be offended).
But how did Psalm 8 wind up outside The Power Vista in the first place? And why?
First, you have to know a bit about the man who built The Power Vista: Robert Moses, and chances are you already do know something about him, as his name, even during his long lifetime (1888-1981) was on more parks, schools, causeways, and power-projects than most dead presidents. Not for nothing does The Robert Moses Parkway run under The Robert Moses Power Dam (as it was once called) in Niagara Falls, while nine hours away there’s another Robert Moses Parkway in Long Island. So that’s the kind of megalomaniac we’re dealing with here: he literally surrounded New York State with his name—while he was still alive. And his name appeared in three-foot-high black-on-silver letters on the Power Vista’s covered footbridge over his eponymous parkway, too.
Moses, who at one point simultaneously held a dozen un-elected positions in New York City and New York State, was the greatest builder of all time: for sheer amount of roads, bridges, tunnels, public housing, world’s fairs, parks, pools, beaches, zoos, the United Nations, Lincoln Center, Fordham University, and power projects, no one even comes close. Robert Moses made Egypt’s Ramasees look like a rank amateur.
However, Moses was also one of those strange self-hating Jews, almost like chess-legend Bobby Fischer: born into a Jewish family of means in New Haven, he not only declined to practice his faith (which is not at all unusual, as there are many “secular Jews”), but refused to even be referred to as a Jew at all—and threatened legal action to anyone who called him such.
Stranger still, two of the only people Robert Moses truly emulated, respected even—one hesitates to use the word “loved”—were high-ranking faithful Catholics: Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, whom Moses insisted on having present at most of his huge openings (like the Triborough Bridge, The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, The Astoria Pool, and The New York World’s Fair); and the only man Moses ever called “Governor,” Alfred E. “The Brown Derby” Smith, the son of a fishmonger who rose to be a four-term governor of New York and who was the first Catholic candidate for president. Moses referred to all other New York State Governors (including FDR) simply and contemptuously as “you.”
But even further back, when he was an undergraduate at Yale, Moses was at heart, a poet, something he carried with him when he went to Oxford for an advanced degree. Though he was the world’s most prolific builder, and he obtained degrees from Columbia (Ph.D.) and post-doctorate work at the University of Berlin, Moses had absolutely no engineering or architectural background at all. He loved words in general, and bending words to his will in particular.
So after building the U.N., breaking ground for Shea Stadium, solidifying his legacy with a now-extinct New York Coliseum, Moses built a couple of gargantuan Power Plants: one in The Saint Lawrence River at Messena, and the larger one—at the time the largest in the entire world—at Niagara.
It may not have been Robert Moses’s own idea to have a monolith of Psalm 8 erected—it seems to have been one of those happy moments when the clergy of all creeds saw a miracle in the making and seized on it: the miracle being not only the construction of the largest Power Project in the world, but the boom in business for the City of Niagara Falls, whose population suddenly swelled to 120,000 souls (it’s now down to about 45,000). So they picked a psalm that is most fitting for such an outlandish, incredible accomplishment, and Psalm 8 is worth quoting in toto:
O Lord, Our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!
You have set your majesty above the heavens!
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have drawn a defense against your foes,
To silence enemy and avenger.
When I see the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you set in place—
What is man that you are mindful of him,
Mere mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them little less than a god,
Crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them rule over the works of your hands,
Put all things under their feet:
All sheep and oxen, even the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!
Poetry is difficult to translate—poetry from a several thousand years ago especially so. However, as Marshall McLuhan once wisely and famously remarked, “The medium is the message.” In this case the medium is what English-professors call “concrete poetry”: this giant carved rock was built not only to last, but perhaps to outlast even the Power Project itself.
Again, while it was probably not Robert Moses’s idea, you can bet Robert Moses had veto power over the Psalm being placed on his Power Project at all. This was, it is worth remembering, a man who had his own coat of arms, flag, and insignia for his sinecure on Randall’s Island for The Triborough Commission, his de facto headquarters hidden in the very center of New York City.
And for all his many, many faults, Moses must have been pleased at the choice of this Psalm for one simple reason: it is, regardless of your politics or theology, very good poetry, which Moses always appreciated.
If you are visiting Niagara Falls soon—and something like 12 to 20 million people do visit it annually—be sure to see The Power Vista and take in the stunning sights of the Lower Niagara River (which is a misnomer: it’s really “the straits of Niagara,” though no one actually calls it that) where inside you can view Thomas Hart Benton’s masterpiece of Fr. Hennepin discovering Niagara Falls, and outside read for yourself the words of Psalm 8 while listening to the powerful river flow, and the even more powerful Power Project send electricity to most of Northeastern America.