History of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Manhattanville
Serving the West Harlem Community since 1823
A Historical Sketch to Commemorate the 125th Anniversary of St. Mary’s Church, Manhattanville
Through the Years with St. Mary’s Church
St. Mary’s Church, Manhattanville, the first free pew church in the city of New York and one of the first in the United States, has reached its 12Sth anniversary. Lawrence Street, on which the church is located, has become West 126th Street and a tapestry brick and sandstone building, erected in 1908, has replaced the original white frame structure; but throughout the scene shifting that accompanied the absorption of Manhattanville by an expanding metropolis, little St. Mary’s has remained in the same location.
The earliest extant reference to Manhattanville is an advertisement in the New York Spectator of July 9, 1806, which tells of its formation “in the Ninth Ward of this city, on the Bloomingdale road in front of Harlem Cove on the North River.” Harlem Cove was an inlet of the Hudson River, long since filled in to form part of West 12Sth Street. In the days of the American Revolution a narrow road, referred to on Washington ‘s maps as the Hollow Way and mentioned in Cooper’s novel The Spy. ran along the northern bank of this inlet. From somewhere among the trees along this northern bank Washington’s soldiers fired the first shots in the Battle of Harlem Heights, and the ground upon which the church stands was part of the battlefield.
In 1807 the New York Gazette and General Advertiser described Manhattanville as “a flourishing little town … ahout eight miles from the City Hal1.'” The account continued, “It was first projected and laid out into streets about twelve months ago by Mr. Schieffelin and others, since which an academy was erected.” The bell in the Choir Arch of the present St. Mary’s church formerly hung in this academy and was presented to St. Mary’s by Mr. Schieffelin. The bell differs in shape from those cast in England or America, and is believed to have been brought from the West Indies by a sea captain.
1807 is also significant as the year in which St. Michael’s Church, on 99th Street east of the Bloomingdale Road, was consecrated. Jacob Schieffelin, previously mentioned as the founder of Manhattanville and destined to play an important part in the organization of St. Mary’s, was a Vestryman of St. Michael’s.
Mr. Schietlelin had served as an officer in the British Army during the American Revolution and. while quartered in New York, had fallen in love with Hannah Lawrence, daughter of a Quaker merchant. Mr. Lawrence, averse from the beginning to the idea of his daughter’s marrying “out of meeting,” was doubly horrified at the thought of having a man of war for a son-in-law. He stoutly refused to give his consent to the marriage, and even threatened to report his daughter to meeting. Miss Hannah, however, had a mind of her own, and when neither Jacob Schieffelin’s suit nor paternal authority showed any sign of yielding, the two young people eloped.
At the close of the Revolution, because of his Loyalist activities, Mr. Schieffelin was obliged to leave the country and settled for a time in Canada. In 1794, however, he returned to New York and with his brother-in-law founded the drug firm of Schieffelin and Company. He built a country house at 144th Street, overlooking the river, and near him, somewhat further east. on land which he had sold to his friend, Alexander Hamilton, stood Hamilton Grange. Hamilton’s widow, a daughter of General Philip Schuyler, was a pew holder in the first St. Mary’s church, and a son served on the Vestry.
Mr. Schieffelin’s strong churchmanship and interest in the village of Manhattanville both led him to desire the establishment of regular religious services in the valley. St. Michael’s, the only Episcopal church between St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie and St. John’s, Yonkers, was not easily accessible, and even the establishing in 1819 of a stage line from near Chambers Street to Manhattanville, with coaches departing every forty minutes, did not greatly alleviate the situation.
This concern for the spiritual needs of the inhabitants of Manhattanville, mostly poor people, might have remained merely a pious intention had not St. Michael’s been blessed with a rector who had vision, faith in the future, and a burning zeal for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. In 1820 the Rev. William Richmond, enlarging upon a custom established by his predecessor at St. Michael’s, began to hold services in Thomas Finlay’s school house. This building, which stood on the hillside just west of the present subway station at 12Sth Street, had offered a meeting place to various religious groups from time to time.
On November 28, 1823, Mr. Finlay died, but this hospitality did not cease with his passing. On Thanksgiving Day, held that year on December 18, his widow invited a group of interested persons to the school house for the purpose of organizing a church. The name selected was St. Mary’s Church, Manhattanville, Ninth Ward, of the City of New York. Valentine Nutter and Jacob Schieffelin were chosen as Wardens, and among the first Vestrymen of the newly formed church was Richard L. Schieffelin, a son of Jacob. In 1870 a grandson, George R. Schieffelin, was elected as Vestryman, and other descendants, to the seventh generation, have maintained an interest in St. Mary’s.
The first meeting of the Vestry was held on December 29, 1823, at which time Mr. Richmond was chosen as rector. At this meeting, too, the Vestry decided that all male persons of full age who contribute the sum of fifty cents annually for the support of the church should be members of the congregation and entitled to vote. They also provided for the establishment of a school, for the support of which a claim for $2500 was made on the trustees of the Harlem Commons Fund. This, the first free school in New York, actually antedates the free church, since St. Mary’s did not abolish pew rents until 1831, In 1824 the school was opened to children of all denominations.
Jacob Schieffelin donated the plot of land on which the church stands, and the frame of the original building was up by October 26, 1824. Financial difficulties prevented its immediate completion, but finally, an October 23, 1826, the church was consecrated hy Bishop Hobart.
Thomas T. Groshon, who acted as lay reader under Mr. Richmond, held Sunday morning services and also assembled a Sunday school of sixty children. On August 3, 1825, ]If r. Richmond resigned as rector. Mr. Groshon, who continued to act as lay reader, was called to become rector as soon as he could receive Deacon’s Orders, but he died before this came to pass. He and his brother, Henry M. Groshon, M.D.., were victims of a severe epidemic that swept the city in the fall of 1828. With the death of Mr. Croshon. Mr. Richmond again took over the rectorship of St. Mary’s, and the Rev. George L. Hinton was engaged as his assistant. The church was unable to pay Mr. Hinton’s salary of $150.00 a year because of financial difficulties, so he resigned on April 30, 1830 and went to St. Andrew’s parish in Harlem . He was rector of St. Andrew’s at the time of his death in the horrible cholera epidemic of 1832. So terrifying was this great plague that all who could left the city, abandoning the sick. The city put the whole upper part of Manhattan under Mr. Richmond’s care with authority to order at his discretion and at public expense whatever supplies might be needed to alleviate the distress of the famine stricken and suffering poor. Mr. Richmond went everywhere, entering where others feared to go. He was accompanied on his errands of mercy by a Mrs. Reid who gave her services as a nurse wherever they might be required. The Rev. T. M. Peters, D.D., a former rector of St. Mary’s, wrote, “Her standing; Churchwise, was not good; her position socially inferior; her education and mental culture entirely neglected; yet, what Christians would not do, Mrs. Reid did. She practiced, in time of sore trial, what they were slow to do — the religion which visits those in affliction.”
Mr. Richmond’s activities during the plague are typical of the many services St. Mary’s has performed during its century and a quarter of existence. The Free School of St. Mary’s, at first open to girls as well as boys, later, to boys only, has been mentioned before. In the 1850’s, in an effort to minister to the many German speaking residents of the neighborhood, the Rev. Thomas McClure Peters instituted services in German, and hired an assistant for this purpose. Still later, during the hard times that followed the panic of 1857, Dr. Peters was made almoner for out of door relief for the whole upper West Side of the city: He instituted a public works project which consisted of breaking stone for the macadam used in the first street paving in the neighborhood.
The Rector and Wardens of St. Mary’s were also organizers of the old Manhattanville Library which occupied a brick building somewhat to the northwest of the church, on what is now Old Broadway. For many years St. Mary’s maintained a strong interest in and a close relationship with The Sheltering Arms, a home for destitute and friendless children, and the meeting to organize the Manhattan Day Nursery was held in St. Mary’s rectory under Dr. Hiram Richard Hulse who was rector of the church during the construction of the new building. The Gold Cross, an organization for raising money for mission supplies, also originated in the parish, and has since spread throughout the country.
In later years St. Mary’s at one time offered the use of the church to a Greek Orthodox congregation for its Holy Week and Easter services and, under the present rector, Dr. Charles Breck Ackley, many Spanish-American families living in the neighborhood have been encouraged to make this their church home.
In the mission fields St. Mary’s has been represented by its first rector, the Rev. William Richmond, who spent a year as a missionary in Oregon; by the Rt. Rev. Hiram Richard Hulse, missionary bishop to Cuba; Rev. Francis Brown, missionary in the Virginia mountains; and Rev. Frederick W. Goodman, missionary to northern Alaska.
Two names prominent in American literature appear in the history of St. Mary’s Church. The Rev. Clement C. Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (” ‘Twas the night before Christmas”) was one of the first contributors. Much later, Marguerite Wilkinson, poet and anthologist, attended St. Mary’s and gave some bookshelves still uscd for the church library.
The Rev. James C. Richmond, second rector of the church, at one time fought with the armies that won Greek independence from the Turks a little over a century ago. Parishioners of St. Mary’s have also played their part in our own country’s battles. Sixty-one names appear on the Honor Roll of W orld War I, and eighty men and women from St. Mary’s had service records in World War II.
Forty years ago, in the last sermon preached in the old church, the Rev. John P. Peters, son of a former rector, gave a message that might well be a motto for a church, proud of a century and a quarter of service, but not content to rest on past laurels. He said, “Hold fast the things that have been good in your past, and so develop and translate them into the terms of present needs and present conditions that men shall say of you: ‘Here truly the religion of Christ is taught and preached-and lived.’”
St. Mary's Established
St. Mary's brick and sandstone building erected
The Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke elected Rector
St. Mary's Sanctuary Renovated
Pews are removed.
WANA Community Resource Center Established
St. Mary's community outreach programs, the Robert Daniel Jones Memorial Shelter and the Elizabeth White (EW) Food Programs, incorporate as a 501(c)3.
St. Mary’s in the 19th Century
Read at a Sunday service of Lessons and Carols, December 18, 2011 to remember and celebrate the church’s founding on this date in 1823, one hundred and eighty-eight years ago:
On Thanksgiving Day, celebrated in 1823 on December 18th, leaders within a rural community holding promise of becoming a thriving village, met in the local school house run by the Finlays, for the purpose of organizing a church. St. Michael’s, an Episcopal Parish to the south, provided encouragement and support. The name selected for the new parish was St. Mary’s Church, Manhattanville, in the Ninth Ward of the City of New York. Valentine Nutter and Jacob Schieffelin were chosen as Wardens, and among the first Vestrymen of the newly formed church was also Jacob’s son, Richard L. Schieffelin.
The first meeting of the new Vestry came soon after, on December 29, when the Rev. William Richmond, was chosen as rector. The Vestry also decided who should be full members of the congregation and entitled to vote at church meetings: “all male persons of full age who contribute the sum of fifty cents annually for the support of the church.” They also provided for the establishment of a school, for the support of which a claim for $2500 was made on the trustees of the Harlem Commons Fund. The school was opened in 1824, to children of all denominations. This, the first free school in New York, actually antedates the free church, since St. Mary’s did not abolish pew rents until 1831.
The Rev. William Richmond was succeeded as pastor by his brother, the Rev. James Cook Richmond. Both were also associated with St. Michael’s.
The Rector and Wardens of St. Mary’s were also organizers of the old Manhattanville Library, which occupied a brick building somewhat to the northwest of the church, on what is now Old Broadway. For many years, also, St. Mary’s maintained a strong interest in and close relationship with The Sheltering Arms, a home for destitute and friendless children. It was founded in 1864 by the third rector, the Rev. Thomas McClure Peters, who in 1870 re-located the children from 100th St. to a beautiful new structure built just behind the church. The year 1890 saw the construction of the new Sunday School building, which we know today as the Parish Hall. As St. Mary’s was the only Protestant church in the neighborhood and was affiliated with Sheltering Arms, hundreds of children were in the building each week for many years, well into the 20th century, into the 1940’s, in fact. A meeting to organize the Manhattan Day Nursery was held in St. Mary’s rectory under a later pastor. The Gold Cross, an organization for raising money for mission supplies, also originated in the parish, and has since spread throughout the country.
St. Mary’s enters the 20th Century
At the turn of the twentieth century, the village began to change, as the subway was constructed and Manhattanville became more integrated with the rest of New York City. The grid pattern of streets was imposed over the old streets laid out earlier by Jacob Schieffelin, although 125th and 126th Streets west of Morningside Ave. bend to the northeast, yielding to the well established older thoroughfares of Manhattan St and Lawrence St.
In the first decade of the 20th century, a new rector, the Rev. Dr. Hiram Richard Hulse, urged construction of a new sanctuary. 1908 saw the demolition of the old white frame church and on the same site, construction of the beautiful brick Carrere & Hastings building with cast stone detail and bell cote sheltering us today. The first service was held New Years’ Day, 1909.
In the very last sermon preached in the old church, the Rev. John P. Peters, son of the former rector Thomas McClure Peters, gave a message that might well be a motto for a church, proud of its past service, but not content to rest on past laurels. He said, “Hold fast the things that have been good in your past, and so develop and translate them into the terms of present needs and present conditions, that men shall say of you: ‘Here truly the religion of Christ is taught and preached – and lived.’”
In 1919, the Rev. Dr. Charles Ackley came to St. Mary’s and moved into the rectory. At that point, the new sanctuary was just 11 years old. Dr. Ackley was to serve in the parish here for 35 years. By the time he retired in the late 1950’s, Sheltering Arms was gone, most of the old buildings in the neighborhood had been torn down and the new buildings we know as Manhattanville Houses, Grant Houses and Morningside Gardens were being built to replace them.
In the early years of these new projects, when the Rev. Richard Gary was pastor, and the Diocese provided additional support for outreach to the transformed neighborhood and new residents, many families from Grant, from Manhattanville, and from the Coop began coming to St. Mary’s.
The 1960’s were heady times for St. Mary’s. We acquired the building across the street, a former school, and named it the Ackley Center. It was the home of several community-based organizations. There was a nursery school for children, a Job Corps program, legal assistance, other social service and anti-poverty programs. A Head Start program was also running in the undercroft weekdays. And in 1965, the organ was rebuilt.
In the 1970’s, when the Rev. Neale A Secor was rector, St. Mary’s played a leading role in the wider Episcopal Church. It was in the 1950’s, shortly after it became permissible in the diocese, that St. Mary’s elected its first woman to the Vestry. And in 1973 St. Mary’s elected its first female warden. We had two women deacons, as well, that year. The church sponsored these two women deacons for ordination to the priesthood even before it was canonically permissible for them to be ordained. Our Bishop declined to ordain them! Many members of St. Mary’s journeyed to Philadelphia in July 1974 for the irregular ordination of our candidates, Emily Hewitt and Carter Heyward, along with nine other women from other dioceses. It was a dramatic act at the time, that pushed the national church at its next General Convention to regularize these ordinations and to approve women priests from then on.
From the late 1950’s forward, St. Mary’s members were involved with wider justice issues; the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, the struggle for LBGT rights, and increasingly, engagement in on-going issues of hunger, homelessness, unemployment and health care.
The thirty years since 1980 have of course brought new changes to parish life. Since 1983—during meaner economic times–we have had a soup kitchen. A rich dividend received from that community outreach is the many Soup Kitchen guests and volunteers now a regular and vital part of our church life.
In the 1990’s, with the vision of the Reverend Robert Castle, the former Ackley Center was transformed into St. Mary’s Episcopal Center, a residence and day treatment center for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Also, during Fr. Castle’s tenure, St. Mary’s three-building complex achieved designation as a New York City Landmark. Attention and care began to be focused on the care of these historic buildings, particularly the exterior, to keep them water tight, and in the case of the Rectory, restore it to historic authenticity. That work was wonderfully carried forward by our current Rector, the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp.
Today, St. Mary’s serves to the community through a well-run supermarket style Food Pantry and a mobile Soup Kitchen, out-reaching to homeless persons. St. Mary’s led in creating a new outdoor church, Ecclesia, meeting Sundays in Marcus Garvey Park. We have free Friday night movies, a place of warm welcome to all comers, and mailing address services for over 200 people.
We have an important tenant: CUCS/Single Stop, lead agency in New York City in housing homeless persons and providing accessible social services. NA groups meet here 3 nights weekly. St. Mary’s also provides the space for a free medical clinic staffed by Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons student and attending doctor volunteers, open Tuesday evenings. We house as well 5 young adult participants in the New York Intern Program, in the creation of which the Kooperkamps were instrumental.
As a church, we are also taking up the enormous challenge of updating our building interiors, and restoring the sanctuary interior to its original beauty. Through our life together as a congregation, our community services and organizing efforts, St. Mary’s challenges us to use the gifts God gives us to make the Good News of the risen Lord Jesus manifest in the life of our community.
The church continues to be as fresh as today’s headlines: on September 17th, St. Mary’s housed ten theology students from Boston, sending them downtown with a prayer and blessing to participate in the early beginnings of Occupy Wall Street–in which many here have participated, both in spirit and on foot.
In this season of Advent, we look forward to the coming of the Savior. As members of the fellowship of Christians at St. Mary’s, we can look back gratefully on our past and give God thanks for our spiritual ancestors. But we also look forward in hope to the new thing God is doing in our lives and in the life of St. Mary’s Church.
Narrative compiled from various sources by:
The Rev. Earl Kooperkamp
Edited and with amplications by Elizabeth Mellen
Readers: Freddi Brown-Carter & Elizabeth Mellen
Black History Month 2009
These members of St. Mary’s Church are buried in the Harlem African Burial Ground:
Herman Cannon, 69 years, Sexton, Jan. 14, 1832
Israel Williams, 5 years, 6 months, April 1, 1832
Benjamin Pearsall Benedict, 1 year, Jan. 11, 1851
Mary Stewart, 20 years, July, 13, 1851
George Washington Hagerman, 7 months, July 7, 1853
Aretas Hagerman, 49 years, Feb. 11, 1854
Christine Robinson, 2 months, April 6, 1854
Lydia Eliza Hagerman, 31 years, June 19, 1854
Rosanne Nichols, 18 days, Sept. 8, 1854
George Nichols, 1 year, Jan. 15, 1855
Jane Pearsall, 43 years, April 29, 1856
Phoebe Thomas Hagerman, 58 years, May 4, 1856
✠ May the souls of the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace ✠
Author Unknown. Believed to be written in 1966
A Short History of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Manhattanville
St. Mary’s is the product of a vision of the future formed by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Farmar Jarvis, who, with the blessing of Bishop Hobart, held services in the Francis Finlay Academy, located about where the l25th Street station of the West Side Subway is located. Services were conducted by Thomas I. Croshon, then a lay reader, until 1823 when the Rev. William Richmond, rector of St. Michael’s Church (presently located at 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) was elected rector.
In 1824 Jacob Schieffelin donated about 2 1/2 lots of land on Lawrence Street (now l26th Street) for the erection of St. Mary’s Church. The frame building stood until 1908 when the present brick church was built on the same site.
St. Mary’s established the first free school in the City in 1823, open to all denominations. The founding of the school was only one of the many services St. Mary’s has performed in its 146 years of existence. During the cholera epidemic of 1832, the rector was placed in charge of the whole upper part of Manhattan and had authority to purchase, at public expense, whatever medical supplies, food and clothing might be needed for the suffering and famine stricken.
Following the panic of 1857, St. Mary’s rector, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Peters, was placed in charge of relief for the upper West Side of the City. He started a public works project of the first street paving in the neighborhood.
The work of St. Mary’s, aided by the Diocese of New York, in connection with a changing neighborhood is typical of the work our Lord intended that his Church would do among men.
During its 146 year history, St. Mary’s has been served by 13 rectors. Aside from the work of the Rev. Dr. Jarvis, the following clergy served as rectors of St. Mary’s:
The Rev. Thomas Croshon
The Rev. William Richmond
The Rev. James Cook Richmond
The Rev. Thomas McClure Peters
The Rev. Charles F. Rodenstein
The Rev. George F. Seymour
The Rev. Charles Coffin Adams, D.D.
The Rev. Lawrence Schwabb, D.D.
The Rev. Hiram Richard Hulse
The Rev. John Loftus Scully
The Rev. Francis Brown
The Rev. Frederick W. Goodman
The Rev. Charles Breck Ackley, S.T.D.
Because of the work thrust upon St. Mary’s in terms of the problems brought about through changes in neighborhood, its own funds were insufficient for its program, and it became an aided parish. In 1956 the Rev. Richard E. Gary was named priest-in-charge.
The Diocese presently [as of 1966] supports St. Mary’s programs in amounts of more than $30,000 each year. This is in addition to funds forthcoming from other sources. Much of this money goes for support and operation of the Ackley Center and its important outreach to the youth of the area.
Considerable and important aid is given to the Center’s programs by interested, skilled people from such institutions as Union Theological Seminary.
We who call ourselves the congregation of St. Mary’s Church are using and enjoying the inheritance left to us out of the labors and devotion of those who walked before us in the Faith.