Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Zion St. Mark's Lutheran Church -- No. 339 East 84th Street

photo by Alice Lum

The neighborhood in the Lower East Side known as Kleindeutcheland, or Little Germany, had become overcrowded towards the end of the 19th Century as thousands of German immigrants poured into the area.  A second German-speaking district formed uptown known as Yorktown as the population outgrew the Little Germany.

The German Evangelical Church of Yorkville was established here in 1883 by the Reverend G. A. T. Goebel.  The original 15 members rented a small wooden church on 85th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues for five years .  Then, in 1883, as membership grew to 150, they commissioned J. F. Mahoney to design their own building.  

On June 3, 1888 approximately 200 persons gathered to watch the laying of the cornerstone on 84th Street between First and Second Avenues.   On the cornerstone was carved, in German, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  Inside were placed each of the United States coins – from a penny to a $20 gold piece.  Also included were a copy of the church’s constitution, the Heidelberg Catechism, the history of the church, and copies of the New York Times, the Review, Christian Intelligencer and Reformed Monatsblatt.

Mahoney produced an austere Gothic church influenced by the up-to-the-minute Eastlake movement.   Clad in Ohio sandstone, it rose 45 feet to the top of the central gable and 30 feet higher to the stoic steeple and bell tower.  A central arch embraced the entrance way and rose window, beneath which Deutsche Ev. Kirche v. Yorkville was proudly carved into the stone.

photo by Alice Lum
Inside there was no architectural hoopla.  Unlike the contemporary churches being designed for the wealthy Episcopalians, the focus was on worship rather than d├ęcor.  Below the sanctuary were athletic and school rooms.
photo by Zion St. Mark's Evangelical Church
Unfortunately, the $46,000 price tag was too ponderous for the little congregation to handle.  On   November 29, 1892 the building was sold at foreclosure auction for $30,000 to the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, which had held the mortgage.  A week later everything inside the church was auctioned off – the pulpit, the pews (which brought $11 each), the school desks and gas fixtures, even the blackboard which brought 50 cents.

Of the dozen men bidding, builder William Fernschild purchased everything.  He later told The New York Times that he intended to keep everything intact within the church “for the benefit of the neighborhood.”

It was good news for Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, another German-speaking congregation that had just been formed and needed a home.  The building on 84th Street would do nicely.  Zion incorporated in 1883 and purchased the church.
photo by Alice Lum
The church suffered a financial setback when, in 1896, its treasurer, Herman Bansemer absconded with its funds.  Bansemer was a master painter who employed up to 70 painters and had excellent credit with his suppliers.  He sent his wife on a trip to Germany and, as his sister-in-law explained it, “After he got her away, he took up with another woman and then he skipped.”

He skipped not only with the church’s funds, but with $263 belonging to his landlady, and bad checks totaling several thousand dollars written to his suppliers.

The church retaliated by expelling him from the church.

Meanwhile, Little Germany on the Lower East Side was still thriving.  But the General Slocum Disaster of 1904 would end all of that.

The Ladies’ Aid Society of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on East 6th Street chartered an excursion boat, the side-wheeler General Slocum, for a day of relaxation and a picnic.    The boat never made its destination.  Sinking in a fiery disaster, it left nearly 1000 women and children dead; the greatest loss of life in a single catastrophe in New York City prior to the World Trade Center disaster.

photo NYPL Collection

Little Germany never recovered.   With reminders of the pain and grief all around them, residents slowly dispersed.    The congregants of Zion were deeply affected as well.   Here 34 years later, the funeral of Charles Dersch, president of the General Slocum Survivors Association was held.

By the middle of the century, St. Mark’s could no longer survive on East 6th Street and merged with Zion, forming the Zion St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The years leading up to World War II were difficult for the German community.  Having just endured the suspicious looks and rumors that accompanied World War I, the storm clouds over Europe were a concern.  During the German Memorial Day services at Zion in 1935, the growing Reich army was defended as a peace measure.   Dr. Hans Borchers, German Consul General assured the crowd that Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s reinstitution of military conscription was for the best reasons.

A year later on Mother’s Day the pastor, Reverand William Popcke, promised the congregation that Germany was devoting her energies to science, that war was not imminent, and that “Germany is devoted to peace.”

Were it not for an unfortunate slathering of white paint, Mahoney's mix of terra cotta, fieldstone, rough-cut brownstone and brick would create a pleasing mix of textures and colors -- photo by Alice Lum
The Yorkville community and Zion St. Mark’s Lutheran Church survived those harrowing years and today the church thrives with a multiethnic congregation.    As with Little Germany, Yorkville’s German population has largely moved on; but the church at 339 East 84th Street stands as a reminder of days when New York City housed a collection of foreign-speaking communities.

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