Friday, August 30, 2013

The 1887 Catholic Apostolic Church -- No. 417 W 57th St.

photo by Alice Lum

In the late 1820s the Reverend Edward Irving was pastor of the Scottish Church on Regent Square in London.  But Edward Irving had an epiphany and broke away from the church, founding the Catholic Apostolic Church.  Irving was “deposed” from the church and “the members are sometimes called Irvingites on this account,” explained The New York Times more than half a century later.

In 1887, Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine would call it “one of the oddest denominations in the world.”  The strongest belief of the new sect was that the Second Coming was right around the corner—precisely it would come about in 1835.

Twelve “apostles” were chosen and only they had the power to ordain priests and bishops, called “angels”.  When 1835 came and went without the Second Coming, the church simply revised its calculations and moved on; eventually branching out to New York City in 1848.

The small brick church in Greenwich Village that the new congregation took over was sufficient until 1885 when the growing membership necessitated a larger structure.   In 1885 the Catholic Apostolic Church sold its West 16th Street building to the Eglise Evangelique Francaise and laid plans for a new building further uptown.

On July 1 of that year The Sun reported on the planned structure.  “The Catholic Apostolic Church, which for thirty years has worshipped in a little building in Sixteenth street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, is building a new church on Fifty-seventh street, near Ninth avenue.  It will cost about $50,000.  The corner stone was laid yesterday.”
photo by Alice Lum

The newspaper made note that the sect was still not wide-spread.  “This is the only Catholic Apostolic church in the city.  There is one in Boston, and there are three in Connecticut and seven in London.”

Although the cornerstone was laid there was the matter of paying for the structure.   The $50,000 which The Sun predicted the church would cost equates to around $1 million today.  On November 12, 1886 The New York Times reported that “The Church Building Trust Association has been incorporated ‘to establish a place in this city for the purpose of enabling the ministers and baptized people acknowledging the ecclesiastical authority of the College of Apostles, heretofore having its headquarters at Albury, England, to conduct Christian worship according to the doctrine of the Catholic Apostolic church.”

Francis Hatch Kimball was given the commission to design a new church building at No. 417 West 57th Street.  Actual construction began in 1886 and was completed a year later.   The architect created a singular design that refused to be categorized in any pre-existing architectural category.  Kimball mixed materials—orange brick, terra cotta, brownstone, and tile—and styles—Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival with a splash of Queen Anne.  The result was a hefty presence of arches and spires, textures and angles.  The Sun said there was “a touch of Byzantine style in its façade.”  Like its congregation, the church building was quite unlike any other in the city.
photo by Alice Lum

The Sun said “The interior has much in common with the early Christian basilicas.  Its seating capacity does not exceed four hundred…The low pulpit stands in the nave, while the chancel has many prie dieux.  The seats are high-backed.”

The congregation was worshiping in its new home by the beginning of the year.  The priests delivered morning and evening sermons every Sunday.  The topics are somewhat surprising to modern minds, like one on February 27, 1887—“Will Jesus Christ every really be King in the United States?”
Brick, brownstone and terra cotta work together in the eccentric design -- photo by Alice Lum

Two weeks earlier, Rev. Davenport had predicted the end of the world in his sermon “The Terrible Calamities which Threaten Europe and America.”  Using the fourth chapter of Matthew in which Christ lays out the steps to the world’s end, Davenport pointed out that they had all come to pass.

The Times recapped:  “The first age, that of persecution, when martyrs bore terrible witness to the faith that was in them; the second that of internal dissension, when the chiefs of the church were set against each other; the third when false prophets arose and preached liberty and equality and all manner of impossible things, and the fourth that of lawlessness, when in consequence of false teachers men had lost the fear of God—all these were exact verifications of the evil signs foretold by the great prophet, Christ.”

The evening services were deemed “special services for strangers,” and were perhaps a means of recruiting new members.  The subject of the special service on March 13, 1887 was “The End of the Age.”

As in 1835, neither the end of the world nor the Second Coming came to pass.

The Sun later noted that “That church is always open and rarely empty.  Men and women enter at all hours of the day, fall on their knees in one of the pews, remain immovable for a few minutes and depart quietly.  To the outsider it seems as if some kind of service was going on all the time.”

On December 4, 1893 The New York Times attempted to explain the functioning of the Catholic Apostolic Church. Of the twelve apostles Francis V. Woodhouse only was still living.  “Woodhouse is over eighty,” said the newspaper.  “The New-York church has at its head the Angel, and under him a long list of elders, priests, deacons, sub-deacons, a deaconesses.  The latter officiate in acts of charity and render assistance particularly to the women of the parish.”

The article described the service.  “It is impressive, not so ceremonious as in some of the ritualistic Episcopal churches, but requiring more assistants.  The vestments are very rich.  At one side of the chancel is the throne, which is the seat of the angel.  Angel is the old word, as used in the book of Revelation for the Bishop of a church, and throughout the Bible in the correct sense, of messenger, spiritual or otherwise.

“The Catholic Apostolic Church has also an order of Archangels, whose office is above that of the Angels.  They govern single churches.   Angel evangelists are visiting Angels…An ordination to the priesthood does not confer the title of Reverend upon the candidate unless it had previously belonged to him.  Thus, the angel of the New-York Church is Stephen Rintoul, while an assistant is the Rev. C. A. G. Bridgham.”

The newspaper brought up a question rarely spoken among congregants.  “What is to be done when this remaining head of the Church shall die has not been revealed, but there is no lack of faith that either the last days will come or new Apostles be appointed.”

The church in 1929 -- photo NYPL Collection
Six years later, with the last apostle Frances Vilton Woodhouse now 95 years old, six evangelists headed to New York City in anticipation of the Second Coming.   On November 19, 1899 The Sun wrote “It is difficult to connect this quiet, incense-filled church with the gigantic posters that appeared suddenly on all the signboards of this city about five weeks ago forcing upon the curious and the indifference alike an announcement of ‘the near coming of the Lord’ and noticed of a series of evangelistic meetings to be held every Sunday evening at six different places simultaneously.”

The newspaper said “The present activity, which has resulted in the dispatching of six evangelists to this country, seems to have been caused by the expectation that Christ’s promise to his first apostles must be fulfilled before the last member of the second apostleship passes away.”

The church was correct in anticipating Woodhouse’s passing—he died within the year—however once again neither the end of the world nor the Second Coming came to pass.   There was no longer anyone with the power to ordain priests or perform the duties of the head of the church.  Woodhouse’s death ushered in “the time of silence” during which congregants would wait for divine direction.
photo by Alice Lum

In 1942 attention was focused on a more earthly issue.  In the sweltering summer heat, city residents often sought relief by sleeping on fire escapes and rooftops.  On July 18 two girls—Ann Smith and Myrtle Rosengrants, aged 11 and 16 years old—went to the roof of their apartment building next door at No. 415 West 57th Street.  “Frightened by the appearance on the roof of a strange man, the girls…backed up to the edge of the building, stumbled over the one-foot safety wall and fell twenty-five feet from the roof of their home…to the church roof,” reported The Times.

The two terrified girls clung to the tiled roof of the Catholic Apostolic Church while neighbors called police.   Emergency squad detectives Thomas Childs and Joseph Demas donned safety belts on the apartment building roof.  “Demas lowered himself by Childs’s arms and dropped to the church roof.  The younger girl, Ann, fainted as he reached her,” said the newspaper.

After the girls were hoisted to the roof of their building, they were taken to Roosevelt Hospital.  They both had broken left arms.

The time of silence lasted throughout the 20th century.  By 1995 the decimated congregation realized it could no longer sustain the venerable edifice.  Fearful that the church building would be converted to a club or retail space, it offered it to the Lutheran Life’s Journey Ministries.

The Lutheran Church initiated a restoration of the 110-year old church, cleaning the façade and replacing any missing terra cotta elements.  Architect Andrew Levenbaum spearheaded the renovation of the interior space.    A bizarre discovery was made in the basement when the original terra cotta cross from the roof was found buried below three feet of soil.
photo by Alice Lum

Restored, Kimball’s wonderful building was rededicated in 1997 as the Church for All Nations—a surprising gem on an otherwise mundane block.


  1. not only a beautiful gem but an amazing survivor for NYC.

  2. Tom, thank you for another interesting post. Your daily dose of history is my escape!

    1. Glad you enjoy the posts! Thanks a lot!

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  4. Here is a webpage about Irving by the Bloomsbury Project at University College London. As the page explains, Irving was a "charismatic Presbyterian preacher." For a nineteenth century source confirming his correct affiliation, you can refer to a N.Y. Times piece describing Irving's career and trial before the London Presbytery of the Church of Scotland. Grace Underwood, Two Remarkable Divines, N.Y. Times, Aug. 3, 1879.

  5. My rector, Tom Pike, was instrumental in landmarking this church (by the way, the Lutheran Church of All Nations has moved out). Pike was just obsessed with the Catholic Apostolic Church, and I had to Xerox him a whole book about it at the British Library in London!

  6. This is the guy who wrote the history of the Catholic Apostolic Church: