Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Hungarian Reformed Church -- 121 East 7th Street

photo by Alice Lum
It was not until after the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849 that the first real wave of Hungarian immigrants began arriving in New York City.  But by the 1870’s there were more than 10,000 Hungarians in Manhattan living in, for the most part, the Lower East Side and the Yorkville neighborhood further uptown.

The Lower East Side, once a fashionable residential neighborhood of Federal and Greek Revival homes, was now an immigrant district often called Kleindeutchland—or “Little Germany.”    Here the new Hungarian immigrants lived peacefully shoulder-to-shoulder with the Germans.  In 1895 a small group founded The First Hungarian Reformed Church, or New York-i Első Magyar Református Egyház.  After worshiping in temporary spaces for a few years, the congregation sought out a permanent structure.

The old house at No. 121 East 7th Street had been built shortly after Daniel Burnett bought the property in 1843.   Now, on May 10, 1902, The New York Times reported that the Hungarian Reformed Church had purchased the dwelling.   The group hired architect and builder Frederick Ebeling to convert the structure to a church building.

The building was consecrated in 1903.  Within the next year Ebeling extended church to the property line and incorporated a central bell tower characteristic of a Hungarian country church.  The quaint little church had a comfortable, overall charm.   And yet there was little to hide the fact that this was a house-turned-church.
photo by Alice Lum

The church’s pastor, Rev. Zoltan Kuthy, awarded The Medal of Virtue each year to the two congregants who best exhibited true virtue.  Kuthy’s three qualifications were that the winners must “be pure of thought, word and deed; must be of careful life in his habits; must be loyal to his church.”

Reverend Kuthy felt that attaining virtue should not be all that difficult for his Hungarian flock.  “You see, the real Magyars are naturally good,” he told The Sun on June 2, 1912.  He said “as a race they are loving, law abiding and not a roistering people.”

The winner of the medal that year tended to disagree.  Michael Garan had attempted to win the prize since 1909.  Finally he held it.  “I try, oh, so hard, to be good, but to be good is not easy,” he told a reporter.
photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Unfortunately, other congregants disagreed about which member was most virtuous.  When the names were leaked a few days before the presentation, an uproar erupted.  On May 25, 1912 The Sun reported “Then two other members of the congregation let it be known that they were the most charitable and kindly of the First Hungarian Reformed flock and would prove it by beating the pastor and the recipients of the medal.”

Police from the 5th Street police station lined the sanctuary on Sunday May 24.  Reverend Zoltan had asked “for assistance in case other charitable and kindly men should start something,” said the newspaper.

“Capt. Ormsby assured the pastor that he would have uniformed policemen in the church, well up toward the pulpit, to see that the friends of the disappointed candidates for charitable and kindly distinction do not rend the garments of peace during the services.”
A misguided congregation decades later would encase the stone facade in artificial stone -- photo by Alice Lum

By 1914 the growing congregation and the stiflingly-crowded Lower East Side neighborhood prompted the First Hungarian Reformed Church to move uptown.   A plot was purchased at 344 East 69th Street and Hungarian-born architect Emery Roth set to work designing a new, larger structure—including the iconic central bell tower.  The new building was completed in 1916 and the congregation said good-bye to its house-turned church on East 7th Street.

The old building was purchased by the cumbersomely-named Christian Orthodox Catholic Church of the Eastern Confession in North America.     It became home to the Holy Resurrection Church and it would not be long before trouble ensued.

A year after moving into the new church, Evdokim Meschersky planned a trip to Russia.  Meschersky, too, had an unwieldy title:  “Archbishop of the Ecclesiastic Consistory of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, and the Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, and the Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America.”

As his trip neared, on August 17, 1917 he appointed Vladimir Rykhloff “temporary rector” and priest of Holy Resurrection Church.   When the archbishop returned a year later, his temporary replacement was apparently not overjoyed to see him.

With both men claiming the title of archbishop, an ugly tug-of-war ensued.  Court papers claimed that Rykhloff “has refused to vacate the church and to cease officiating as a rector and priest thereof.”   No matter what Meschersky did, his underling continued officiating as though he were pastor of the congregation.  The frustrated archbishop was finally forced to take matters to the courts in November 1918.  The case would drag on for months.

In 1935 the building was sold to the Russian Orthodox St. Peter and Paul Church.  That the Lower East Side neighborhood was still highly-ethnic was reflected in the colorful funeral that took place in the church on July 20, 1938.

The funeral cortege of Louis De Metro, described by The New York Times as a “20-year old member of a gypsy tribe,” brought vehicles to a standstill.  “Traffic on Avenue A, First Avenue and on Seventh and Eighth Streets, between Avenue A and First Avenue, was impeded for a time while the cortege moved along,” said the newspaper.

“Crowds of curious, who had read of the prayerful vigil kept by the youth’s friends outside Bellevue Hospital, lined the streets as the body was carried by members of the family and friends to Russian Orthodox St. Peter and Paul Church, 121 East Seventh Street, where the funeral service was conducted by the Very Rev. Alexander J. Chechila, the pastor.”

Many of the mourners were attired in “gypsy costume,” and a ten-piece ensemble played a dirge on the street outside the church.
photo by Alice Lum

The pastor was embarrassed when his 26-year old daughter was the subject of messy publicity a few years later.   On New Year’s Day 1942 The Times reported on the dueling lawsuits between Olga Chechila and 49-year old jewelry executive Harry S. Fischer.

Fischer lived in the penthouse apartment at No. 737 Park Avenue and on December 23 had given a party for “two men friends.”  The get-together ended in what The Times called “a fracas.”   While Olga told police that Fischer had stolen $1,000 in cash from her—money she had withdrawn from a bank as a Christmas present to her father; Fischer accused her of stealing a $3,200 diamond ring.   She insisted he had loaned her the ring “to wear at the party.”

Both parties were released on bail awaiting a hearing.

In1961, when St. Mary’s American Orthodox Greek Catholic Church purchased the building, the congregation thought it a good idea to modernize the structure by encasing Ebeling’s stone façade in “Naturestone;” an artificial stone material. 

It was not a good idea.

Despite the offensive make-over the little house-turned church retains its charm; a relic of a time when foreign-speaking immigrants drew together in a new land to worship together.

photo by Alice Lum

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