|photo by Alice Lum
The first Baptists arrived in New York City around 1709; however historian William Smith Pelletreau would caution in 1900 that “there seems to have been very little similarity of doctrine to those of the present Baptist church, and they were, in fact, Arminians.”
The group was eventually incorporated as the First Baptist Church; and a second congregation, The Second Baptist Church, was formed in 1791. Although records indicate that Henry Rutgers sold the newer congregation two lots “on the ancient farm of Hendrich Rutgers” on June 30, 1799; the group had already constructed a church there.
The two-and-a-half story wooden structure sat on what was then Fayette Street and, other than the three entrance doors and high arched windows, did not look much different from the larger clapboard houses in the neighborhood. William Smith Pelletreau said frankly it was “a small wooden building in a style of the most primitive simplicity.” It took its name from its location, The Fayette Street Baptist Church.
|The original wooden structure (right) as depicted in 1808--watercolor from the collection of the New York Public Library
When, in 1819, Oliver Street was extended from Bancker Street (now Madison Street) to Chatham Square, Fayette Street became part of Oliver. The church was renamed the Oliver Street Baptist Church.
A devastating fire reduced the building to ashes in 1843. The congregation rebuilt—using the designs of church member Isaac Lucas or, as the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission believes, famed architect Minard Lafever. Three years earlier Lafever had dipped his toe into the uncharted area of Gothic Revival for his Reformed Dutch Church on Washington Square. If the architect of the Oliver Street Baptist Church was, indeed, Lafever, he returned to the more expected Greek Revival for the church building.
In the 1830s and ‘40s, ecclesiastical architecture tended to emulate the temples of Rome and Greece. Classic triangular pediments sat above substantial columns with Ionic or Doric capitals. And so it was with the new brownstone-fronted Oliver Street Baptist Church, completed in 1845. Despite its rather diminutive proportions, its impressive Greek portico and pediment—stretching the entire width of the façade—gave the building an unexpected monumentality.
Pelletreau, in 1900, was less impressed with the structure. “This vicinity, though somewhat thickly inhabited, was never a fashionable neighborhood, and the style of buildings was distinguished for cheapness, and want of durability.” Pelletreau was partly right. By 1845 the neighborhood was “thickly inhabited” and quickly becoming less-than-fashionable; and the congregation exercised frugality on the building’s materials. But there is no question on the durability of its construction—substantial walls of stone created a sturdy structure.
|Gas street lamps stand on the sidewalk in front of the church around 1880. photographer unknown; from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWECJQOH&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=1#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWECJQOH&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=1
The church reached out to its rapidly-changing community. Two years before the original building burned, a “Juvenile Singing School” had been organized in October 1841. The children’s singing school (later called the “choir school”) continued for decades.
On November 15, 1851 The New York Times commented that a meeting of “the friends of the Madison University (Baptist) was held in the Oliver-street Church last week, to take measures for assisting in completing the endowments of that institution.” Further down the page the newspaper told of another Baptist organization. “The Baptist Mariners’ Church in New-York employs regularly ten missionaries, is composed of members from sixteen different nations, and received last month into its fellowship seven persons belonging to as many different nations.” The two churches would cross paths in a more substantial way a few decades later.
By mid-century the neighborhood was notoriously impoverished. The nearby Five Points section was a cauldron of vice and crime—a tenement district of filthy slums and hopeless denizens. On December 30, 1852 the Union Missionary Society held a meeting in the church to discuss ways “to accomplish the reformation of the wicked, and to supply the necessities of the destitute.” The society was focused on “the blighted and condemned region of the Five Points.”
Despite its despoiled neighborhood, the church forged on in its religious efforts. On January 29, 1853 The Times said “It is gratifying to know that a very interesting state of religious feeling is evinced in the congregation of the Oliver-street Baptist Church. A number have already indulged a hope in the Saviour, and some fifteen are expected to receive the ordinance of baptism next month.”
The same year “an interesting discourse” was delivered in the lecture room by the Rev. James Tanner, a Chippewa Indian and a Baptist missionary to the native population of the West and Canada. The audience was less interested in Tanner’s missionary work as they were in his description of Native Americans.
“The Indian was not a worshiper of sticks and stones, as was generally supposed,” explained The New York Times. “As a general thing, the Indians were grossly misrepresented by writers who undertook to describe their manners, habits and opinions.”
Another Baptist congregation chose a more fashionable neighborhood in which to build. In 1859 the Madison Avenue Baptist Church erected a structure deemed by The Sun to be a “large and expensive church” on Madison Avenue and 35th Street. Indeed the building alone cost $122,000—about $2.5 million today. In doing so, the congregation overextended itself and before long was in deep financial trouble.
The Oliver Street Baptist Church agreed to merge with the Madison Avenue church and contributed between $30,000 and $80,000 towards relieving its debt. The Oliver Street building was sold to the Mariners’ Temple and the congregation moved northward to Madison Avenue.
The Oliver Street Baptist Church then requested the deed to the other church’s property and the Madison Avenue church responded by bringing “ a suit of ejectment against the Oliver street church folks,” as explained by The Sun.
A court battle ensued which dragged on for a full decade. The Sun, on February 3, 1873, said “For ten years past the congregations of the Madison avenue and Oliver street churches have met in amicable worship on Sundays, and fought in the courts on week days.” The battle was finally over when Judge Sedgwick ruled in favor of the Oliver Street Baptist Church.
In the meantime the Mariners’ Church forged on with the attempts at reformation and the saving of souls begun by its predecessor. Alcohol was the object of discussion on November 9, 1874 when Baptist ministers gathered in the church. Although no conclusive plan of action was formulated, one gossipy preacher shocked his cohorts by disclosing that “there was a church in Brooklyn (not Baptist) in which some of the officers were in the habit of using intoxicating liquors, and had been on the floor of the church at the time of taking the collection incapacitated by drunkenness for the proper discharge of their duties.”
|photo by Alice Lum
The seedy and dangerous nature of the neighborhood became obvious one day in December 1889 when pastor Rev. Dr. J. F. Avery innocently walked out of the church to go on his missionary work. The Evening World described the preacher as “an earnest worker, who goes into the highways and byways with his wife, and lodging houses, low dives and saloons are his principal recruiting stations.”
The newspaper noted that “The hoodlums of the neighborhood, youths from fourteen to twenty years of age, miss no opportunity of annoying him.”
“Annoying him” included firing pistol shots through the church windows, smashing the church bulletin board outside that advertised services, and threatening his life. Rev. Avery in desperation placed notices in the newspapers seeking protection.
The hooligans would sometimes rush into the church to interrupt services. “Frequently during his most solemn exhortations a band of these youthful marauders will rush into the church like a tribe of Indians, shouting, ‘Rats!’ and ‘Are you here McGinty?’ and on one occasion they stole a new overcoat belonging to the minister’s son,” reported the newspaper.
It escalated to physical violence when Rev. Avery left the church on a Monday evening that December to visit the Bowery lodging houses. Outside a Chinese boy, whom The Evening World called an “innocent Celestial being” was being bullied by a larger boy.
Avery stepped in and “boxed the boy’s ears and sent the Chinaman away rejoicing.” He was about to discover that his good deed would incite the wrath of a mob. A group of street toughs crowded around him and one asked why he hit “the kid.” Before he could answer he was punched in the nose, eyes and mouth, resulting in substantial cuts.
Nevertheless Avery persevered on and a year later The Sun said the church was “bending its energies to the relief of all forms of suffering in tenement houses.” Throughout the decade the church provided food for the destitute residents of the area. On January 9, 1894 the New-York Tribune reported on the people who lined up to receive food here. “One poor woman begged with outstretched palms and weeping eyes for a little food for her children. ‘They have had nothing to eat to-day,’ she said, ‘and they will starve.’ She had had nothing to eat herself for a day or two, but she asked for only for her children.”
A week later, on January 16, the newspaper said that on the previous day “135 families were supplied each with groceries worth $1…Those who obtained food at the Mariner’s Temple were Hebrews, Italians and some Americans.”
The Tribune reported “The work of the Mariner’s Temple is largely among the Italians.” A reporter followed one of the church’s missionaries as he distributed food in the tenements. The first stop was the home of an Italian immigrant family. The father had brought with him an eviction notice when he came for his basket of food earlier that day. He owed $10 rent.
“He also had a certificate from a physician, saying that his little boy was ill with bronchitis, and should not under any circumstances be moved,” said the newspaper.
“The house was a wooden shanty in the rear of a tenement-house. The apartment where the family lived had to be reached by means of a rickety stairway on the outside of the building. The stairs and platform at the top shook and swayed and seemed about to give away at each step as the visitors climbed up. The eaves of the house were long and hung down over the little windows with dingy panes of glass.
“In two dark rooms the father, mother, six children and the father’s brother lived. The little boy who was ill turned a pair of unusually bright eyes upon the visitors and smiled faintly when he was spoken to. He lay for several days in that room desperately sick. It had been cold nearly all the time.”
The missionary could not help the family and in the end they wrapped the little boy in blankets and carried him out of the shanty to live on the streets.
Among the most active in making the food distribution possible was Emily Vanderbilt Sloane “who is one of the most liberal patrons of the Mariners’ Temple,” said the New-York Tribune four years later. On December 26 that year she was responsible when “Santa Claus visited the Mariners’ Temple at Oliver and Henry sts…and was received with shouts of delight by the twelve hundred or more children gathered there.”
For these impoverished children, there would be no Christmas at all without Emily Sloane’s kindness. “The church was decked with flags and wreaths of evergreen, and over the platform was a big star fifteen feet across, made of tri-colored bunting. On the platform were two Christmas trees, twenty feet high, burdened with boxes of candy, toys and the usual decorations.”
By 1904 the neighborhood had not improved and, more likely, was more dangerous and degraded. When the church initiated a “missionary school” that year and invited boys from the neighborhood in, “for the first three or four days the teachers, women as well as men, found that their college athletic training was of more use than they ever expected it to be.”
The rowdy “disturbing elements,” as described by the Tribune, “came in for the express purpose of having some fun along their own lines.” It became necessary for police to be on hand at the school and “peace was restored by the expulsion of a gang of twenty.”
The violent conflict in the area was caused in part by the increased presence of Chinese immigrants in the neighborhood traditionally inhabited by Italians and Irish. The large Chinese population was devastated by the news of the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, home to another substantial Chinese community.
In May that year a benefit was held in the Mariners’ Temple for the Christian Chinese of San Francisco “who lost all in the earthquake,” said The New-York Tribune. “The programme includes singing by Mrs. Fung Y. Mow and other Chinese women and children in costume, a male quartet, Chinese instrumental music and a display of moving pictures.”
The church’s outreach to the Chinese was extended in 1910 when the Chinese Rescue Mission was opened in September.
|By 1915 a steeple had been added. Young boys in knickers race wooden carts on Oliver Street. photograph by Samuel Landsman, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
A century later the neighborhood is still heavily populated by Chinese. While it is still home to walk-up apartments in low rent buildings; it is no longer the dangerous slum of the turn-of-the-century. During the 1960s the membership of the Mariners’ Temple drastically dropped—at one point numbering only 60. But through the efforts of the Rev. Suzan D. Johnson Cook and her “Hour of Power” noontime services, the church revived. Rev. Cook was, incidentally. the first African American woman to achieve the role of senior pastor of an American Baptist congregation.
|Nearly 175 years of use is reflected in the damaged brownstone of the monumental structure -- photo by Alice Lum
The perfectly-proportioned Greek Revival church is mostly overlooked—tucked away on a side street far from the business districts.