The Rutgers family originally settled in America in Albany. But by the 18th century the Dutch clan had established itself in Manhattan with a large estate north of the city and a fine mansion. It was a Rutgers who drained the marshy land around Collect Pond which would become the Lispenard estate. Later the two wealthy and influential families would be joined by marriage.
Both Henry Rutgers and his brother served in the Revolutionary War. While his brother was killed in the Battle of Long Island; Henry survived to enter a life of public service and distinguish the family name with his generous philanthropies. One of these would result in the change of the name of Queens College to Rutgers College.
A devout man, in 1798 he donated land to a Presbyterian congregation at what would become the corner of Henry and Rutgers Streets. It was known as the Rutgers Street Church, or more familiarly “The kirk on Rutgers Farm,” and opened its doors for worship on May 13, 1798. The New-York Tribune later described it as “a frame building, surmounted by a cupola containing a clock and a bell.”
The Sun would later remember that “Close by the church lands, on July 27, 1799, Rutgers on his own grounds paraded the militia before President Washington, Gov. Clinton and visiting Indian chiefs, and thereafter he was Col. Rutgers. Gilbert Stuart painted Washington’s portrait at that time, and it was a prized possession of the Rutgers mansion.”
Like all the sprawling estates, the end of the Rutgers “farm” would be signaled by the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 that plotted out the grid of streets and avenues north of the established city. Resigned to see his family estate divided, Rutgers nevertheless left his mark on the map. He named the wide street on which his mansion stood Rutgers Street. Intersecting it was Henry Street, named for himself; and nearby was Catherine Street, named for Catherine Rutgers, and Bancker Street, named for Henry’s son-in-law. The street which divided the Rutgers estate from the De Lancey farm took the name Division Street.
The high-tone residential neighborhood that Rutgers envisioned for his farm is evidenced by the description of William Bedlow Crosby’s house built next door to the church in 1808. In 1899 The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record said Crosby’s “commodious house” at 18 Rutgers Street was modeled “after the pattern of a house in Regent Park, London…The grounds occupied the entire block with lawns, garden, and stable.”
In 1816 Henry Rutgers offered plots along Henry Street for churches. Three denominations accepted the generous offer. The Rutgers Street Church, in the meantime, experienced upheaval. The New-York Tribune reported that “On account of the conflicts aroused by the Hopkinsian controversy in 1813, Dr. Milledoler resigned…and subsequently he became president of Rutgers College. The Rutgers Street Church was without a settled minister until October, 1815.”
The church would see two pastors come and go before Dr. Krebs took the pulpit on November 12, 1830, the same year that Henry Rutgers died. The Tribune recalled decades later in 1899, “Under his influence it continued to grow, a new house of worship became necessary and the new building in Rutgers and Henry sts. was erected.”
“The new building” was a handsome ashlar stone church erected on the site of the old wooden structure between 1841 and 1842. Although the architect’s name has been lost, he was in the forefront of ecclesiastical styles. He chose Gothic Revival, a style unheard of in religious architecture in New York City only three years earlier.
Shallow buttresses, set on an angle on the Rutgers Street side, strengthened both the structure and the design. Brownstone trim complemented the stone, while crenelation, Gothic tracery and pointed arches completed the motif. High above the pavement four hand-wound clocks graced the belfry.
Just prior to the completion of the building, in October 1841, the Street Commission voted in favor of “permitting the Trustees of Rutgers street Church to enclose it with iron railing.” Six months later, on April 21, 1842, the New-York Tribune unenthusiastically announced “The new Presbyterian church in Rutgers-street, will be dedicated to-day at 4 o’clock P.M.”
It was a quiet beginning for the new church building and it would be another three years before the congregation installed its organ. On November 13, 1845 the New-York Daily Tribune reported that “One of Robjohn’s large first-class Organs is to be tried this evening at 7 o’clock at the Presbyterian Church corner of Rutgers and Henry-streets.”
The church initiated a program of Sunday night lectures that drew large audiences. On December 11, 1843 the New-York Daily Tribune reported that “Mr. Mandeville (the Blind Minstrel) will deliver a Lecture upon the Physical and Intellectual Influences of Music, introducing some Songs of his own composition.”
The topics of the lectures, like Mr. Mandeville’s, were not always religious. On December 21, 1858 Doctor Holmes gave a poetry reading of "The Heart’s Own Secret," a “series of four poems, each one, though different in subject, illustrating the theme, and narrated as the youthful Feramorz recited his romances to Lallah Rookh,” according to The New York Times.
The newspaper was moved by the poet’s closing tribute to Daniel Webster. “He then closed by a graphic sketch of a great statesman, which was clearly meant for Webster, who died after all his triumphs in the Senate, with an unsatisfied longing in his heart for a prize which can only be won by men who stoop to base designs, and not by those whose nature soars above them—meaning, of course, the Presidential chair.”
The following year, on November 3, 1859, the eminent orator and minister Rev. Henry Ward Beecher lectured on “Bargain Makers.” His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was currently becoming more of a household name than he with her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Before long the Presbyterian congregation would leave Rutgers Street. “In 1862 it was resolved to sell and seek a new site, and a union with the then Madison Avenue Church, in Twenty-ninth-st. and Madison-ave. was effected,” said the New-York Tribune years later.
By now the wealthy Protestant homeowners of the area were moving further uptown. The neighborhood was seeing an influx of mostly-Roman Catholic Italian and Irish immigrants. Archbishop John Hughes, himself born in Ireland, recognized the need for a Catholic parish here. The parish of St. Teresa’s was formed and the Rutgers Street Church building purchased for $46,000 (about $1 million today).
On June 21, 1863 The New York Times reported with what seemed a note of nostalgia, “Dr. Krebs has abandoned his dear old Church in Rutgers-street, and it has passed into Catholic hands, under the pastoral charge of Rev. J. Boyce. The interior has been refitted somewhat, to suit Catholic ceremonial. A beautiful altar has been erected, and the organ thoroughly restored.” The newspaper noted that “The first musical talent of the City has been engaged, and Mr. Schmidt, who holds high rank as an organist, has deferred to the Pastor’s wishes, and will lead the choir. The Church will henceforth be known as St. Teresa’s.”
If the dedication ceremonies of the Presbyterian church had been understated, those of St. Teresa’s were definitely not. On June 22 The Times said “Although an admission fee of half a dollar was charged, the vast edifice was crowded to excess, and hundreds, unable to gain admittance, thronged the streets in the vicinity. The services were characterized with all the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic ritual.”
The address was given by the Archbishop, who made reference to the ongoing war in the South. “We might pray to God by some means that it is impossible for man to penetrate, to bring our unhappy affairs to some conclusion—to end the effusion of human blood…Though no one can say even in that case there would not be prayer on both sides of the line—one praying against the other.”
The Times said that the entrance fees would be applied toward the debt and said the church “is quite spacious, and well adapted for the purpose of a Catholic Church. The organ is a particularly fine one. The altar is a tasteful structure, and was yesterday fairly loaded with artificial and natural flowers.”
A Catholic church could not be consecrated until the building was paid off in full. Victorian church fund raising often took the form of fairs held in the basements and the women of St. Teresa’s would repeatedly stage fairs for several years to come. Here patrons could purchase home-made decorations like fans and scarves, baked goods and other sweets. On February 6, 1864 The Times noted that the current ongoing fair had raised $3,000 so far.
Not all of the Irish-born congregants were impoverished. Joseph P. Payten lived nearby and was one of the wealthiest citizens in the 7th Ward. He contributed generously toward the debt fund and would continue to do so for decades.
In 1878 rectories of the Lower East Side were being robbed by a well-dressed man who got inside by saying he needed a priest. The rectory of St. Teresa’s held especially valuable items. The Evening World reported that “The pastoral residence of St. Teresa’s is one of the handsomest in the city and its collection of sacred paintings is probably unsurpassed by any public or private gallery in this country. The works are principally by Italian artists, many of them being so old that their history is unknown.”
On April 4 the robber underestimated the fighting abilities of Irish-born Father Farrell. He entered the church then sneaked through a side door to the rectory where he was encountered by a female servant who asked him his business.
The man “apparently an Italian,” according to The New York Times, said he wanted Father Martinelli. The woman said there was no such priest here, but since he needed a clergyman she went to get a priest. Fathers O’Farrell and Farrell responded and O’Farrell immediately recognized the description of the man. He instructed Father Farrell to get a policeman.
The intruder rushed to the hall door, but it was locked. “Father Farrell then seized him and dragged him into the parlor. The stranger rushed to one of the windows, evidently intending to leap into the street, but apparently changing his mind, drew from his pocket a seven-chambered revolver, and threatened to shoot the priests and then kill himself unless they permitted him to depart,” reported The Times.
As Father Farrell started to leave the room, the intruder put his gun to his own head and fired. The priest found Policeman McSweeny on the street and brought him into the rectory. “As the officer entered the parlor the supposed dead man sprang to his feet and attempted to shoot himself again, but the officer disarmed him and took him to the station-house in Madison-street.”
Emilio Capparelli was subsequently taken to the Chambers Street Hospital with a bullet in his ear. Born in Italy, the 23-year old was a bartender and told police “that the priests were all drones and thieves; they did no work for their living, and he thought he had a perfect right to steal from them, as they combined to rob the poor people.”
Finally on October 15, 1882 the debt of St. Teresa’s was paid off and the church was consecrated. The Times reported the following day “The old church of St. Teresa, at Rutgers and Henry streets, renovated, remodeled, and free from debt was consecrated yesterday morning with an amount of pomp and ceremony such as has not been witnessed in a Roman Catholic church in this country since the red had was bestowed on Cardinal McCloskey in 1875.”
Joseph P. Payten had donated the new main altar, in memory of his son, a priest, who had recently died. The Times said “The little wooden altar has been replaced by three handsome marble altars. The central of main altar rests on a white marble base, which is reached by the three canonical steps. The table of the altar is supported by columns of red Corona marble. In front of the table of the altar three scenes are wrought in marble.”
A new organ replaced the 1845 instrument; the ceiling had been repainted “in subdued tints, touched up with scarlet and gold.” All of the windows were now of stained glass. “They are all memorial windows, and were presented by the wealthy members of the congregation.”
Impressive services would continue at St. Teresa’s over the years. On October 16, 1888 the church’s Silver Jubilee was celebrated and The Evening World promised “The services will be of a grand order. Archbishop Corrigan will preside in the sanctuary.”
The church’s importance was evidenced the following year when George O. T. Weiss’s new mass was sung for the first time here. “His mass has received the autographic indorsement [sic] of Archbishop Corrigian,” said The New York Times, “to whom it was dedicated, and there seems to be no reason why it should not be given at the cathedral before many weeks have passed.” A chorus of 16 and a solo quartet, including the composer himself, sang the mass which some critics felt showed “the influence of the Italian operatic school.”
On July 2, 1893 Joseph P Payten entered St. Teresa’s for mass as he did every day of the week and twice on Sunday. For over 25 years he occupied the third pew from the altar in the center aisle. The 80-year old who gave so much to the church knelt in his pew half-way through the mass and Father Francis P. Moore noticed him fall backward against the seat of the pew.
Moore finished the mass “for the express purpose of preventing any stir,” then went to the pew with assistant priest James Moloney and Sexton Smith. Payten was breathing but unconscious. The Times reported that “The sexton and vestryman carried him to the sacristy where Father Maloney administered the last rites of the Church.”
The imposing funeral was held in the church on July 5. No fewer than ten priests were in attendance, along with Bishop McDonnell of Brooklyn. The Evening World noted “a large attendance” at the funeral for “one of the wealthiest and oldest residents of the Seventh Ward.” Prominent business leaders, politicians and civic leaders crowded into the church. The Evening World reported the obvious, saying “Mr. Payten’s widow was the chief mourner at the funeral.”
In the 1930s the neighborhood was still largely composed of Italian and Irish families. St. Teresa’s, now nearly a century old, was in need of structural maintenance. At 6:00 on the evening of September 6, 1936, a wedding party was about to depart from the church. Outside, a large group of well-wishers crowded around waiting for the bride and groom.
|The clocks showed the time as 10:15 when Beecher Ogden shot this photograph in 1938. To the far right a sliver of the William Crosby House, still standing and used as the church school, can be seen. photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/%5BSt.-Theresa%27s-Church,-Rutgers-Street.%5D-2F3XC5IX6KGB.html|
Near tragedy occurred when two pieces of wood trimming from the framework of the clock came loose and fell. The two chunks, about a foot long and weighing two pounds each, plummeted 40 feet, striking 23 year old Rose Mullen and 14-year old Fanny Carriere. Young Fanny suffered a scalp wound and possible concussion, while Rose incurred a head cut.
Without funds to do a restoration, the building continued to deteriorate and in 1995 the vaulted ceiling fell in, sending 60,000 pounds of material crashing through the sanctuary floor into the basement. The church faced demolition. The congregation did not have the funds to rebuild; however it was adamant that the building not be torn down.
In 1942 the old William Crosby house next door, for years used as St. Teresa’s School, was condemned, demolished, and the site used as a parking lot. Now the land and air rights were sold to a developer and the money used to rebuild the church.
|By the 1970s the Crosby House had been demolished for a parking lot. The clock still reads 10:15. photographer Edmund V. Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/%5BChurch-of-St.-Teresa,-16-18-Rutgers-Street.%5D-24UAKVMHMHM.html|
The reconstructed church was reopened late in 2002 and rededicated in 2003 by Cardinal Edward Egan. Unfortunately, the Victorian interiors were mostly lost to flat walls and uninteresting spaces.
The following October, on the 28th, tragedy struck outside the church again following a funeral Mass for Carmen Sanchez Rivera. As those attending the funeral gathered outside an out-of-control SUV skidded on its side down the sidewalk. Four women were injured, one seriously. A passing doctor rushed to the aid of the seriously injured pregnant woman. The driver and his passenger ran away along Rutgers Street.
The 34-year old pregnant woman, Zheng Bi Xiang, died at Bellevue Hospital Center a week later. The five-month old fetus had died two days earlier.
From the street, the nearly 175-year old church is unchanged. Its four clocks, considered the oldest hand-wound clocks in the city, once again keep time over the much-changed Rutgers Street. The church offers Masses in Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Spanish each Sunday; and Spanish throughout the week—a testimony to the wide cultural diversity of the 21st century Rutgers Street.
non-historic photographs taken by the author
non-historic photographs taken by the author