Monday, July 6, 2015

The Lost St. Chrysostom's Chapel -- 7th Avenue at 39th Street

from King's Handbook of New York City, 1893 (copyright expired)

In 1865 the Rev. Henry A. Neely, assistant minister of the fashionable Trinity Chapel on West 25th Street considered the neighborhood just to the northwest.   Described by The New York Times as “thickly-populated,” the area was filled with crime and vice.  It would earn the unflattering nickname “Hell’s Kitchen.”  Rev. Neely recognized a need to extend religious outreach into the gritty neighborhood.

He was given permission to establish a mission and in the fall of that year enlisted the assistance of Rev. Thomas H. Sill, then Rector of Grace Church in Canton, New York.  The two began “pastoral visitations” of Hell’s Kitchen and on the first Sunday in Advent on December 3, 1865, they held a service in a room above a lager beer saloon on West 32nd Street near Seventh Avenue.

The priests moved quickly.  Within two months a Sunday School was established and services continued there for almost a year.   In the fall of 1866 a rented hall was taken on the northwest corner of Broadway and 34th Street for church services.

The successful work of the humble mission did not go unnoticed.  In 1868 the 100-square foot plot of land at the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 39th Street was purchased for a new “free chapel.”  In June that year, $66,000 was appropriated by the vestry of Trinity Church “to put the project into effect,” according to the 1950 A History of the Parish of Trinity Church in the City of New York.   

The neighborhood may have been notorious and its residents impoverished; but the vestrymen went to one of New York City’s most esteemed architects for the design.  Before long, as noted in the History, “the plans for St. Chrysostom’s Chapel and School House, as submitted by Richard M. Upjohn, were approved.”

On October 28 the cornerstone was laid by Bishop Horatio Potter and the now-Bishop Neely.  At the time only the foundation walls had been erected; nevertheless reporters were told “It will be of the Gothic style of architecture, the material being brownstone with Cleveland stone trimmings.  The windows will be of stained glass and the interior of the building will be decorated in polychrome.  It will probably cost $60,000 and will be finished next summer.”

The prediction that the building would be “finished next summer” was optimistic.  Although the first service was held in the new chapel on November 7, 1869; it would be a full decade before construction was truly complete. 

The almost perfectly square plot resulting in a boxier and heavier structure than one would expect from Upjohn.   The architect placed the front of the chapel building on 39th Street, rather than the avenue.  The corner section, between two hefty gables, morphed into a pyramidal roof supporting a thin steeple and belfry.   Upjohn reduced the visual density of the blocky church by interrupting the brownstone with bandcourses of contrasting, lighter colored stone.

Street car tracks ran down the middle of Seventh Avenue when this shot was taken.  Crude crosswalks protected women's footwear from treacherous chinks in the brick streets.  photo by Robt. L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The stained glass windows are often attributed to the English firm of Heaton, Butler and Bayne; which had installed a window in Westminster Abbey a year earlier.   For the indigent worshipers living in the lowest of housing, the Gothic interiors of St. Chrysostom’s Chapel would have been uplifting.

photo by Wurts Bros.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Rev. Thomas H. Sill became pastor of the mission--now chapel--that he had devoted his life to.  On December 26, 1874 The New York Times remarked on the Christmas Day decorations.  The newspaper noted “this chapel is frequented by many of the humbler members of the community in whose midst it is situated.” 

“The floral and evergreen decorations were elaborate and exhibited much care and good taste in their arrangement.  The windows were transformed into miniature groves of fir, and the galleries, lectern, pulpit, font, chancel rails, and gas-fittings were tastefully decorated with laurel, cedar, and palm.  Festoons of evergreens depended from the pillars, and a rood screen of laurel divided the choir and nave.  The altar was decorated with a beautiful floral cross of white japonicas, entwined with smilax."

But the journalist did not totally approve.  “While the elaborate decorations in evergreens were executed with good taste, the same cannot be said of the other adornments. For instance, the effect of the beautiful rood screen and cross—a beautiful and unique feature in church ornamentation—was completely marred by the tawdry decorations displayed over the altar and on the pillars in the body of the church.”

New York churches with wealthy congregations closed for the summer months—their members all having left the city for summer estates and resorts.  Such was not the case for St. Chrysostom’s Chapel whose indigent worshipers suffered through the hot months in near-insufferable conditions.  And so it was, instead, repairs and final decoration that forced services out of the chapel proper and into the school room next door in the summer of 1879.

“The walls of the church, which had become badly discolored, have been renewed, and the plaster ceilings have been replaced by wood-work.  The new walls are to be tastefully decorated in tints, new gas-fixtures are to be put up, and the interior of the church will present a greatly improved and more cheerful appearance,” reported The New York Times on August 3.

The repairs and improvements were completed just in time for the consecration on October 30, 1879.  The services were conducted by Bishop Potter, “in an impressive manner,” according to The New York Times, assisted by about 25 clergymen.   The work of Rev. Sill and the Chapel’s guilds, school and the “corps of lay visitors of both sexes [who] now assist the clergy in their ministrations from house to house” was noted.  Since the mission was founded there had been 1,314 baptisms, and 345 marriages.  The membership of just 375 was, perhaps, understandable given the crime- and vice-ridden neighborhood.

The funerals and weddings of the lower classes here went largely unnoticed by New York newspapers.  But that would not be the case on May 8, 1881.  Poet William Ross Wallace was widely-popular and his most famous poem “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is the Hand That Rules The World,” which praised motherhood, touched the heartstrings of Victorian literary taste.  His funeral at St. Chrysostom’s Chapel drew reporters; and the journalist from The New York Times reported on the event in terms worthy of the poet himself.

“A few minutes before 1 o’clock P. M. yesterday, a hearse, followed by two carriages, drew up at the Gothic entrance of St. Chrysostom’s Chapel…and a coffin was lifted upon the shoulders of four stalwart men in black and borne down the aisle…A lady in deep black, leaning upon he arm of her son, and a young girl, supported by an elderly gentleman, followed the coffin to the altar, convulsed at intervals with subdued sobs.”

The description dripped with 19th century sentiment.  “The Rev. Mr. Sill conducted the services, and at their expiration the casket was opened that friends might take a fare-well of the strongly-marked and well-remembered features.  The face was emaciated by suffering.”

In Victorian New York, church leaders often looked with derision on actors and some banned their congregations from attending the theater.  Rev. Thomas Sill, however, was an ardent supporter of the art and St. Chrysostom’s Chapel frequently was the spot for the marriages and funerals of thespians.

Weddings here, in general, drew the suspicion of the New-York Tribune in 1884, which sent an investigative reporter on the case.  On September 8 it reported “Some comment has recently been passed upon the fact that St. Chrysostom’s Chapel, in this city, is apparently much sought after by runaway couples and others desirous of entering the matrimonial state as expeditiously as possible. Two cases in particular happening within a few days of each other seem to have intensified the feeling to such an extent that a Tribune reporter a day or two ago made some inquiries at the chapel.”

The reporter was concerned, specifically, about “an actress, who married a man who already had a wife, and a Brooklyn organist who eloped with a young member of his choir.”

The assistant rector was undaunted by the suggestive questioning.  “I regret both these cases extremely, but were I to be placed again in the same circumstances, I should act in precisely the same manner.”  He told the reporter that he had been assured that the wife of the first man was dead.  And, he stressed, if he were to deny the rites of matrimony to these couples, they would go to a Justice of the Peace, “to be united without the blessing of the Church, or to something worse.”  (“Something worse,” of course, alluded to living in sin.)

On November 29, 1885 Rev. Thomas H. Sill celebrated the 20th anniversary of the chapel’s founding.  Sill recounted to the crowded church the work being done by its 13 guilds—groups which worked within the community.  The Times commented at the time, “A considerable proportion of the congregation is colored.”

Yet another guild was added in 1894—the Guild of St. Agnes.  On March 29 that year The Evening World described the “admirable organization.”  It was organized “for women and girls who cannot or should not go out at night.  It meets every Friday at 3 o’clock.  The members are entertained in various ways and taught sewing, housewifely ways, good humor and good manners.”

The cost of running St. Chrysostom’s Chapel and its related school and organizations could not be, obviously, supported by its needy congregation.  Trinity Church provided the funds and a sermon in May 1897 Rev. Sill gave his appreciation.

“Notwithstanding the tendency of parishes to follow fashion and wealthy uptown, Trinity has remained to minister to the wants and needs of the population that also must remain…For thirty years St. Chrysostom’s has ministered to this section of the city, crowded as it is with tenements and poorer dwellings.  For my own part, I am profoundly grateful that for nearly thirty years I have been permitted to have my part in the work here that has ever kept me busy.”

That work included a long list of organizations and groups.  Among these were St. Chrysostom’s Chapel Dispensary with an attending physician who visited the sick poor at their homes; the Guild for Intercessory Prayer (a Trinity Church pamphlet said “Its name implies its object”); the St. Chrysostom District Visiting Society; The Guild of St. Margaret which assisted he sick and assisted in their burials; and The Guild of St. Cyprian, “a mutual benefit society for colored men and women, providing for its sick and burying its dead;” and others.

In 1899 the Actors’ Church Alliance began meeting here.  The group was founded in 1892 by Walter Bentley, a priest who had been a Shakespearean actor.  The announcement that services would be held in St. Chrysostom’s Chapel on the evening of October 15, 1899 noted “All members of the dramatic profession are invited.”

Around his time St. Chrysostom’s received a new member.  Unlike the majority of the congregants, the unmarried Charlotte Fitch was, as described by the New-York Tribune, “wealthy and of good family.”  The middle-aged spinster had lived in the family mansion in Coxsackle, New York until 1899 where “her eccentricity kept her alone.  He servants would not stay,” according to the Tribune.

She moved to New York City and began attending St Chrysostom’s Chapel.  A bizarre obsession with Canon John Harris Knowles quickly followed.   She began with writing letters to Knowles, asking him obscure points of theology.  He later said “then they became more personal, until finally she was actually proposing to me.”

He said “She would sit in the congregation and glare at me until I could hardly preach.  She has followed me in the street.  I have actually been afraid at times.”  Knowles was not the only person afraid of Charlotte Fitch.  “All the sextons knew her, and were usually afraid of her.”

After nearly five years of this behavior, Charlotte was convinced that Canon Knowles proposed marriage to her in a veiled sermon.  She tried to force her way into the vestry rooms, and then on January 17, 1904 the New-York Tribune reported that she “pursued him everywhere, has tried to force her way into his apartments, and lately brought a Broadway policeman there, hoping to force an entrance.”

Canon Knowles tried to endure the woman’s delusions privately, not wanting publicity for her family. But it was the family who finally took action, after they were alerted to Charlotte’s mental condition when she accused both Knowles and her brother-in-law of trying to poison her.

Charlotte’s sister, the wife of the Rev. Edwin S. De. Groat Tompkins, filed a formal complaint and led police to St. Chrysostom’s Chapel on January 16, 1904.  “Miss Fitch struggled and screamed when the policeman took her to the courtroom,” reported the Tribune.

Canon Knowles told reporters that her family had “hoped to have her taken to some private sanatorium without any fuss, but she slipped away and came to the church this morning.  Then she tried to see me, and her sister had to send for a policeman.”

Charlotte Fitch was committed to Bellevue Hospital for “an examination as to her sanity.”  Peace was restored to St. Chrysostom’s Chapel.

Even more press-worthy than the funeral of William Ross Wallace was that of nine-year old Princess Isabella, daughter of King Andrew of the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua on February 17, 1906.  She had been sent from South American two years earlier to attend the school on Amsterdam Avenue at 129th Street. “Four children were selected from among the Miskito tribe to be educated in this country and return to teach their fellows,” explained The New York Times.

Little Isabella died in St. Mary’s Hospital from an attack of appendicitis.  Strangely, following the St. Chrysostom’s Chapel funeral, her body was not returned to Nicaragua, but buried in Brooklyn’s Mount Olivet Cemetery.

It was not only Father Thomas Sill who actively supported the Actors’ Church Alliance.  Somewhat surprisingly, so did Bishop Potter.  When an entertainment was held by the group in the chapel’s parish hall on April 25, 1907 (attended by “more than a hundred persons,” according to The Times), the bishop showed up personally.  “Bishop Potter, who has been working in co-operation with the organization to make the fair a success, presented the alliance with an oil painting of himself.  This will be raffled off at the fair to be held at the Metropolitan Operation, beginning May 6,” said the newspaper.

Having served St. Chrysostom’s Chapel for 45 years, Rev. Thomas Henry Sill died in St. Luke’s Hospital on April 6, 1910 at the age of 72.  The New York Times remarked “No clergyman in this city has been so long connected with the same church as Mr. Sill was.”

Grateful congregants contributed what they could to erect a monument to the beloved vicar.  Two years later, on November 10, 1912, a new altar, reredos and credence were dedicated in Sills’ memory.  But the memorial would not last long.

The altar in memory of Rev. Sills was photographed by Wurts Bros. shortly after dedication in 1912.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

While Hell’s Kitchen district to the west continued to be a gritty and sordid neighborhood; the Seventh Avenue area surrounding St. Chrysostom’s Chapel was becoming engulfed by the expanding Garment District.   In 1924 demolition began on the Renwick-designed church.

The New York Times explained “St. Chrysostom’s Chapel…was abandoned by Trinity Parish because of increasing commercial invasions of the neighborhood.  The officials of Trinity Parish entered into an agreement with Mr. Sparks [of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on West 46th Street] to provide a church home for the members of St. Chrysostom’s."  In return, Trinity paid for much-needed structural repairs of St. Clement’s.

On April 30, 1924 workmen broke open the old cornerstone and pulled out the lead box placed there by Bishop Potter in 1868.  Inside were “a Bible, a prayer book, a convention journal of the diocese, canons of the church and copies of The New York Times and The New York World, dated Oct. 28, 1868.”  The box was taken to the Trinity Parish house at No. 187 Fulton Street and placed in a vault.

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