In 1819 a group of theological students formed the Corlears Hook Mission on the site of the 60-foot high earthworks built by General Ward in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. The first services were held in a private house near the Grand Street Ferry that year. The New York Times later recalled “The surface of the surrounding country was as rough and unleveled as in the time of Hudson…The ground around the present Rutgers, Henry, and Madison streets was mostly farming land, and cut up into eight and ten acre lots, by rail fences.”
There were three large country estates in the area at the time, owned by the Willet, the Rutgers, and the Corlier families. (Willet Street was named after Colonel Marinus Willet and Henry Street after Henry Rutgers.) Colonel Marinus led a movement the following year, on September 1, 1820, to organize an Episcopal parish. In 1821 they petitioned the Corporation of Trinity Church to grant sufficient land for the erection of a church—but the church refused.
The Corlears Hook Mission continued for three years operating from a private home; but when the Rev. Atwater Clark settled nearby, having arrived from central New York, the movement was renewed. The Parish of All Saints’ Church was born on May 27, 1824. On October 3, 1827 the cornerstone of a permanent church building was laid by Bishop Hobart. The New York Times deemed the ceremonies “of an elaborate character.”
Four months earlier, almost to the day on July 4, New York State outlawed slavery. In some ways it was a momentous event. At least two of the original vestrymen of All Saints’ Church were slave owners. On the other hand, the distinction between “free” and “slave” made little difference in the lives of some black servants. Without the financial means or professional skills to make their own way, many stayed on in their positions with their former masters.
The completed church was consecrated on June 8, 1828 with Bishop Hobart once again officiating. The handsome fieldstone structure straddled the Georgian and Federal periods architecturally. Paneled brownstone lintels surmounted the Henry Street openings, while the Gothic-arched windows—unusual at this early period—were trimmed in red brick (no doubt a cost-savings). Above the double entrance doors was proudly carved “ALL SAINTS CHURCH FREE;” an announcement that worshipers were not required to pay for their pews.
The church bell, cast in Massachusetts in 1824, was donated by wealthy iron-founder James P. Allaire. It would for many years serve double-duty as a local fire alarm. The interior of the church was, like the outside, a chaste mixture of Federal and Georgian.
The congregation had swelled to 60 by now as the neighborhood developed; but the church fathers obviously anticipated further growth. The church was capable of accommodating 1,200 congregants. Another feature, unseen by the worshipers, were rather rudely-finished boxlike “slave galleries” to the rear of the balcony.
|The replacement Victorian belfry is from the last quarter of the century. Historic American Buildings Survey, 1934 from the collection of the Library of Congress
In 1668 the Governor of the colony had issued an order “that slaves should be instructed and bred in the Christian faith and that the property of their owners in them should thereby be ‘nowise altered.’” Forced by law with giving slaves religious instruction, New Yorkers thereafter constructed their churches with galleries that successfully separated blacks from whites. The 1827 emancipation act which outlawed slavery had no effect on racism. Black worshipers in All Saints’ Church would remain in the slaves’ galleries.
|Now exposed again, the former slaves galleries flank the organ loft. photo staugsproject.org
Within only a few years the Henry Street neighborhood was no longer rough farmland and rocky hills. Looking back in 1874 The New York Times remarked “In the years 1830-35 the neighborhood of the church was rapidly filled up by the substantial residences of the old Knickerbockers fleeing from the inroads of commerce on their more southerly domains. In that decade, the neighborhood around Henry and Rutgers streets and East Broadway was among the most fashionable in New-York.”
Rev. Clark established a Sunday-school on Stanton Street in 1828. Among its first attendees were the neighborhood boys Richard and William Magear Tweed. William was four years old when the church was consecrated. Later earning the nickname “Boss” Tweed, he would sear his name into Manhattan history and provide a colorful side-note to the lore of All Saints’ Church.
Rev. Wm. E. Eigenbrodt remodeled the interior in 1849. The Times noted “Among the additions was the present recess chancel, and the fine, elaborately-carved marble font. The latter was mainly constructed from designs furnished by the Pastor himself.” Perhaps his most notable change was the elimination of the old “three-decker reading desk altar and pulpit.”
The New-York Tribune would later explain the “three-decker arrangement,” saying “The first, the reading desk, was mounted on two steps, the one typifying human nature and the other divine nature…The clerk sat at the reading desk and made the responses for the congregation.” Eigenbrodt installed in its place the elegant Georgian-style pulpit which was removed from St. John’s Chapel, built in 1807, on Varick Street.
|The Georgian pulpit with its elaborate carved plume predates the church building. Historic American Buildings Survey, 1934 from the collection of the Library of Congress
Another boy who grew up in the neighborhood was William Nicholas Dunnell, born in 1825 on Broome Street. A century later the New York Herald would comment “his birthplace was in one of the most fashionable residential sections of the city. On Grand, Division and Henry streets rolled the rich turnouts of wealthy New Yorkers. Here was the favorite promenade of the bells and beaus of the time.”
Dunnell entered religious life. After his ordination in 1871 he was made rector of All Saints’ Church on, appropriately, All Saints’ Day. By now the Henry Street area was changing. Although the Herald commented that All Saints’ “had then members of many old New York families among its parishioners;” immigrants, many of them Jewish, were filling the newly-built tenements. The New York Times was more forthright, saying “The up-town migration had carried off almost all the people of wealth and standing, and left the church to the support of the poor, with whom the neighborhood now abounded.”
One former parishioner who was definitely not impoverished was William Tweed. He had already left his mark at All Saints’ Church by scratching “W. M. Tweed” in the glass of a window in the school, underneath which he wrote “Polly.” The baffling name presumably refers to a youthful love interest.
But by the time Rev. Dunnell took the pulpit, Boss Tweed was in trouble. After his arrest on October 26, 1871, and his subsequent imprisonment, he escaped and went into hiding in New Jersey. But when his mother died in 1873 he was determined to attend her funeral in All Saints’ Church on July 7.
The New-York Tribune reported “Tweed went to Westchester the day before, and at night came to New York in a rowboat, landing at Grand Street Ferry. The next morning he attended the funeral of his mother, but the police, believing that he might be there, were waiting for him in Henry Street.” According to the newspaper, Tweed’s friends tipped him off that police were waiting in ambush “and he escaped through a window of the church.”
Rather than moving his church uptown following the wealthy parishioners as so many were doing, Rev. Dunnell embarked on renovation and updating. He managed to obtain “large sums of money” from Trinity Church with which he constructed a new parsonage and remodeled All Saints’ Church’s interior. On May 28, 1874 The Times noted “The edifice has undergone an entire renovation within the past year and a half, its interior having been handsomely frescoed and furnished.”
|Dunnell updated the caste Georgian interiors with up-to-date wall paintings. Historic American Buildings Survey, 1934 from the collection of the Library of Congress
On January 25, 1893 Rev. William Dunnell described his parish to the Church Club; and railed against those who made their fortunes from the misfortunes of the poor. “I found nothing as squalid in Whitechapel as in my own parish. On one side of me is a block in which the police say thirty-nine languages and dialects are spoken. Within four blocks is a city more foreign than any city of Europe this side of Constantinople.
“I want to call attention, too, to the difference between voluntary and involuntary poverty in the tenements. Not a small part of the millions of the savings banks come from smells and crowds of the tenement districts.”
He accused other churches of abandoning those most in need. “With the change in the population of the tenements, what do we see Protestantism permitting itself to do? I have seen one church after another disappear from down town. Nine churches have gone from within the sound of my bell. In the last week the Presbytery has decided to sell out two churches and to give the money realized to rich churches up town.”
Among Dunnell’s gestures to the poor was the annual Rally Day, which he established in 1893. On September 20, 1897 The Sun explained “Rally Day is an institution peculiar to this church, and is observed by the distribution of autumn flowers throughout the lower east side. The recipients are not questioned as to their creed or nationality. All fare alike.”
Members of the congregation and their friends traveled to New Jersey and Long Island for a week, gathering flowers. After church services on Rally Day the parishioners went out into the community, into the tenement buildings, delivering bouquets. In addition to the grown-ups, 200 children participated. “They performed their work with a will,” said the newspaper, “and the gifts were received everywhere with evidences of appreciation.” By that evening more than 5,000 bunches of flowers had been given out.
Living with Rev. Dunnell and his wife in the parsonage was their housekeeper, Anna Maria Magele. A German immigrant, she had been hired when still a teen, before the Dunnell’s children were born. Mrs. Dunnell died in 1901, following the deaths of their children. The elderly minister had been left with no company other than Anna Maria.
On December 20, 1903 The St. Louis Republic described Rev. Dunnell. “In the lower east side Doctor Dunnell is one of the best known men of that section of the city, and even among the residents of foreign birth, who constitute a large proportion of the population, he holds a commanding position. To him many disputes are submitted for settlement, and his decision is generally final.”
The reason that a Missouri newspaper would be writing about a New York City minister was because of the extraordinary turn in Dunnell’s life. The newspaper reported that Reverend Dunnell “who is more than 70 years old, announced his engagement to Miss Anna Maria Magele, who since her childhood has been a member of his household.” The wedding, in January 1904, was officiated over by Bishop Henry C. Potter. The St. Louis Republic wrote that Anna “has for some time presided over his household, and, as Doctor Dunnell expressed it, ‘will soon have a clear title to a position which she has so ably been filling.’”
Reverend Dr. William Nichols Dunnell retired on Easter Sunday 1911 after more than 40 years in the pulpit. He was succeeded by the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie who was intensely interested in the church’s history. He proposed a Dutch museum and did some forensic archeology—finding the old “three-decker reading desk, altar and pulpit.” The Tribune reported “It was hidden away among the old rubbish of the church, but Dr. Guthrie unearthed it.”
By now the old slaves galleries were seldom, if ever, used. On June 28, 1913 The Survey published an article about the neighborhood and mentioned “On a Henry Street corner stands All Saints’ Church, fashionable seventy-five years ago when the street was one of the city’s finest. Climb up long and shaky ladders past the door of the old slave gallery, over thick carpets of undisturbed dust, to the small arched windows there to command a view of the whole brilliant spectacle.” It was only one of the occasional matter-of-fact mentions of the slave galleries that would be made throughout the first decades of the new century.
That same year the Episcopal Church formally recognized and joined in Reverend Dunnell’s outreach. Bishop David H. Greer addressed local residents in the church on November 2, 1913, announcing All Saints’ “new life of neighborhood service.” The New York Times said “The congregation was composed of those whom the church is to serve. Women with children in their arms came, and men of the old Bowery class. ‘Human derelicts,’ ‘down and outs,’ ‘hoboes’—the men who have no homes and no jobs—were invited to the service, and they came.”
The men were understandably cautious about the Bishop’s intentions. “Some were sullen, some seemingly still hopeful, but all were somber and silent.” Bishop Greer proposed what today would be called a homeless shelter. “In a few days rooms will be opened in the basement of this church where you can sleep and eat freely, and no questions will be asked you as to what you have been or may be.”
By making his statements before preparations were well thought-out, the Bishop was opening what would prove to be an ugly can of worms. By March a committee was still at work “arranging lodgings for the men in All Saints’ Church,” according to The New York Times. But the homeless men decided not to wait on March 9.
A crowd of 500 unemployed and homeless men left a rally that evening and headed to the church, where they had been informed they would be fed and sheltered. “The police and special detectives, in the meantime, had caught up with the crowd, and when it ran toward the church stationed themselves before the doors and hurled the raiders back,” reported the newspaper. “There was such a lively scuffle for a few moments that serious consequences were feared.”
The increasing police presence led the men to believe that Reverend Dunnell had issued orders to refuse them entrance to the church. A leader, Ralph Eckers enraged the mob by announcing “This is the temple of God and you are His poor children, but you are not welcome within.” Only reinforcements from the nearby police station prevented a riot.
By 1916 the slave galleries were seen as a quaint anachronism, rather than a relic of endemic racism. On February 6, 1916 The Sun reported “The present day visitor at All Saints’ may climb the same narrow stairs up which labored the asthmatic mammies and body servants, put his finger in the sot of the bolt that locked in the slaves and sit on the benches on which played and trifled the pickaninnies.”
It was about this time that the glass with William Tweed’s name scratched into it was taken out. The New-York Tribune mentioned on May 27, 1917 “The pane of glass with the scratches is still treasured, and in order to insure its safety it has been removed from the rectory to one of the slave galleries in the church.”
The curiosity of the surviving slave galleries gained nation-wide notice. On September 11, 1920 the Minnesota newspaper The Bemidji Daily Pioneer published an article “Wonders of a New York Church.” Saying that All Saints’ Church had a “wealth of interesting antiquities,” it noted “Among its wonders are a museum of Dutch antiquities, the only open and unchanged slave galleries in the United States, the only colonial window left in New York, the only three-decker chancel arrangement left in the East.”
The diminished wealth and number of congregants was possibly responsible for the preservation of another relic. In 1927 The New Music Review advised “Here is in this city an old Henry Erben organ, one hundred years old in All Saints’ Church, Henry Street. Organists who are interested in ancient instruments will find this antique well worth a visit. It has not be rebuilt or restored in any way."
That same year the sanctuary was divided to accommodate the Episcopal services on one side and those of St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral on the other. The arrangement nearly resulted in the destruction of the rectory when Rev. Michael Chervinisky, priest of the Russian Catholic church, attempted to make candles in the basement.
The New York Times reported on April 3, 1931 “While heating the wax over a gas stove, he had walked away and the wax boiled over and ignited.” Fortunately, the blaze was put out by the sexton, his wife and a policeman.
The congregation of All Saints' Church, of course, resembled in no way the upscale members who sent their servants up the curved stairs to the slaves galleries a century earlier. Lillian Wald wrote in her memoirs that the choir was composed nearly-equally of white and black voices in the 1930s. Nearly all of them were trained in the Henry Street Settlement Music School.
In 1944 the congregations of All Saints’ Church and St. Augustine’s Chapel were merged by Trinity Church. St. Augustine’s congregation moved into the Henry Street church, bringing with them their beautiful High Altar and the Lady Altar. The combined parishes took on the name of St. Augustine’s Church when it was granted independence from Trinity Parish in 1976.
In the meantime, in the early 1960s, the wooden belfry was removed from the steeple, resulting in its stumpy appearance today. Concurrently three city blocks of buildings around All Saints’ Church were demolished to be replaced by public housing.
The nearly 190-year old structure is remarkably preserved—a fieldstone anachronism amid a severely urban landscape. And upstairs the old slave galleries survive as a reminder of a much different period in New York history.
photographs by the author