Monday, October 21, 2019

The Lost Church of the Covenant - Park Avenue and 35th Street

When this photo was taken the bell tower of the Church of the Incarnation, at left on Madison Avenue, had not yet received its spire.  Note the elegant fencing that surrounds the center sections of Park Avenue.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1858 Dr. George Lewis Prentiss resigned his position as pastor of the Mercer Street Presbyterian Church because of illness.  Two years later, having returned from Europe where he regained his health, he was approached by a group of former parishioners and friends who urged him to create a new Presbyterian church on Murray Hill.  Like his former church, it was to be of the "New School," sometimes referred to as the "Liberal Presbyterian."

The first service was held on November 25, 1860 in the chapel of the Home of the Friendless on 29th Street near Madison Avenue.  The troubled times gave Prentiss reason to worry about the advisability of a new venture.  Abraham Lincoln had been elected a few weeks earlier and tensions in the South were at a breaking point.  In his first sermon he said:

The state of the times, I confess, does not, at first thought, seem auspicious for the success of our work  Our dear country is in the throes of a great trouble; fear is on every hand; the most hopeful patriotism is smitten with anxious forebodings; we know not, we dread to guess, what awful calamity may be impending over us.

George L. Prentiss The History of Brick Church, 1909 (copyright expired)

Prentiss's trepidation was well-founded.  Five months later the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter, plunging the nation into civil war.  

The name of the congregation was not chosen until the spring of 1862, after elders were appointed and Prentiss was formally elected as pastor.  In May 1862 the Church of the Covenant was decided upon.  The congregation now needed a permanent place in which to worship.

The 83 members of the church were well-to-do.  A committee consisting of Benjamin F. Butler, Charles H. Leonard, Enoch Ketcham, William E. Dodge and George B. de Forest secured the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 35th Street.   James Renwick, Jr., whose masterful St. Patrick's Church was rising on Fifth Avenue, was chosen to design the new building.  The cornerstone was laid on November 5, 1863.

The Church of the Covenant was dedicated on April 30, 1865.  Renwick produced what The New York Herald deemed "an elegant and substantial church edifice."  The brick and stone structure was designed in the Sicilian Romanesque style.  The three entrances on Park Avenue were sheltered within stone porticoes, the central of which projecting slightly forward.  Directly above was an arcade of stained glass openings.  The gable was dominated by an enormous stained glass rose window.

Two additional entrances opened onto 35th Street, each below a story-tall stained glass window.  Directly behind the main church was the chapel, of matching materials.  It featured two striking towers.

An early stereopticon slide shows the newly completed structure before the fence was installed.  Park Avenue is paved with granite blocks.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Ironically, five months after its completion, the church was the scene of the funeral of one of the men who had made it possible.  Wealthy merchant George Beach de Forest, Sr. died at his summer estate on September 23, 1865.  His funeral was held here three days later.

The following year the pipe organ was completed and installed.  On November 15, 1866 The New York Herald reported "A concert will be given this evening at the Church of the Covenant, Thirty-fifth street, on the occasion of the opening of the new organ.  Messrs. Morgan and Bristow will perform on the organ, and Mrs. Abbott and Mrs. Gommer will sing."

The massive new organ featured scores of pipes.  The History of Brick Church, 1909 (copyright expired)
The Church of the Covenant was the venue for a remarkable meeting in 1869.  On May 20 The New York Herald announced that the assemblies "of the two great Presbyterian bodies" would be meeting that day.  "The Assembly of the Old School will hold its sessions in the Brick Presbyterian church, corner of Fifth avenue and Thirty-seventh street.  The Assembly of the New School will meet in the Church of the Covenant."  The nearly 500 delegates had an important decision before them.  "The most important question to come before the Assemblies this year is that of union."

On the eighth day of the conferences the members of the Old School Assembly came to the Church of the Covenant for a joint prayer meeting.  Before they returned to the Brick Church hands had been shaken, old fractures mended and there would never again be separate assemblies.

Dr. Prentiss turned his attentions to those on the East Side with nowhere to worship.  In 1870 he pointed out that "it would be a shame for them to worship in such comfort and leave their East Side brethren poorly accommodated," according to Shepherd Knapp.  Land was acquired at No. 310 East 42nd Street and architect J. Cleveland Cady hired to design a chapel.  Called the Memorial Chapel, the $50,000 structure was dedicated in December 1871.

The interior of the Memorial Chapel was decorated with festoons of leaves in this photo--possibly Thanksgiving decorations.  The History of Brick Church, 1909 (copyright expired)

On April 27, 1873 the 67-year-old Prentiss preached his last sermon in the Church of the Covenant.  He began it with Victorian eloquence and drama:  "When the alarm of secession was thundered across the broad expanse of this country, and when already in the distance the roar of the cannon and rattle of musketry could be heard, the project of building this church was first broached."  He ended it with similar articulation.  "When I leave you I do not intend ever to return to the pulpit, but my heart and all my good wishes will forever be clustered in the church and its congregation.  Goodbye, my friends."

Prentiss was replaced by the Rev. Marvin R. Vincent, who would remain for 15 years.  Vincent was not only "popular" and "widely known," as described by the New-York Tribune; he was a prolific author of religious books.  The newspaper noted "In addition to his books Dr. Vincent has published numerous pamphlets, magazine articles and tracts."

Rev. Marvin Vincent The History of Brick Church, 1909 (copyright expired)
The Thanksgiving service in 1879 was remarkable for two reasons.  On November 28 The New York Times said it "was somewhat out of the usual order, consisting almost entirely of a musical programme."   A quartet was backed up by a 40-voice chorus who performed selections from Handel's Messiah, including the Hallelujah Chorus along with other solos and choral pieces.

But even more unusual were the decorations.  Rev. Vincent had asked the congregation "for gifts of fruit and flowers and more substantial remembrances, to be distributed to the poor and among the various charitable institutions," said The Times.  But before that distribution, they were arranged as sanctuary decorations.

"In the Gothic arches, on either side of the pulpit, masses of flowers arose from walls of fruits.  Foundations compactly built of bananas, apples and grapes gave tempting support to a superstructure of cut flowers, tastefully arranged in baskets and bouquets.  Above these rose a bank of flowering plants, surmounted by graceful palms."  The pulpit was decorated with grape clusters, "making a striking frontispiece to a luscious background."

Rev. Vincent was a staunch supporter of the Temperance movement and he hosted a meeting of the Temperance Institute in the church on January 31, 1886.  Among the speakers was Dr. J. Leonard Corning, whose topic was "The Relation of Alcohol to Insanity."  He assured the audience "that there was nothing more certain than that the abuse of alcohol constitutes on of the most potent causes of insanity."

Vincent resigned in November 1887 and in December 1888 Rev. James Hall McIlvaine was installed as his successor.  Five years later he entered into merger talks with Brick Church.  After months of voting, discussion and negotiations, on November 30, 1893 the New-York Tribune reported "Arrangements are nearly finished for consolidating the historic Brick Presbyterian Church...and the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant."  The agreement meant that the congregation of the Church of the Covenant would move to Fifth Avenue and the Park Avenue structure be abandoned.

Not all of the members were content with the pact.  Of the 500 members, about half opted to form a new congregation, housed in the Memorial Chapel building on 42nd Street.

On March 4, 1894 the New-York Tribune reported that the Park Avenue buildings, including the church, Sunday school rooms and parsonage, had been sold "to a private syndicate of wealthy property owners."  The price was $325,000, or about $9.8 million today.

The syndicate had been formed by wealthy Murray Hill residents who feared that otherwise the church would be razed for what they "considered would be a detriment to the neighborhood."  The New York Times announced that they would "tear down the church and parsonage and cut up the plot into lots for high-class residences."

As demolition commenced, the cornerstone and the "memorial table of 'Faith'" were removed and installed in the 42nd Street church.   The Faith tablet had been presented to the church in 1863 by William Curtis Noyes.  "It is of the purest Italian marble, and represents a female figure gazing up at a cross that seems emerging from the clouds.  It was executed by E. D. Palmer in 1858," explained the New-York Tribune on December 17, 1894.

In January 1895 the last of the building plots on the site was sold.  In reporting the sale the New-York Tribune noted "The property was purchased by the syndicate in order to prevent business houses being erected on it."  But the days of private residences in the Park Avenue neighborhood would not survive many more decades.  In 1939 the 19-story apartment building designed by Henry C. Pelton was completed on the site of the Church of the Covenant.

photo via


  1. Hi Tom. Great article. Are any of these churches still standing? Or, any remnants remaining?

    1. Unless some interior items were removed to other churches, no trace remains that I know of