Wednesday, February 2, 2022

The Rose Hill M. E. Church (St. Illuminator's) - 221 East 27th Street


John Watts, Sr. served in the Colonial government--a member of the Colonial Assembly and of the King's Council.  The Watts country estate, Rose Hill, covered more than 130 acres from the East River to what would become Park Avenue, from 21st to about 30th Street.  By the time his son, John Watts, Jr., died in 1836, he had already begun parceling off portions of the Rose Hill estate, as the expanding city slowly encroached on the district.

On August 15, 1842 a single-sentence article appeared in The Evening Post:  "The corner stone of the Methodist Episcopal Mission church on Rose Hill is to be laid this afternoon at 4 o'clock."  The site, purchased in February 1842, was on the north side of East 27th Street, between Second and Third Avenues.

The church would have a permanent home after years of having moved around.  Years later, 1885, The New York Times would recall, "The church had its origin in School No. 24, of the old Female Union Society, which was organized in 1824.  The meetings were then held in the house of Joseph Brewster, on what was then the Boston road, where Thirty-fifth-street crosses Lexington-avenue."  It then moved to O'Dell's tavern near 31st Street and Lexington Avenue, and around 1830 into the Disbrow Academy, on 28th Street near Third Avenue.  The congregation was incorporated as The Methodist Episcopal Mission Church at Rose Hill on April 13, 1835.  

The building was completed within the year, at a cost of $7,000--around a quarter of a million in today's dollars.  It was dedicated by the Rev. Dr. Stephen Olin, President of Wesleyan University.  The congregants would not enjoy their new home for long, however.

Just after midnight on November 18, 1848, fire broke out in the large livery stables of J. & M. Murphy, at the corner of 27th Street and Third Avenue.  The blaze spread quickly and before help could arrive at least 115 horses had died, and scores of omnibuses, sleighs and carriages were destroyed.  The inferno spread down the block, The Evening Post reporting, "The flames extended to and destroyed the Rose Hill Twenty-seventh street Methodist Church, Public School No. 15, and one or two brick and frame dwelling houses on the same block, and opposite the stables."

A new church building was erected within a year's time.  The somewhat severe Greek Revival style structure was faced in red brick.  Four large antae, or pilasters, projected slightly away from the facade.  The entrance sat within an enclosed portico.

The original entrance was strait-laced.  To the right is Public School 14.  photo by Samuel Landsman, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As was the case with most churches, the female members threw themselves into the war effort following the outbreak of the "War of the Rebellion."  They organized the Rose Hill Soldiers' Aid Society, and on October 31, 1862, The New York Times reported, "A reunion of the most cordial character took place on Wednesday evening in the Rose Hill Methodist Episcopal Church.  Its object was to assist, by subscription and immediate donation of money, the self-sacrificing and patriotic efforts of the Society of ladies."

Scattered among the "patriotic glees" and short speeches were testimonials from "the poor invalids themselves, who came forth maimed and halt to bear witness to the worthiness of the appealing cause."  They spoke of the mistreatment in prison camps, the appalling lack of sanitation, and the happiness gifts of "wines, brandies and jellies" brought to the soldiers.  The newspaper said, "a spirit of generosity was aroused quite unusual in a meeting of the kind."

The men, too, responded.  The New York Times would eventually report, "Fifty-three members of the church and Sunday school enlisted in the service, seven of whom died in battle."

In the mid-1870's the church offered its auditorium for meetings of The Universal Peace Union.  The group turned its attention to the Indian Wars during a meeting on January 17, 1876.  One speaker, A. B. Meacham, had served as a missionary to the Modoc tribe.  "He accused the Government of having violated its promises to the Modocs," reported The New York Times.  "Fifteen days after the armistice with the Indians had been made, he said, and while it was still in full force, it was broken by the Army of the United States, seizing the Modocs' horses and keeping them in spite of all remonstrance."

As the decades passed, the Rose Hill neighborhood filled with tenements.  In one of them, at 492 Second Avenue, lived Bella Cooke, perhaps the church's most well-known congregant.  She joined the church in 1847 and had dedicated her life to helping the impoverished families around her.  Later, her doctor, Mrs. Joseph Pullman, would write, "When Mrs. Cooke went to live at No. 492 Second Avenue there were green fields stretching down to the river.  When the neighborhood became what it is--noisy and crowded--her children wanted to move her away."  But Bella could not be moved.  A spinal affliction made her bedridden in the 1850's.

Bella Cooke distributed charity from the bed in which she was confined for more than half a century.  from Rifted Clouds, or The Lift Story of Belle Cooke, 1909 (copyright expired)

Born in England in 1821, she and her husband had come to America a few years after their marriage.  He died of cholera shortly after arriving in New York.  When Bella's spinal condition became so bad that her doctors informed her she would never even sit up again, she turned her attention to helping the poor.  She provided money to needy neighbors and her work became known to wealthy socialites.  "The rich made her their almoner, and through her the poor received coals, clothing, food and money."

In 1897 a special "jubilee" service was held in Rose Hill Methodist Episcopal Church, celebrating Bella's 50th anniversary of membership.  In its January issue, The Record of Christian Work wrote, "Though having nothing, she possessed all things, and besides helping the church constantly from then till now, she has been made by hundreds of wealthy people in this city the medium of relieving thousands of needy sick and starving people."

In August 1900 renovations were made to the church by the architectural firm of James E. Ware & Son.  The modifications, costing nearly $24,000 in today's money, were relegated to the interior.

When Bella Cooke died on November 18, 1908 at the age of 87, she had been removed from her bed only twice in more than half a century.  Newspapers across the city reported on the funeral of Bella Cooke in the Rose Hill Methodist Episcopal Church.  The New York Herald said, "The church was filled with friends of the dead woman, many children among them," and noted she was "known as the 'Second Mother of the Children of Second Avenue.'"  Among the floral tributes was a wreath of orchids from Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt; a cross of white roses, orchids and lilies-of-the-valley from Catherine Bliss; and lilies from Mary Callender.  The Daily Tribune wrote, "Among those who looked into her coffin were some who were rich and some who were poor.  Behind a woman in rich furs walked a bareheaded, white-haired woman in a faded shawl."

In 1915 the congregation merged with the Crawford Memorial Church, and on February 21 the New-York Tribune reported, "Justice Page has signed an order permitting the Rose Hill Methodist Episcopal Church to sell its church property, at 221 East Twenty-seventh Street, for $50,000, and to apply the proceeds to paying off a mortgage on the Derbyshire apartments, at 217 and 219 East Twenty-seventh Street, adjoining the church and owned by it."

The building became home to the Armenian-language St. Illuminator's Church, founded in 1910 after a schism within St. Gregory the Illuminator resulted in two congregations.  

It was the starting-off point of a parade on Saturday, November 10, 1917.  President Woodrow Wilson had declared it "tag day," in response to the mass genocide of Armenians and Syrians by the Ottoman Empire.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "In line were 3,500 Armenians and Syrians who succeeded in escaping the wholesale massacre in Armenia, 200 girls from the Teachers College, Columbia University, and 300 Camp Fire Girls.

It was not until October 1920 that the title of the building was transferred from Crawford Memorial Methodist to the congregation of St. Illuminator's.

On August 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding suffered a fatal heart attack.   A high mass was held in St. Illuminator's Apostolic church on August 12, The New York Times saying, "During the requiem, which is used by the Armenians only on rare occasions, every member of the congregation remained standing and each held a lighted candle.  The latter is for the illumination of the soul."

The church was closed for a year in 2008 for major renovations.  On August 31, 2009, upon its reopening, The Armenian Weekly noted, "The Mayr Yegeghetzi has always been known as the 'Ellis Island' to New York's Armenian immigrants because of the very important role it played in welcoming them to Manhattan from all over the world."  On September 19 His Eminence Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Eastern United Sates led the re-consecration services.

Unlike its neighborhood, other than the remodeled entrance portico, the appearance of the nearly 175-year old church is little changed.

photographs by the author
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  1. I LOVE what you post. I too am fascinated by NYC. I'm from here though I've spent time in Southwestern Ohio. I went too Wilmington College. You're posting about St.Mary's on 126th Street have been a wonderful resource as we prepare for our 200th anniversary. I haven't plagiarized mind you just for background information. Thank you for a wonderful, informative blog
    Yours,Freddi Brown-Carter

  2. Replies
    1. Glad to know that any information I supplied is helpful to you and the congregation.