from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The congregation of the Church of the Ascension, on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, was fashionable and affluent. But their privileged status did not blind them to the needs of the less fortunate. In a sermon delivered on December 23, 1934, Rev. Donald B. Aldrich recalled:
From 1859 on, a flood of immigration swelled New York City with four hundred thousand additional people. These newcomers lived in shacks and tenements unspeakable in squalor and poverty. It was for them that the congregation purchased and cleared a block at 43rd Street and Ninth Avenue, and erected model tenements there, at a cost of $43,000. As a center of center of worship, recreation and help for these people, the Ascension Memorial Chapel, costing $10,000, was built among them and administered by the congregation of this church.
Aldrich had one detail slightly wrong. The mission was originally called the Chapel of the Shepherd's Flock. The original rector was Daniel Thom, replaced in 1870 by Reverend John Floyd Steen, who would remain with the impoverished members for decades. The were fifty members in the congregation at the time.
In 1894 the mission chapel became an independent church, now named the Ascension Memorial Church. The congregation celebrated Steen's 25th anniversary on March 3 the following. The Sun reported that Bishop Henry C. Potter had overseen the "special services." Steen's outreach to the immigrants who had had little exposure to religion was reflected in the last line of the article. "Forty persons were confirmed, a number of them being of mature years."
Just weeks earlier, Reverend Steen had begun seeking a larger building for his congregation. On February 8, 1895, The Churchman explained, "This church has for many years been greatly inconvenienced by the limited accommodations of its present building. The completion of the twenty-fifth year of the present pastorate is deemed a most opportune time for the purchase of a new site where better conditions of growth may reasonably be expected."
A "Guarantee Fund" was established to finance the project. The Churchman announced, "A fair for the benefit of the Guarantee Fund of the Ascension Memorial church, West Forty-third street, will be held in the Healey Building, Broadway and Forty-second street, during the days from Feb. 20 to Feb. 23 of this week."
Rev. Steen moved quickly. In its April 1895 issue, The Arrow reported, "He has purchased the Methodist Meeting house on West 43d Street, and will convert it into a church." In fact, the congregation did not yet have the money to purchase the building at 245-249 West 43rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. It would rent it for three years before buying the property in February 1898.
The vintage, free-standing brick building was a block to the east of the former chapel. Its classic Greek Revival design included full-height pilasters and a triangular pediment.
The congregation renovate the interiors. On December 9, 1900 Bishop Potter was back for the annual memorial service. In his remarks to the congregation, he mentioned the renovations:
I wish also to congratulate you upon the success achieved in the recent improvements of this building...I don't know whether you know it, but this building has some of the older virtues--including an old-fashioned gallery. I am glad you did not take out the gallery. Too many of our new churches have no gallery, and are so lengthened out that worship is an act of faith in a sense not originally intended. You have also done well not to have the building smeared all over with the hideous polychrome that is so common nowadays, and for using instead a simply unity of tint. You have now one of the most dignified church edifices in New York.
Later that year the church received a generous gift. Prominent merchant and art collection George A. Hearn presented Ascension Memorial five old master paintings in memory of his daughter, Grace Arnold Hearn Wheeler. On December 23, The New York Times noted, "This gift makes Ascension Memorial Church one of the richest in the city in precious works of art."
The article said art connoisseurs would pick out Hans Memling's Madonna and Child as "the most interesting and valuable of them," adding, "Work by Memlinc [sic] is so rare as to be seen in few even of the national collections outside of Belgium." The painting had been valued at $50,000 (about $1.6 million today).
The other Renaissance period paintings were Jan Gossaert's Descent from the Cross (the artist lived from 1470 to 1532); Christ Mourning Over Jerusalem, by Benvenuto Tisio, a painter known as Garofalo; Frederigo Barocci's Flight into Egypt; and Bronzino's Madonna and Child.
The neighborhood around the Ascension Memorial Church was transforming into the center of Manhattan's theater district by now. The church earned the nickname the Little Brick Church in Times Square and gradually the occupants of the pews included more and more musicians, actors and chorus girls.
In reporting on Rev. Steen's 40th anniversary on February 19, 1910, The Living Church recalled, "There were shade trees lining the curbs of what has now come to be the theatre district, and many fine old buildings with old-fashioned columns were still standing in the new parish." Reverend Steen personally commented on the change in 1911, saying "I have now, as regular churchgoers, many chorus girls. Some of them have been regular attendants for many years. I like the theatrical people very much."
His affection for the "theater people" resulted in his offering church spaces for meetings. A report on the annual meeting of the White Rats Actors' Union and Associated Actresses in The New York Clipper on July 4, 1917 noted, "More than one hundred members of the organization attended the gathering, which was held in the Sunday School room of the Ascension Memorial Church at 251 West Forty-third Street, as the White Rats have had no quarters since the loss of their club house last April."
Amazingly, John F. Steen celebrated his 50th year in the pulpit at Ascension Memorial church in February 1920. The Sun noted, "Dr. Steen has solemnized 2,221 weddings, and has baptized more than 5,000 children." Later The New York Times would remark that when he took the position, "Farmers drove in to church from the outlying acres to the north," and noted, "Dr. Steen was so young that one or two of his parishioners objected to his baptizing their babies, on the ground that he was only a boy."
Rev. John Floyd Steen would live to the age of 93, dying on March 29, 1938. He had seen the Little Brick Church in Times Square demolished eight years earlier. The New York Times expanded its Annex building onto the site, the construction of which was completed on January 7, 1932.
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