Wednesday, December 13, 2023

St. Peter's Chapel (St. Peter's Rectory) - 346 West 20th Street


In 1818, Clement Clarke Moore donated 66 tracts of land (a full city block) of his ancestral estate Chelsea for the establishment of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church.  As the complex grew, an associated chapel was deemed necessary.  
St. Peter's Chapel was organized on May 9, 1831, with the seminary's Rev. Benjamin I. Haight slated to serve as its supply priest.  

In his 1883 The History of the American Episcopal Church, William Stevens Perry would write, "By strenuous efforts of the few inhabitants of the sparsely settled neighborhood a small chapel...was then built."  No one among those "few inhabitants" was more involved in the project than was Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore leased seven plots of land to St. Peter's Chapel half a block west of the seminary on 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.  (He charged seven cents per year rent on the land.)  Moore attached a sketch to the lease that laid out his far-sighted plan for the property that would eventually also include a church and a rectory.

Moore's idea for the chapel was a Greek tetrastyle temple with classic Doric columns.  The design was modified to a unique brick-faced Greek Revival structure with massive, shallow pilasters taking the place of the columns.  The cornerstone was laid on October 8, 1831, and the building was consecrated less than four months later, on February 4, 1832.  A broad, low set of stairs led to the double-doored entrance.  Sitting back from the property line, the chapel was fronted by iron fencing with imposing stone fenceposts topped with urns.

Rev. Benjamin I. Haight served the chapel until December 1, 1833, replaced by the Rev. Smith Pyne.  His rectorship would be short lived.  When the Rev. Hugh Smith took over in 1835, development of the Chelsea neighborhood was no longer "sparsely settled."  His congregation had significantly outgrown the chapel and he initiated the second step of Moore's vision--an impressive gray stone church next door.

Upon the completion of St. Peter's Church in February 1838, renovations were begun to convert the chapel into the rectory.  The modifications were completed in 1841.  

Connected with St. Peter's Church in 1843 was Arthur Carey, who also taught Sunday school.  After graduating from Columbia College he entered the General Theological Seminary, graduating first in his class in June 1842.  Because he was a year too young to be ordained, he remained at the seminary and worked in the church.  In 1843, The New Englander said of him, "He appears to have been not only diligent and successful in study, but eminently amiable and blameless in his deportment--the pride of his teachers and the joy of his friends."

Finally, in May 1843, he was eligible for ordination.  He and Rev. Smith sat down in the rectory for an interview on the afternoon of June 21.  What should have been a routine procedure turned into the single incident that would mark Rev. Hugh Smith's legacy and prompt The New Englander to write, "Mr. Arthur Carey has suddenly, and at a very early age, become a historical personage."

During the interview, Carey expressed views sympathetic to Roman Catholicism.  It was a serious matter in 1843—Roman Catholics were called “Papists” (and worse).  "After the most deliberate consideration," Rev. Smith wrote a lengthy letter to Bishop Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk, explaining why he could not sign the testimonial.  He requested Bishop Onderdonk to hold a private inquiry of Carey.

What had started out as a routine interview in Hugh Smith's library morphed into an ecclesiastical tremor felt nationwide.  Bishop Onderdonk's deeming of Carey suitable for ordination resulted in a backlash.  Now the bishop, too, was accused of pro-Catholic sentiments.  And during the uproar, William Meade, the Bishop of Virginia, suddenly produced a number of affidavits from women who alleged Onderdonk had “engaged in improper touching” and had made inappropriate advances.  (It was an astonishingly early precursor to today’s #MeToo movement.)  It all ended in a trial before the House of Bishops that ended in Onderdonk's suspension.

When Arthur Carey stepped into Rev. Smith's library that afternoon, he was surrounded by an extensive library.  On April 20, 1849, following Smith's death, a public auction was held here, the announcement reading:

Theological Library--Very valuable and extensive Theological Library of the late Rev. Dr. Hugh Smith, embracing nearly 3,000 volumes of the rarest and choicest works in Theology, Divinity, the Classics, Biography, History, &c.

Rev. Hugh Smith was replaced in 1853 by Rev. Alfred Baury Beach.   He remained until his retirement in 1890, after which Rev. Olin Scott Roche took the pulpit.  Moving into the rectory with him was his 77-year-old father, the Rev. John Alexander Roche, and his unmarried sister, Sallie A. Roche, who apparently acted as housekeeper and hostess.  

In 1895 minor renovations at the rear of the aging rectory were performed.  They cost St. Peter's Church $1,150 (about $41,300 in 2023).

It was not unusual for couples to appear on a minister's doorstep and ask to be married.  On September 4, 1895, Ernest F. Brandt and Mary Anido were shown into the parlor where, after asking the normal questions, Rev. Dr. Olin Scott Roche married them.  But, unlike most of the weddings he performed, this one would end in what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle would describe on September 26, 1897 as "a curious divorce case."  

In court, Ernest complained he would not have married Mary "but for the fact that he was hypnotized by her," and insisted that Mary's former husband was still alive.  She countered by proclaiming she had refused to marry Brant "until [she was] held up by him at the point of a pistol."  Justice Pryor refused to grant an annulment until Brandt produced the living husband as proof of his claims.

On February 15, 1898, Rev. John Alexander Roche died in the rectory.  In his memory, Rev. Olin Roche commissioned a memorial stained glass window from Lamb Studios, Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha, to be installed in St. Peter's Church.

Stone railings flanked the stoop in 1914.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

During World War I, the Red Cross initiated a drive for clothing for victims in Belgium.  Public school children  joined in the project, contributing children's clothing.  The Sun reported on October 3 that a new collection station had been opened in the St. Peter's rectory.

A parlor wedding in the rectory conducted on October 19, 1922 ended much more happily than had that of the Brandts.  The groom, William K. Souther, called his wedding, "just a case of springtime capturing winter."  A retired businessman, Souther was 86 years old and his bride, Mary E. Brown was 35.  The Evening World said, "Mr. Souther, sturdy and smiling, welcomed his children and grandchildren to his second wedding."  Among the grandchildren was J. William Souther, a son-in-law of playwright and entertainer George M. Cohan.

Rev. Olin Scott Roche, Forty Years of Parish Life and Work, 1883-1923 (copyright expired)

Rev. Olin Scott Roche retired in 1923.  Earlier that year he had donated another stained glass window in memory of Sallie Roche to the church.  Also executed by Lamb Studios, this one was titled Archangel St. Michael Blessing a Knight.  A third window, The Resurrection, in honor of Rev. Roche, was dedicated around 1929 (also by Lamb Studios).

On September 7, 1935, following Roche's death, The New York Times reported, "Dr. Roche expressed the wish in case of sale or abandonment of the church that the three stained-glass windows, memorials to his father, the late Rev. John A. Roche; his sister, Sallie A. Roche; and the other to himself, be removed to some other Protestant Episcopal church, selected by the Bishop of the New York Diocese."  That wish would never have to be fulfilled, as St. Peter's Church shows no danger of "abandonment."

More than 190 years after the chapel's completion, and more than 180 years after its conversion to a rectory, the unique Greek Revival chapel building continues to serve that purpose for St. Peter's Church.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Douglas Kearley for suggesting this post
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