On Sunday, December 21, 2008, Grace Church in New York celebrated its bicentennial. Two-hundred years ago to the day the congregation had gathered for its first worship service in a modest building at the corner of Broadway and Rector Street, directly across from old Trinity Church and some two miles from where the church stands today. Although Grace Church was an independent foundation, never a chapel of Trinity, it was very much an outgrowth of Trinity, evidence that the Episcopal church, as well as the city itself, was growing. Its members were leaders of that growth in their various professions.
For a quarter of a century the church flourished in its downtown location, beginning the outreach that was to be such a conspicuous feature of its later ministry. The third rector, Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, worked tirelessly to promote mission churches throughout New York State, and as far away as Michigan. A fine musician himself; Wainwright also worked to improve the quality of church music. Public education was another of Wainwright’s interests, and in 1823 a Charity School for girls was opened, followed within a few months by one for boys.
The Decision to Move
When the fourth rector, Thomas House Taylor, arrived from South Carolina in 1834, he saw, perhaps the more clearly as an outsider, that the city was expanding northward and that the church was in danger of being left behind. Taylor’s great achievement was to persuade his congregation in 1837 that the time had come for the church itself to move. Though the financial panic that struck the entire nation in March of that year forced a temporary postponement, by 1843 preparations for the move–choosing the site, buying the property, engaging an architect, and determining what kind of building it was to be—were at last completed. It was the offer of Henry Brevoort, Jr., to sell lots from his family’s old farm between Tenth and Eleventh Streets that determined the new location. A happy choice: could the planners have fully appreciated then how the church would dominate the view from the south because of the bend in Broadway just there?
Building the New Church
Choosing the architect may have been the most difficult decision. Several men with established reputations had presented bids, and yet the commission was given to a brash young man only twenty-four years old who had supervised work on the Croton reservoir at 42nd Street, but who had never built anything. What James Renwick, Jr. did have in his favor, besides training as an engineer, was a family background full of both talent and influence, serving as a kind of guarantee for a potential that must already have been apparent.
As for why the style should have been Gothic, when no such structure yet existed in New York and before the Gothic revival had begun, we can only make some guesses. For one thing, the rector, Thomas House Taylor, had spent a year in Europe soon after coming to New York, very possibly with the sole object of looking at churches, and he may have come back full of enthusiasm for the many Gothic examples he saw there. And for another, a trait which would especially mark James Renwick’s own subsequently distinguished career was undoubtedly present already. For all his self-assurance, he was always willing to listen carefully to his clients and to make every effort to give them what they wanted. His future buildings would appear in a variety of styles, as with the Smithsonian Institution, the main building of Vassar College, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, and capping it all, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. (The leading authority on Renwick and his work, William Pierson, Jr., calls him the “Master Eclectic of his age.”) The Twenty-four-year old beginner had never so much as seen a Gothic church, much less built one. But if that was what the Rector and Building Committee were set on, he would ransack every book he could lay hold of to determine what such a church looked like, and exert himself to the utmost to give them one. To a Vestry not oversupplied with funds, such enthusiasm and eagerness to please, backed by family that was already a known quantity, may well have been irresistible.
A Newfound Elegance
When the church was consecrated on March 7, 1846, it was a much plainer structure than it is now. The windows were of lightly tinted glass, with no figures except one of Christ in the East Window. The resources of the church were sufficiently strained so that the church steeple had to be built of wood instead of marble. (It was rebuilt in marble in 1883.) The parishioners were well satisfied, however, and settled down to enjoy their newfound elegance. While Grace Church’s reputation as a fashionable church had begun in the old church, it was confirmed by the new one. The wedding of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in 1863 even brought it a degree of notoriety. Despite loud professions of distaste for the alleged grotesqueness of the coming spectacle, most of the fashionable world contrived to be there, to jostle each other and even stand on the seats, in order to get a glimpse of it.
With Status Comes Responsibility: Henry Codman Potter
Thomas House Taylor died in 1867 after a tenure of thirty-three years, having had a carriage accident two years earlier from which he never fully recovered. From that time until his death he had provided little leadership, and the church drifted. But with the arrival of Henry Codman Potter as fifth rector, all that was to change. A man of immense practical perceptions, Potter was one of the first developers of what came to be called the Social Gospel, a vigorous reaching out to an environing community. In 1856 Grace Chapel had been established on Fourteenth Street as a free church, to provide a place of worship for those who could not afford to buy or rent pews, but it was not well adapted for other kinds of parochial activities. It burned to the ground on Christmas Eve, 1874, ignited by a fire in the Barnum Museum next door. Rebuilt under Potter’s supervision, it was equipped with all the facilities that the old building had lacked. As immigrants arrived in ever-increasing numbers, the church was ready to offer more and more kinds of assistance, including day care, teaching skills that would lead to employment, and varieties of recreation that would not have been available otherwise.
One parishioner who watched Dr. Potter’s work with increasing respect and admiration was the wealthy philanthropist Catharine Lorillard Wolfe. The great aim of her life was to give away her money wisely. She built schools and churches, especially in the South and West; she gave an administrative building to the diocese of New York, and contributed large sums to build St. Luke’s Hospital. But for Grace Church she had a special affection, and delighted in enhancing its fabric. In 1879 she gave the Chantry a small chapel tucked against the southwest corner of the church, to be used as a Sunday School. At the same time she offered to pay for the parish house being constructed between the Church and Rectory. She also donated the great East Window, replacing the first of the original windows of plain glass. This act of generosity provided an example for others to follow, and within ten years her fellow-parishioners had given 36 of the 46 stained glass windows presently in the church. Many clergymen must have thought, as one of them said, “Would I had such a wolf in my fold.” She bequeathed her art collection one of the largest in America, to the Metropolitan Museum, together with an endowment of $200,000. She was the first, and for some years the only woman to sit on the Museum’s Board of Trustees. Her portrait by Cabanel hangs in the European gallery there, and a fine copy of it by Daniel Huntington is in the Reception Room at Grace Church.
First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church:
William Reed Huntington
The man who followed Potter at Grace Church was William Reed Huntington. Huntington’s twenty-five year tenure at Grace, during which he resisted every effort to lure him elsewhere or to higher offices in the American church, represented a kind of pinnacle in the destiny and influence of Grace Church. He was famous for his four-point proposal as a basis for the unity of churches, historically referred to as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, and also for his work on the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. A theologian and poet, he was also a highly able administrator, and President of the House of Deputies. Such was his influence that he was known as “the First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church.” His energetic tenure at Grace saw the culmination of the growth of its physical plant and of its Social Gospel outreach. The classes at Grace Chapel—often referred to as the “settlement”—had multiplied. The Chapel space having again become inadequate, and the surrounding area having deteriorated in a neighborhood of saloons, it was decided to build a larger chapel farther east at 14th Street and First Avenue, one that could accommodate all these activities and allow for growth as well. It was consecrated on February 12, 1896. Grace Chapel had a glorious ministry for nearly fifty years, until several generations of Germans and Italians had, with its help, become prosperous enough to move away from their humble beginnings in America. When it closed and was sold in 1943, the few remaining parishioners were consolidated with the Church congregation. But as one of the last of them was heard to say, more than twenty years later, “We left our hearts in the Chapel”.
A Choir and a School
A change in the music of the church accounted for another area of expansion. Dissatisfaction with the then current style of music led to the founding of a boy choir in 1894, and since a school for the boys was a necessary part of the new arrangement, a small classroom building was added on the southeast corner of the church. Mr. James Helfenstein was hired as the first Choirmaster of the new era, and he served until 1922. Subsequent Choirmasters have been Ernest Mitchell (1922-1960), Frank Cedric Smith (1960-1992), Bruce McGinnis (1992-1998), and Patrick James Allen (2000-current). In 1902 a choristers’ house for sixteen boys was constructed on 88 Fourth Avenue. In time the church would own nos. 80-102 4th Avenue, and house in these buildings various ministries, such as the Day Nursery, and the ever-expanding Choir School. Today the 4th Avenue side of campus continues to bustle with the ministries that took root over a century ago. Grace Church owns and operates nos. 80, 100, and 102. Grace Church School, which became its own legal entity in 2006, owns and operates nos. 84-96 4th Avenue. Grace Church and Grace Church School enjoy a dynamic relationship today, and most of the church’s choristers are drawn from the school.
The Twentieth Century and Beyond
William Reed Huntington died in 1909, just one hundred years after the founding of the parish. The hundredth anniversary marked the high point of the church’s physical growth, and the means were then at hand for every kind of service once the need had been determined. Huntington was succeeded by Charles Lewis Slattery, who served as the 7th Rector of Grace Church from 1910-1922. Slattery was a scholar, author of numerous books, and a principal architect of the 1928 revision of the American Book of Common Prayer. He left Grace Church when elected Bishop Coadjutor of Massachusetts.
Walter Russell Bowie was the 8th Rector of Grace Church from 1923-1939. Bowie also was a scholar and prolific author who would later serve on the editorial board of the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible and the group that produced the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. His years at Grace Church were difficult. The Wall Street crash of 1929 reduced the ability of the church to carry out its social mission. Also the rumblings of another war on the horizon clashed with the rector’s pacifist views. Bowie had been a chaplain in France during World War One. Witnessing there a waste of human life on an horrific scale, he resolved never to speak in favor of war for any reason. Coinciding with the social and theological pressures that he faced, Bowie developed a speech impediment that made it difficult for the congregation to hear his challenging sermons. Some said it was more a matter of not wanting to hear rather than not being able to hear. In any case, Bowie resigned in 1939 to become professor of preaching at Union Seminary in New York.
Louis Wetherbee Pitt became the 9th Rector in 1940 and served until his death in 1959. During Dr. Pitt’s tenure the neighborhood was in decline, but the congregation did accomplish extensive restoration projects to the interior and exterior of the now century-old building. Perhaps his lasting legacy, however, was the reorganization of Grace Church School into a modern, coeducational elementary school to serve the neighborhood. If Dr. Huntington founded the school, Dr. Pitt saved it.
Benjamin Minifie was the 10th Rector, and served from 1960-1975. Mr. Minifie abolished the pew rentals, and it was during his term that women were first elected to serve on the Vestry. Under Minifie’s watch the GO Project and the Grace Church Choral Society were established, and both organizations flourish to this day. Also during this time the church renovated a 4th Avenue building to create Tuttle Hall for use by parish and school. A battle with the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission forced the church to preserve the 19th century façade at great expense. Today, all are grateful that the building retains its historic appearance.
In 1975 Christopher Fitzsimons Allison began his term as the 11th Rector. He was followed by Harold Elliott Barrett, who served as the 12th Rector from 1980-1991. Samuel Bassett Abbott was the 13th Rector, serving from 1992-1998. During his tenure the parish celebrated the 100th anniversary of Grace Church School, and the 150th anniversary of the building. To mark these occasions a Girls’ Choir was added to complement the long established Boys’ Choir.
Following Mr. Abbott’s tenure the parish entered a protracted interim period of nearly six years, during which many difficult institutional, theological, and financial realities were addressed. In 2004 James Donald Waring became the 14th and present Rector. He believes that Grace Church’s glorious architecture, strategic location, and deep legacy of service and worship provide unique possibilities for proclaiming and living the Christian faith today. Indeed, our best days are ahead of us, not behind us. The parish recently restored major sections of the building’s interior, and installed a new pipe organ in 2013.
In his sermon celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the church building in 1896, Dr. Huntington voiced the objective that is still ours today:
Grace Church has not yet reached the age of decrepitude. Please God she never shall. Aspiration, enterprise, endurance, all these she still accounts a portion of her goodly heritage. What forbids that for another two-hundred and fifty years she should still mount on eagle’s wings, still run and not be weary, still walk and not faint?