The Upper East Side sometimes feels like Little Hungary, what with the First Hungarian Literary Society on 79th Street, the Hungarian House on 82nd, and various Hungarian churches scattered throughout the neighborhood’s residential streets. The First Hungarian Baptist Church, which provides services in Hungarian, is no exception. The congregation was established in 1895 and now resides in a building completed by Emery Roth, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, in 1916.
Eileen Macholl, the Executive Director of the Unitarian Church of All Souls, introduced me to Mary-Ella Holst, calling her a “historian, long-standing member, and guru. ” The answer to most questions in the church, Eileen told me, is “Ask Mary-Ella. ” We learned just how extensive her knowledge was when she took us on a tour of the sanctuary and recounted the history of the congregation. She joined the church in 1964 to teach at the church school, but Mary-Ella is a well of information stretching back as far as 1819, when the congregation was first formed. It began when William Ellery Channing was invited to give a speech in Baltimore and made a trip down from Boston, where he lived. On the way, he stopped in New York to visit his sister, Lucy Channing Russel. She then invited her friends, primarily Bostonians staying in Manhattan, to listen to William give a sermon. He was not feeling well at the time, so he read the sermon while sitting down, but his listeners were inspired to start a church based on his reading. The congregation moved around in its first few decades. Its third location was in a church on Park Avenue and 22nd Street that was cheekily referred to as the “Church of the Holy Zebra, ” thanks to its odd striped design. Though the church was much derided and no longer exists, the Victorian Society in London recently got in touch with the Unitarian Church of All Souls to tell them that the church had been one of the first examples of Ruskin architecture in the United States. Before entering the congregation, Mary-Ella showed us to an old pew rental chart. She pointed to a name, George F. Baker, explaining that he was the founder of Citibank. He had been the President of the Board for fifty years, which was useful, since the church is entirely self-funded. They receive no support from a national organization and when the church is short on funds, the board is expected to come up with the money. Countless other influential figures have attended the church, including Louisa Lee Schyler, who founded the Bellevue School of nursing, and author Herman Melville. Continuing into the sanctuary, Mary-Ella spoke about William Ware, who became the first minister for the church. She described him as a “great writer, but a bad preacher. ” He had the proper lineage, however, since his father was on the faculty of Harvard and helped form the divinity school, despite his Unitarian tendencies. He was also married to the daughter of Benjamin Waterhouse, who invented the smallpox vaccination. A lot of the history of the time, Mary-Ella said, comes from the diary of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a female writer who attended the church, but was not a member due to her gender. She also encouraged William Ware to write Zenobia, a novel that was published in the Knickerbocker, a literary magazine, and took place in Ancient Rome. William Ware also wrote Julian, which described life in Nazareth, but never mentioned Jesus as the Son of God. The most influential minister, however, is featured to the right of the altar. The bas-relief of Whitney Bellows is thought to be the largest relief that the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens ever made. It is believed that Peter Cooper, the founder of Cooper Union, convinced him to create it after Augustus spent two years studying with Rodin. Bellows, who was “more powerful than any newspaper, ” was supremely influential in New York. He created the Union League Club to support emancipation and raised money for the sanitary commission, which eventually became the American Red Cross. He even had a hand in forming Central Park (the co-designer of the park, Calvert Vaux, was a member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History. Our tour ended with two important elements that bookmark the sanctuary. First, Mary-Ella turned us around to face the impressive organ. The church is very musical, with a church choir, a community choir, a youth choir, and a concert series. Though the current organ is relatively recent, the church’s historic first organ is being used in Vermont. Finally, Mary-Ella gestured to the elaborate design made with gold and silver strings at the front of the church, created by Sue Fuller. Unitarian Universalists welcome all beliefs or lack thereof. For this reason, within the sparkling design above the alter, there is the swooping arc of Islam, the Star of David, and a Christian cross. We were informed of countless other tidbits about the church and the history of the city from Mary-Ella, and were not surprised to learn that she conducts a lecture series in the summertime. The Manhattan Sideways team was riveted through her entire tour and highly recommends it to anyone interested in understanding more about New York City and its influential members throughout the years.
The Church of the Resurrection is one of the few examples of a church that has essentially stayed in the same building since its founding in New York. The current building was completed in 1869, only a year after a group of Episcopalians, who lived on the farm-filled Upper East Side, began their congregation. It was designed by James Renwick Jr., who was also responsible for the magnificent Grace Church.
I thought that perhaps I was immune to the glorious interiors of New York City churches after exploring seventy-five streets, but St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church proved me wrong. The sanctuary is absolutely exquisite, with shimmering stained glass, towering columns, and majestic balconies. I met with Barbara O’Dwyer Lopez, the President of the Parish Council, and Father John Kamas who together wrote a beautiful book about the history of St. Jean, making them the perfect people from whom to receive a tour of the building. St. Jean Baptiste has been serving the community for a long time. The church has existed since 1882, though it moved from just down the street to its current corner location in 1912. Barbara pointed at the stained glass, mentioning that it came from pre-World War I France. She also informed me that the church and school are still associated with the same sisterhood of nuns, the Congregation of Notre Dame, as they were at the start. “Teeming with history, this place, ” she said with a smile. Numerous choirs are associated with the church. “Music has always been a very fine tradition with us, ” Barbara explained before listing the parish choir, children’s choir, and professional singers whose voices have echoed off the church’s walls. Orchestras come from all around to perform in St. Jean’s impressive sanctuary and, of course, the choir from the St. Jean Baptiste High School also calls the church home. I inquired about the congregation and discovered that it has been steadily growing in recent years. St. Jean is emphasizing more attendance with children, as the neighborhood has become populated with young families. Many members of the congregation come from the busy hospital communities nearby where the church also sends chaplains. In addition to the constant flow of people who stop in to pray in the main sanctuary, Barbara mentioned that the church grounds are always buzzing with activity. “We have a very busy campus here, ” Barbara said, and led me through the church to another part of the building. The girls’ school was our next stop. Like the church, it is over one hundred years old. Barbara informed me that the students come from each of the five boroughs, with many from ethnic minorities. Barbara was proud to tell me that there is a 100% college acceptance rate at graduation. Via the large auditorium, Barbara took me through the school courtyard to show me the theater whereupon I was introduced to Tony, the manager of the community center. In the same complex as the theater, there is a dance studio where different groups, from adult ballroom dancing to children’s hiphop, rehearse. We also passed a meeting room occupied by a toddler playgroup and saw signs for Applause, an educational Broadway music program based at St. Jean’s. I continued to be impressed by the diversity of groups that were welcomed into St. Jean’s facilities, how each space appeared to be used to its full potential, and the lovely people involved throughout. As Barbara added jovially, “There’s hardly an empty minute! ”The theater itself is no exception – The Hewitt School rents out the theater, as well as small theater groups like the Blue Hill Troupe, which produces a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. While observing the Hewitt girls rehearsing the production of Le Malade Imaginaire by Moliere, Barbara directed my gaze to the floor that opens up to reveal an orchestra pit. Not only does the church provide a wonderful resource to performance groups around the city, but the revenue from the theater helps support the church’s upkeep and other activities. It is a beautifully symbiotic relationship: “The theater provides stability for the church. ”When we returned to the church proper, I had the pleasure of meeting Father Kamas. In his warm, gentle manner he spoke of how his relationship with the church goes back many years. He once attended the grammar school that was affiliated with St. Jean Baptiste, and the nun who used to be his eighth grade teacher now lives in the rectory with him. “I feel very at home here, ” he emphasized. The church has changed since he was young, but for the better. “When I was a kid, it was very dark, ” John said, but then the church underwent a twelve year renovation beginning in 1988. During this time the interior was redone and the roof was patched. The church is, unsurprisingly, a landmark building; therefore, everything had to be replaced using the same materials. It was then that the theater and community center were built.
New York City is chock full of phenomenal museums - cultural centers that appeal to a variety of interests. For my family, however, it is West 77th Street where we find ourselves returning over and over again. Founded in 1804, the New York Historical Society is the oldest American History museum and research library in New York City. Its holdings include paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts as well as three million books and pamphlets. Of particular note among their art holdings is the John James Audubon collection of Birds of America watercolors and their Hudson River School paintings. The Dimenna Children’s History Museum is a treasure not to be missed. It is a wonderful way to engage children in the history of both New York and the rest of the country. During the holiday season, the amazing train exhibit is a must-see for children of all ages. As a biographer/historian of American history for young adults, my mom has been attending their Tuesday evening programs for as long as I can remember. She has had the pleasure of meeting and listening to speakers such as Joseph Ellis, Richard Brookhiser, Stacy Schiff, and Harold Holzer, among others. The Patricia Klingenstein Research Library, in which she has done extensive research on Abigail Adams, is particularly important to her. She has remarked on many occasions that, for those who frequented the old facility, it is remarkable how superior it is to what it was some twenty years ago. With Caffe Storico attached for a spectacular dining experience, The New York Historical Society continues to be a favorite place that we recommend to everyone from individuals to families, New Yorkers to tourists, and historians to art lovers.
As Master Teresa Throckmorton guided me through Central Park Taekwondo and invited me to take off my shoes, I was struck by how immaculate everything was. "I make sure it's very clean, " Teresa told me, and took me past a group of women practicing the martial art to a smaller studio separated from her office by a glass wall. There were toys on the floor from the camp program that had just left, as I was visiting during the summer months. "It's a real community, " Teresa said, telling me about the different options for all ages. "People come and they don't want to leave. "Teresa is a typical New Yorker in her impressive use of space. Along with the smaller studio in front of her office, the main room has partitions that can be dragged across to create smaller spaces. She has seven full-time instructors who have been doing taekwondo for most of their lives. She proudly told me that she offers each of them benefits, vacation, and sick leave. The glass that separates her office is covered with words in red: "courtesy, " "integrity, " "perseverance, " "self-control, " and "indomitable spirit. " These are the central tenets of taekwondo, a word that means "the way of the hand and foot" in Korean. Teresa explained to me that taekwondo is not just a physical practice, but also a mental one. As a fifth level black belt, she is a well-qualified teacher (Any degree above fourth indicates someone who has dedicated his or her life to teaching martial arts). She grew up with brothers in an active family on a farm in Virginia, and so she was introduced to a series of sports before landing on taekwondo as her passion. She has also introduced the martial art to her children. I met eleven-year-old Caden, a black belt who has been studying taekwondo since he was two years old, though he now splits his time between martial arts and baseball. Teresa's eight-year-old son is also a black belt and her little girl is a third degree red belt. "It was never a choice for them, " Teresa said with a grin. As for Teresa, she is still training. A certain number of years must pass before you can increase your belt degree, but Teresa proudly told me, "By the time I am seventy-six years old, I will be ninth degree black belt grandmaster. "Teresa makes sure that everyone in Central Park Taekwondo - and in her family - is certified through the Kukkiwon Taekwondo World Headquarters, so that their belt status is recognized everywhere. She also follows the rules of the World Taekwondo Federation School whenever her students compete. However, taekwondo is not just about gaining belts and competing. Teresa believes that taekwondo can be beneficial to anyone, even those who have never participated in sports. "What I love about this place, " she told me, "is that you can come with no experience and end up a black belt one day. " She also told me that taekwondo helps people with challenges such as ADD or ADHD, since it can build mental discipline and self-confidence. "A lot of therapists suggest taekwondo, " Teresa informed me. Teresa especially suggests the martial art for children, since taekwondo helps teach principles of respect and builds a foundation of physical concentration. Teresa is very pleased with the fact that she has gained so many students in such a short amount of time. She opened Central Park Taekwondo in August of 2011 after training and working at another school in the area for seventeen years. The studio has been expanding ever since, with students traveling from Harlem and Brooklyn. "We're hoping to buy a new building, since we have grown really quickly in four years, " Teresa said. She wants to remain on the Upper West Side, where people can find her. The only advertising she uses is word of mouth and the sandwich board outside, which reads "They say you kick like a girl, you say thank you! " When I expressed my approval, she let me know that the school is split evenly between men and women, which is unusual for a martial arts studio. "I think it's because I'm a female owner, so people feel connected to me, " she said. She is very proud to have created such a tight-knit community. As I was leaving, she told me, "Our intention is to make anyone who walks in feel welcome, empowered, and strong. "