My visit to the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel came only a year after it merged with the Church of St. Thomas More in 2015. Though the two buildings remain open, the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel is considered the parish church. The reasons for the merger were spiritual, financial, and community-based. It is the hope of the combined parishes that they continue to grow stronger under one pastor.
As for the history of the Our Lady of Good Counsel, the church had its beginnings in 1886 and moved into its current home in 1892. Though its origins were Irish and German, the Roman Catholic Church now embraces a diverse community and offers Spanish masses every week.
Louisa, a member of the staff, led me into the beautifully ornate sanctuary. The altar was decorated with cherry blossoms for springtime, an attractive addition to the stained glass and marble. The vast, two-tiered space is blindingly colorful and features an enormous working organ. Music, Louisa informed me, plays a central role in the congregation.
Louisa spoke to me about an event called Catholic Underground that happens on the first Saturday of every month from September through May. Hundreds of people, often young people in their teens or twenties, fill the sanctuary for an hour of “Eucharistic adoration.” After the ceremony, everyone goes downstairs to the lower church where singers, bands, or individual musicians play. The musical groups come from around the world. As Louisa explained, the event began as a way of “bringing culture to the people.” This did not originate in the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel, but has taken place there since the early 2000s. Though everyone is invited to attend, Catholic Underground’s primary goal is to connect with young people in the community...and it appears to be working nicely.
St. Joseph’s was founded in 1873, when the German-speaking locals who represented a large portion of the inhabitants of Yorkville asked the Jesuits of St. Laurence O'Toole Church on 84th Street and Park Avenue (now St. Ignatius Loyola) to help them find a German-speaking priest. The Jesuits sent Father Joseph Durthaller, who became the first pastor of St. Joseph's. In 1880, St. Joseph's School was founded, and in 1894 the current church was built in the Romanesque Revival style to replace the original small Gothic structure that had been dedicated in 1874. In continuation of its German heritage, St. Joseph’s offers a German Mass on the first Sunday of every month, which is said by Father Boniface Ramsey, the pastor.Even though, like many churches in Manhattan, participation has dwindled over the past forty years, St. Joseph's still has an active community with over 750 congregants and about 350 children in the school. There is no longer a large German population, but St. Joseph's is now home to the New York Hungarian Catholic community, which has a Mass every Sunday afternoon that is conducted entirely in Hungarian. The Hungarian community came from St. Stephen of Hungary Church on 82nd Street, which was recently closed.Father Boniface himself attended St. Joseph’s School for a short time, but he never imagined that he would end up as the pastor. He calls himself an "Upper East Sider," born and bred. Though his mother was German, she did not teach him her native tongue, since he was born in 1945, when the political climate caused German speakers to be unpopular. Instead, he studied the language in college.The church itself is medium size and beautifully proportioned, with elegant confession booths, stained glass windows, and colorful murals on the ceilings. At the front of the main aisle, just before the sanctuary, there is a mosaic worked into the floor. It is the personal crest of Pope Benedict XVI, who visited St. Joseph's on April 18, 2008.Despite the attractiveness of other features, my eye was drawn to the enormous, historic organ that dates back to 1895 and "hasn't been fooled with," in Father Boniface's words. He told me that music is very important to St. Joseph's and that Alistair Reid, the church's organist, is "superb." In addition to the organ, St. Joseph’s also has a piano and one of very few harpsichords to be found in a church. Leading me up into the choir loft, Fr. Boniface pointed out that the organ is particularly large in comparison to the size of the church. He believes that this is because the Germans who founded the church and installed the organ were probably hearty singers. He mentioned that a big choir is not needed to fill the space. "The acoustics are famous," he said, and vocally demonstrated the four to five second reverberation.Father Boniface took me on a quick visit to the school next door, a building dating to 1926. It warmed my heart to hear the children playing in the street yell "Hi Father!" and to see him smile and wave at them. "I usually create a ruckus," he said with a grin.
The Church of the Holy Trinity began its life as a memorial. In 1798, William Rhinelander, one of the wealthiest men in New York, purchased a large parcel of land between Third Avenue and the East River. After his death, his granddaughter, Serena, selected a piece of that land on which to build a church in his honor. The Church of the Holy Trinity already existed on Madison Avenue and 42nd Street, but they planned on selling their midtown plot because the area was starting to become a business district. The church merged with St. James Church and moved to this uptown spot set aside by Serena. The church was consecrated in 1899 and Holy Trinity has provided a spiritual home to the surrounding neighborhood ever since.
Gregory Fryer, the pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, is thankful for his church for many reasons. First of all, it was formed in the winter of 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War. Gettysburg was only a few months away, but Gregory sees the founding of Immanuel as proof that it was still "a holy time." "It was the creation of a new church, right in the middle of wartime," he said, with the soft, deliberate tone of a man who has spoken many sermons. The congregation met in various places on the Upper East Side, including what is now St. Elizabeth of Hungary, for the first two decades before building the 88th Street church. Gregory is grateful that that church, dedicated in 1886, was built with great care by the local German immigrants. The same men who worked in Rupert's brewery, ran the neighborhood bakeries, and lived in the tenement houses painstakingly built this beautiful church on 88th and Lex. "I'm honored every time I set foot in it," Gregory asserted.Many of the immigrants were woodworkers, so the church stands out from its neighbors in that it is filled with wooden structures and hand-carved decorations from the Black Forest in Germany. The bells are also imported from Germany and were gifts from Empress Victoria in the late 1800s. They are named "Glaube," "Hoffnung," and "Liebe" which mean "faith," "hope," and "charity." The bells are rung by hand at the start of each service and during the consecration – a practice that is quite fun for those who participate, judging by the twinkle in the pastor’s eye as he mentioned, “We enjoy pulling on the rope.”"My call to be pastor here reflects the change of the neighborhood," Gregory stated. He is the first pastor who does not speak German. "I am distinguished by a deficiency," he said. The church stopped offering German services in the 1970's, resulting in some German-speakers moving to Zion St. Mark. Some of the older congregants, who have been coming to the church for over fifty years, still speak the language, but Gregory jokingly assured me that they "forgive" him for not knowing it. The older congregants are referred to as "the power table," since they always sit together at coffee hour. Gregory calls them the "guardians of the wisdom of the neighborhood." They are part of what Gregory describes as "a very diverse congregation."Immanuel fills a very important niche in New York: As of 2016, it is the only church in Manhattan that is part of the North American Lutheran Church. They were originally part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the more liberal group, but decided to become more moderate in order to give other Lutherans a place to worship in the city. After a year of debating, they applied to the NALC and were accepted in record time.When I visited in 2016, the church had just finished renovating its slate roof and steeple. "It took every nickel in sight to do it, but we did it right," Gregory said proudly. The church could have used a cheaper material to fix their roof, but the congregation felt strongly that the church should honor the work that the original builders did by using the same materials. The process was long and arduous. Gregory told me how every detail was discussed at length and showed me one of the original nails, which became a centerpiece of a discussion about what hardware to use. Every congregant did his or her part. For example, Gregory took the bucket that he used to catch water from a leak in the roof and invited the children to a "noisy collection," where they dropped coins into the bucket. Before commencing the work, Immanuel had the building appraised by a structural engineer, who declared it "solid as a rock," suggesting that the congregation could hang a 747 jet from the rafters. A few months after the project was completed, the church was awarded the “Carnegie Hill Neighbors Enrichment Award” in recognition of the skillful renovation.An added bonus of the new roof is that the church is now insulated. Ever since a nearby department store's demolition project destroyed the church's plaster roof, it has gone without insulation. The church used the settlement money from the department store to buy the parsonage apartment where Gregory and his wife raised their family. The church never replaced the plaster because they realized that the church was more beautiful with the exquisite craftsmanship of the roof beams exposed – the rafters were never meant to be seen, but the German woodworkers put great care and skill into them anyway. Not to mention, the acoustics were greatly improved.
Bluestone Lane Coffee has proven itself adept at nestling into existing places around the city. I first encountered the Australian-style brand on 43rd Street, where they have made a home in Grace Plaza Pavilion. Their Upper East Side café has a unique design, since it is part of the Church of the Heavenly Rest building and has been crafted from an old chapel. The gothic architecture is a fascinating juxtaposition to the quinoa salads, avocado mash, and other healthy, modern items on the progressive café’s menu. The spot also offers table service, both for its indoor customers and those who choose to gaze out at Central Park from the sunny seating outdoors.
In the early twentieth century, the Upper West Side was home to a rapidly expanding Catholic population, thanks to the new IRT subway. The Archbishop of New York at the time, John Cardinal Farley, established St. Gregory the Great in 1906 in order to provide for the growing Catholic community. Curiously, the building in which the congregation currently resides was meant to be a temporary church until a new one could be erected. The construction never happened, and St. Gregory the Great Church has resided in the same space now for over one hundred years.
The story of the Church of the Heavenly Rest begins in 1865 when Dr. Robert Shaw Howland led the first services on 42nd Street. In 1868, the congregation was officially named the Church of the Heavenly Rest and construction began on a new church on Fifth Avenue near Grand Central Station. By the early twentieth century, the area had grown into a bustling business district and the congregation started looking to make the move to a more residential neighborhood where they would not have to compete with as many midtown places of worship. In 1924, Andrew Carnegie’s widow sold the church a plot of land across the street from her new home (now the Cooper Hewitt Museum). This is where Heavenly Rest built its now-landmarked sanctuary.I learned from Marion Morey, a parishioner who volunteers to greet visitors to the Episcopalian church (“We’re like the Catholics, but different,” Marion tells each person who enters), that it is thanks to Mrs. Carnegie that the landmarked building looks the way it does. “She didn’t want the church to build a steeple, because it would cast a shadow on her lawn,” she said with an amused smirk. In addition to the lack of steeple, the church is unique in that it embraced the Art Deco style that dominated skyscrapers at the time it was built. Marion pointed out that the sanctuary uses both Gothic and Art Deco designs in a seamless blend of aesthetics. She is especially fond of the cross behind the altar, which appears flush with the background at the bottom, but rises up and out towards the viewer near the top. “It means a lot to me,” she said, elaborating on the themes of resurrection and rebirth that the church embraces. Marion also spoke to me about the fleur de lis designs in the chapel and the International School that is part of the church (“It’s a very good school,” she commented, approvingly). I found it interesting to learn that the church serves as a women’s shelter, one of the few in the city. Ten women are invited to sleep in the sanctuary every Monday through Wednesday, with volunteer parishioners looking after them.When I visited in the spring of 2016, Marion was excited to announce that the church was undergoing some construction, adding a kitchen, elevator, and new bathrooms in the coming months. “We are building our own congregational space,” she explained. Marion went on to say that there would soon be meeting rooms: before the construction project, the only place for church officials to meet has been the sanctuary, often in the choir stalls. Despite the changes and expansions that the church will undergo, Marion stressed that they will continue “to run like a very humble church.” It was heart-warming to speak to someone who obviously had so much love for this house of worship. She told me in a low voice, “In the middle of the night, it’s extraordinary. It’s filled with so much spirit.”