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.
I never miss the opportunity to gaze upward when entering a space in the hopes of discovering a chandelier (Check out our Sideways Story on the stunning chandeliers of the Side Streets). Peeking inside Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on a Sunday afternoon, it was the dazzling, yet unlit, fixture that captured my attention first. I could still decipher its glistening in the dim shafts of light filtering through the stunning figurative stained glass "Transfiguration of Christ" by L.C. Tiffany (containing over 17,561 individual pieces of glass). When I returned to the church with members of our team and Chrissi Nicolas, the office manager, turned on a few of the lights, we were able to see the spectral beams produced by the Czechoslovakian crystal. The entire sanctuary appeared to work in tandem, with the stained glass projecting light on the chandelier, which in turn reflected it onto the artwork surrounding the altar.For those who attend and work at Annunciation, it is considered a miraculous place. Chrissi told us that it was built in 1894 as the Fourth Presbyterian Church. The Greek Orthodox Church bought the location in 1953, after having met in various locations since its founding as the “Evangelismos” (“The Good News”) church in the late nineteenth century. At the beginning, the entire space was lit with a combination of electricity and gas lighting. They used an ingenious series of vents that allowed the gas to escape while turning on every light in the room with a single flint switch. “For its time, this building had amazing engineering,” Chrissi said. We ascended to the loft, where we received a view of the magnificent pipe organ. Annunciation's organ is one of the few tonally unaltered organs designed by E.M. Skinner that remain in existence today.We learned a lot about the traditions and practices of the Greek Orthodox Church through Chrissi. For example, one always knows the feast day is celebrated by the church by looking to the left of the Royal Doors of the altar to see what icon appears there. Chrissi also provided us with an interpretation of the surrounding religious art imagery. For example, in the painting of the Annunciation, the angel has his feet apart to show that he is running towards the Virgin Mary. In 1957, the congregation installed an intricate iconastasis screen of linden and lime tree wood designed and executed in Greece by noted Byzantine-style woodcarver Theophanis Nomikos, with inset icons hand-painted by New York iconographer Konstantinos Youssis of the Bronx.There are many coincidences contained within the church’s history. For example, the Greek Orthodox congregation that would become Annunciation was founded in 1892, the same year the church at 91st Street was starting to be built. Also, the congregation moved into the building on March 25th, the day of the Annunciation of Christ, hence the name. Possibly the most mysterious fact about the church, however, is that one of the priests is said to have been visited by St. Xenia, a little-known saint. After his vision, the priest was hesitant to tell anyone, since it was the twentieth century, and he was afraid that no one would believe him. But he did some research, and discovered that St. Xenia did, in fact, exist. In his vision, she asked him to paint her icon. He did, and today the icon he painted holds a special position in the sanctuary and in the history of the parish
When I sat down in the minister's office at West Park Presbyterian Church, the first thing I asked was his name. He responded, "I am going to give you the whole thing, and you decide how much you would like to include." It is a name to be proud of - Reverend Doctor Robert Brashear. Though originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Robert has been at the church since 1995. He first came to New York for an internship from 1982-83, and enjoyed his time in the city so much that he leapt at the opportunity to return when it was presented to him years later.The church has a fascinating history. It was originally formed under the name "North Presbyterian Church" on Bleecker Street in 1829 in response to the growing population of people moving north to escape the Yellow Fever. The congregation soon split and one group became the West Presbyterian Church, moving to a building on Carmine Street. In the meantime, the Park Presbyterian Church was formed on 84th Street thanks to the efforts of A. Phelps Atterbury in 1887. In 1890, Park Presbyterian moved into the red sandstone structure on 86th Street and the two congregations, West and Park, merged in 1911. The church received landmark status in 2000.West Park Presbyterian has always been at the forefront of a lot of political and social issues. In 1978, the church was one of the first to jump into the LGBT movement - the Reverend believes that the shift towards the religious embrace of homosexuality actually started in this church. He explained that the church was the first to perform gay marriages and "acknowledge them as just that." In terms of other social movements, the Reverend also declared that Senior Housing had its birth on 86th Street. Additionally, during Occupy Wall Street when the people were pushed out of Zuccotti Park, activists were invited to take up housing in the church. Some remained for close to a year.Robert is proud that although the church's membership only consists of a few dozen families, they are continuously written up and receive excellent reviews for the cultural events that they hold. According to the Reverend, the tightly knit community at West Park Presbyterian will always be on the "cutting edge" - where things happen.
Like many uptown churches, Central Baptist Church had its origins downtown. It was founded in 1842 on Laight Street and later moved to the Times Square area before finding its current home in 1916. Sharrata Hunt, the office manager, showed me around the main sanctuary, pointing out the stained glass windows that depict the life of Christ and the large organ that, though it has not worked in thirty years, is a grand addition to the space. Today, there are over 150 active members. In addition to the English masses, there is a Spanish mass every Sunday and Haitian services on Sunday evenings. Sharrata showed me to the chapel, which is ornamented at the front by the same style of stained glass as the sanctuary.Music is very important to Central Baptist Church. Arrayed around the altar are a piano, bass guitar, and drum set, which are used at every service. Sharrata also let me know that there are some extraordinary musicians in the congregation and that David Wallace, the music director, is a trained opera singer. One of the church’s parishioners in the early 1900s was Robert Lowry, a respected hymn-writer who is best known for “Shall We Gather at the River,” which is still in the hymnals.On the lower level, there is a gym that was started by Pastor Bruschweiler, who was the head of Central Baptist church until the mid-1990s. I could hear children playing down there as I stood on the ground floor. The basketball court is a wonderful resource for neighborhood children and has helped expand the church community. Sharrata informed me that one Elder of the church became a Christian because he came to Central Baptist Church for basketball so often. He even married a girl who was a cheerleader for the basketball team. On the top floor of the church, there is another gym, which is used as a dance studio. “The church is a good resource for local schools,” Sharrata said.
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.
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.
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.”