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.
The Synod of Bishops Russian Church is the base for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) in New York City. ROCOR, which was formed in response to the policies of the Bolsheviks in the early twentieth century, was a separate religious entity from the Russian Orthodox Church for ninety years. In 2007, however, the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate was signed, making ROCOR a semi-autonomous part of the Russian Orthodox Church. The administrative building on 93rd Street contains two churches within its structure: The Cathedral of the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign and St. Sergius Church. The building was presented to ROCOR in the mid-twentieth century by Serge Semenenko, a Russian banker. The mansion was built by the architect William A. Delano in the Georgian-Federal style in 1918.
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.
The Church of Saint Thomas More has only been known by that name since 1950. However, the church that it resides in is much older. The religious structure on 89th Street was built in 1870 using sandstone from Nova Scotia. It was inhabited by the Episcopalians and a Dutch Reformed congregation before it became a Roman Catholic church and was rededicated to Saint Thomas More. In the summer of 2015, the parish merged with Our Lady of Good Counsel on 90th Street.
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. ”
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.
Many New Yorkers recognize Gracie Mansion as the mayor’s residence, but few know that the first floor functions as a museum. Archibald Gracie, a prosperous merchant of Scottish ancestry, had the mansion built in 1799 as a retreat from the city, which at the time did not extend above Canal Street. Paul Gunther, the director of the mansion, explained, “This was their summer home, their Hamptons. ” The house stands on a spot that was used as a strategic location during the American Revolutionary War due to its position overlooking the East River. Gracie, a staunch federalist, was friends with Alexander Hamilton, who called a meeting at Gracie Mansion that culminated in the creation of what would become the New York Post. The house remained in private hands for almost a entury until it was seized by the city in 1896 for tax evasion. The mansion then underwent several metamorphoses, serving as public restrooms, a concession stand, and the first location for the Museum of the City of New York. In 1942, urban planner Robert Moses convinced the city to use the mansion as a residence for the mayor, and Fiorello La Guardia became the first to live there during the Second World War. Gracie Mansion’s personal savior was former Mayor Ed Koch, who established the Gracie Mansion Conservancy in the 1980s. By that point, the house had become slightly dilapidated and, over time, much of its original components had disappeared. Koch went about restoring his home to how it might have looked during its federal beginnings. Paul explained that Koch “had the Jackie Kennedy motive, ” because in the same way that she made the White House “correct” by reconstructing it to replicate its appearance during its glory days, Koch revived the residence to become what La Guardia once called “the Little White House. ”The developments at the mansion in more recent years are credited to Chirlane McCray, an activist, writer, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife. It was her idea to focus on the year that the mansion was built. She hoped to draw attention to the diversity that existed in the early 1800s by displaying portraits of notable Black figures such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Haitian slave-turned-philanthropist Pierre Toussaint. Her work, in Paul’s words, represents “a perfect balance of respect and change” — an admirable pursuit for New York’s historic sites.
B’nai Jeshurun is the second oldest congregation in New York City, after Shearith Israel. I spoke to the current rabbi, Jose Rolando “Roly” Matalon, who shared his knowledge of the origin of synagogues in Manhattan. In 1654, Shearith Israel (also known as the Spanish Portuguese synagogue) was formed by a contingency of European Jews, many from Amsterdam, who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal. As more immigrants began arriving to Manhattan’s shores, a large group of Ashkenazi Jews - who were worshipping at the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue - decided to create their own synagogue. They formed B’nai Jeshurun and began meeting on Pearl Street on the Lower East Side in 1825. Over the years, the congregation steadily moved north until they settled in their current location in 1918. Throughout the twentieth century, B’nai Jeshurun became known for its devotion to social justice and activism. A long line of famous names spoke at the synagogue, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. The synagogue’s political activism, however, sprung into high gear around the turn of this century. Rabbi Roly spoke of Rabbi Marshall Meyer, his teacher and the orchestrator of a substantial turning point in the synagogue’s history. Meyer was an American rabbi who was a “defender of human rights in Argentina” for twenty-five years while he resided there. By the 1970s, B’nai Jeshurun was in a state of bankruptcy. The congregation reached out to Meyer to lead their revival in 1985. Rabbi Roly followed his teacher to New York shortly afterwards. As he describes it, under the tutelage of Meyer, the synagogue began to “address social issues very aggressively. ” They opened a center for the homeless and a food kitchen. B’nai Jeshurun was also one of the first synagogues to feature music during services. In Rabbi Roly’s words, “the synagogue was doing things that resonated with people, ” and so there was a large increase in membership in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the 1990s also brought a setback: in 1991, the ceiling of the sanctuary collapsed. B’nai Jeshurun was already in talks with the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew about how they could work on social justice programs together. The church offered their facilities to the congregation while the ceiling was rebuilt. “They were incredibly generous and kind, ” Rabbi Roly told me. The church and the synagogue still have a close friendship. In 2010, the synagogue requisitioned the back of the sanctuary’s building, which had been sold to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in 1984. The building has been used to accommodate the congregation of over 1600 families. Rabbi Roly is proud to lead “a community that is devoted and engaged. ” He describes the congregants as “people who step forward and embrace their spiritual journey readily. ” Throughout the synagogue's history, its occupants have “always been ready for the next challenge. ” And to those who are not yet part of the synagogue’s family, he says, “We are always open and ready to welcome and embrace people who want to join our journey and explore community with us. ”