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.
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.
The West Side Institutional Synagogue, with its towering stone walls and ornamental turrets, is a building of religious importance, though the worshiping that takes place inside may not be clear from the outside. This is because the building was originally erected as a Methodist church in 1889, but then became the home to the synagogue in 1937. Chet Lipson, a member of the congregation, and the temple’s Rabbi, Daniel Sherman, offered to give us a tour of the magnificent structure. The annex, which was added to the main synagogue in 1958, as the stone plaque outside indicates, houses both a preschool and a senior center. Our two guides led us past small children and strollers into the room where the morning services take place. The space is primarily used by Tifereth Yisrael, the Yemenite group that rents the room from West Side Institutional. We then entered the main sanctuary, which, given that WSIS is orthodox, is split up into a men’s and a women’s section. Rabbi Sherman elaborated, however, that the gender separation is only enforced during prayer and that co-ed seating is allowed during lectures and speeches. I was amazed at the size of the room, which the men boasted seats some 600 people and is considered to be the second largest sanctuary on the West Side. On a separate occasion, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rabbi Aaron Reichel, a practicing attorney, whom the other two men referred to as the synagogue’s historian. He explained that the congregation was formed in 1917 and began holding events in theaters in Harlem. In the early twentieth century, Harlem had the third largest concentration of Jews in the world, after Warsaw, Poland and the Lower East Side. During its heyday, the Institutional Synagogue’s Hebrew School contained a thousand students and over three thousand people passed through the doors of the synagogue each day. When the Jewish population started shifting away from Harlem, the synagogue ultimately moved downtown, landing in its current location. The congregation changed the stained glass windows of the old church, covered the murals, and removed the organ, turning the structure into a new kind of religious home. In the 1960s, however, there was a fire that destroyed the interior. They managed to save the torahs, but the sanctuary had to be rebuilt. While sharing photos of the reconstruction with me, Aaron spoke of the highly regarded Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, who founded the synagogue and was an incredibly influential figure in Jewish-American history. Aaron's passion for this great man, which inspired him to write The Maverick Rabbi, is especially understandable, considering Rabbi Goldstein was Aaron’s grandfather. Aaron gave me the shortlist of the Rabbi’s accomplishments, including making kosher food available on a national scale, becoming president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and being one of the first American-born orthodox rabbis. Rabbi Goldstein’s goal for the synagogue was to make it both 100% orthodox and 100% American, with an equal emphasis on Judaism and patriotism. I was particularly touched when Aaron mentioned that the synagogue hosted monumental Thanksgiving parties and that many of its congregants joined the army to fight in both World Wars, with Rabbi Goldstein sending them rousing letters throughout their time in service. Aaron’s interest in the synagogue is both personal and academic. He has done an extraordinary amount of research on the building and its influential members, but he also has been an active member of the synagogue for a large portion of his life... it was his father who married Rabbi Goldstein’s daughter and took over in 1960. Aaron would sometimes unofficially fill in for his father when he was away, as he was the one who had his finger on the pulse of the temple. He noticed that after the fire, the synagogue took a while to return to its former glory. He thanks Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, however, for reinvigorating WSIS in the 2000s. He credits the rabbi with “building up the synagogue again. ” He also believes the synagogue is fortunate to have the dynamic Rabbi Sherman as its spiritual leader today, "to lead it into a future that will hopefully not just match but exceed the synagogue’s glorious past. "
There are very few items that the husband and wife team, Carlisle and Daphne, have not monogrammed at some point in their shop. Filled to the brim with hats, robes, sweaters, lunch boxes, and even stuffed animals and piggy banks, Monogram Cottage has a plethora of clothing and other gifts that are begging to have initials or names put on them. The pair, originally from Jamaica, can add lettering to a variety of materials, including plastic. Their creative juices appear to always be flowing, especially when they monogrammed hospital slippers to bring to patients. Though the Cottage functions mainly as a gift shop, Carlisle was quick to tell me that he and his wife are always happy to monogram pieces that people bring to him. In addition, they create custom designs and fonts for their customers. Going down to the basement with Carlisle, where most of the stock is kept, I was surprised to learn how high-tech the monogramming art is: Carlisle creates a design using a specific computer program that converts the lettering into a stitching pattern. That pattern is then sent upstairs to Daphne’s computer next to her sewing machine, where she sews the design onto the chosen item. Apparently, it was Daphne who piqued his interested in monogramming – she was trained to do this through her former job, ultimately allowing the couple to enthusiastically open up Monogram Cottage outside of Manhattan, in Dobbs Ferry, NY. From the moment they opened their store in 2004, the pair had many New York City clients, ultimately causing them to decide to open another shop in Manhattan. Their first one, in 2013, was on 78th Street, but two years later they were forced to move (the building was being demolished), thus landing them on 76th. Today, they are content to focus their energy solely on the Upper East Side, having given up their Dobbs Ferry location. In the basement, in addition to shelves full of labeled gift items and Carlisle’s massive computer, there is a small cot. Carlisle told me that the bed is a very important part of the business. Sometimes, Daphne has so much work to complete that she is at her sewing machine long into the night and has to have a place to lie down for a little bit. Sure enough, during my visit, Daphne was sewing the entire time. The couple works hard to earn the second half of their store’s name: “Best Personalized Gifts. ”
Though I spent a year and a half living in London in my younger years, I did not become nearly as attached to English cuisine as Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, did when she lived there. I realized this when her eyes lit up as Arjuna, the executive chef of Jones Wood Foundry, brought out plates of English pies and fish and chips for us to sample. With a huge smile, she dug into the mushy peas, made with fresh peas instead of the traditional canned, and the flaky battered cod. She and Sideways photographer Tom then tackled the meat pie of the day, made in a rosemary crust. I tried the accompanying mashed potatoes, which were impossibly soft and fluffy – I later learned that the kitchen goes through twenty pounds of potatoes and four pounds of butter to make them. We were in taste-heaven. We dined outside in the charming backyard garden as we spoke to Arjuna who told us about his Indian heritage and his time traveling through Europe. He began by saying that food is deeply tied to love and happiness in Indian culture. “If the mother’s in a bad mood, Indian families eat nothing.... So the moral of that is: make your mom happy. ” Though Arjuna is a dual citizen, British and American, he has always chosen to stay in the States. He pointed out, “All the kinds of cuisine you could ask for are right here in New York. ” He explained that though he had spent a little time in Cornwall in St. Ives, he had not cooked very much traditional English food until joining the Jones Wood team. He learned a lot from Jason Hicks, the owner and former executive chef, who designed the menu and has since taken on more of a consulting role. Jason wanted Jones Wood to be a “food-driven pub, ” where people can come in with no expectations and then be wowed. As Arjuna stated, “There’s something for everyone” on the menu, pointing out that they had changed the recipe of the French fries to use canola oil instead of beef fat, so that they would be vegetarian-friendly. Moreover, they are triple cooked and slow fried so that they are extra crispy. It is not just the food at Jones Wood Foundry that is authentically British – the interior of the restaurant, designed by Yves Jadot, is filled with touches of English culture. There are pint mugs, hunting horns, photos of the English military and Winston Churchill, cricket bats, British bus stop signs, and the obligatory “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. I expected Arjuna to tell me that the restaurant is home to numerous ex-pats yearning for well-made English food, but instead he said that there are actually a lot of locals who come four to five times a week. “They give me a big hug, ” he said with a smile. The name, despite being Anglican, is possibly the most American thing about the pub. In the nineteenth Century and earlier, the pub's current neighborhood was a forest known as “Jones’s Wood. ” It almost became the main parkland for Manhattanites, but lost the bid to Central Park. Shortly afterwards, the building that now houses the restaurant was constructed and occupied by a foundry that produced railings, weather vanes, manhole covers, and many other metal works. When Jason Hicks opened his restaurant in 2009, he chose to name it after the original business that was housed in the space. After we told him how fun we find it to explore the kitchens of the restaurants that we visit, Arjuna invited us downstairs to watch him make Sticky Toffee Pudding, a traditional English dessert composed of fluffy cake, often with currants, with molten toffee sauce poured on top. Though he appeared to be at ease with us while sitting in the courtyard, it was when he entered these quarters that we noticed he came into his own, like a fish in water. It makes sense: a large part of Arjuna’s life is connected to the culinary world. He even met his wife, now a successful playwright, in a restaurant. At Arjuna's urging, we ascended the steps back to the garden, where he served us his masterpiece. The dessert, smelling of rich molasses with a scoop of ice cream on the side, was positively scrumptious. Beautiful weather, a lovely setting and a terrific, dedicated chef made for a perfect afternoon.