Church History

History of Our Church

 

 

As written by The Reverend Deacon Beverly Neuhaus for the celebration of St. John's 170th Anniversary on September 14th, 2013, with more recent history contributed by Mr. Kenneth A. Ellis.


               At the close of his Jubilee Sermon delivered at St. John's Church on the occasion of its 50th anniversary on December 31, 1893, the Reverend John C. Eccleston, D.D., Rector expressed his hope for the future of the church.

 

               It reflects what it was, what is has become, and what it will be for many years to come.

 

               “My brethren, if I have been true to my ideal of the proper function of the pulpit, during the 33 of the 50 years, of the life of this parish (that I have been your rector), then the results are not uncertain.

 

               Men will have learned to love this place as ‘none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven;’ weary, troubled spirits have longed for it, as thirsty desert travellers, long for still, refreshing springs. Perplexed and doubting minds, sore wearied with trying to know, have found rest and peace here, in the cheering faith, that the good and gracious Father accepts a man not for what he knows but for what he is and does.

 

               God grant it may be so. May these walls grow more and more sacred to you with revolving years. May holy vows be made here, which shall be translated in the busy world into holy deeds.

 

               May strong men find more strength here against the day of strong temptation, and gentler spirits find help and courage in the hour of their need.

 

               May the young learn to love this place, and consecrate their early affections, and pure, unsullied lives an offering to Christ. And while the sinner is rescued from his guilt, and the wretched from despair, may the little children taught to venerate and love this sacred place, for the Good Shepherd's sake, who loves them and blesses them as in days of old.

 

               Thus shall you possess, and fully ‘occupy the land that remaineth;’ and build up, and adorn in coming years, a true and successful church; a church wherein wisdom shall dwell with devotion; learning consort with piety; and reverence and love make the work complete. A church of quietness and peace, wherein shall come no more the maxims and passions of the world, delivered forever from the strife of tongues.”

 

     In the beginning.....

 

               The first formal meeting of St. John's Church was held on the 23rd of September, 1843, in the residence of William B. Townsend for the purpose of organizing the parish. Chosen as wardens were Charles McLean Simonson and William H .Aspinwall, prominent members of the community. They were joined by vestrymen William B. Townsend, William D. Cuthbertson, Levi M. Cook, James R. Boardman, M.D., Lewis Lyman, Daniel B. Allen, William Fountain and William H. White, men considered “Protestant in the rejection of all unscriptural additions to the faith; Episcopal and Catholic in her creed, government and three-fold ministry.”

 

                It was a time when the population of Staten Island was very small, and occupied by large landed proprietors. In 1843 it was a rural seafaring community of 10,000 residents living in hamlets. It was isolated from the rest of New York and facilities for worship were few and far between. The parish of St. Andrew encompassed virtually the whole Island, and its Rector, The Rev. Dr. Moore, ministered to all Episcopalians at the time. The town of Clifton has various denominational preferences, and a proposal that a “union church” be erected in which various evangelical churches would officiate alternately, was found to impracticable. Since the majority of the organizers were Episcopalian, it was determined that a pastor of their evangelical views should be called as rector.

 

                 It was a time when a beautiful poem called The Departure, was written by Henry David Thoreau when he went, in the spring of 1843, to reside as tutor in the family of Mr. William Emerson, at Staten Island, N. Y.   What is now called Bay Street was New York Avenue, and a woman named Polly Bodine, dubbed the "Witch of Staten Island", was America's most notorious female alive, accused of brutally murdering her sister-in-law, Emmeline Houseman and her niece, Ann Eliza Houseman, who was only 22 months old.

 

                  In this community, these men of large catholic sympathies, men of prominence in the community and of large affairs, were able to start St. John’s Church on its mission of mercy.

 

                 The land for the present church building was owned by Charles McLean Simonson, the first senior warden, who was of Dutch descent. He was known as a hospitable and generous man, and a trusted friend of the pastor of St. Andrew’s Church. Records show that members of his family still worshipped at the church 50 years later.

 

                 William H. Aspinwall, the junior warden, was a successful merchant, with ships in ports throughout the world. He was considered an honest and sincere Christian.

 

                 Other vestrymen were William B. Townsend, proprietor and editor of the New York Daily Advertiser and William D. Cuthbertson, a president of the St. George’s Society of New York. St. George’s Society of New York was founded in 1770 by English settlers for the purpose of offering advice and relief to fellow Englishmen in need or distress. Its mission today is to assist disadvantaged people of British and Commonwealth heritage living in the New York area. The Society provides two major forms of assistance, a Beneficiary Program helping elderly and disabled people, and a Scholarship Program at Lehman College (part of CUNY) supporting outstanding students with university tuition.

 

                  Mr. Cuthbertson was also a co-founder (with William Aspinwall and Jacob Le Roy) of the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children of Seamen. In 1937 and based on a need for the agency to remain”…up to date and keeping with the times”, the agency’s name was changed from The Society for the Relief of Destitute Children of Seamen to the Society for Seamen’s Children. In 1998, in recognition of the agency’s historical roots, the agency’s name was revised to Seamen’s Society for Children and Families. Today, Seamen’s has grown to become a full service child welfare agency meeting the needs of children and families in New York City.

 

                 Occasional services were held at the Clifton Hotel, on Cliff Street, and as attendance increased it was decided to build a sanctuary. The cornerstone of the first St. John’s Church was laid by the Rev. D. David Moore; assisted by the Rev. Kingston Goddard; the Rev. Vandervort Bruce and the Rev. Gregory T. Bedell, rector of the Church of the Ascension, New York. On March 30, 1844 the building was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Benjamin T. Onderdonk and on the following Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Moore preached the first sermon in it. Gifts offered for the first building include a large bible presented by Commodore and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt. The first child baptized in the church was Cornelius Vanderbilt and the first bride was Sophia J. Torrance, the daughter of Mrs. Commodore Vanderbilt.

 

               From 1858 to 1869, St. John's owned Woodland Cottage, its first Rectory. The building is described as wooden Gothic Revival, located on Bay Street (then New York Avenue) diagonally opposite the present church structure. The first church building occupied the northwest corner of Belair Road and the lot adjacent to Woodland Cottage,   This building still exists at 33-37 Belair Road, is landmarked, features an unusual stepped gable, tall facade windows, and an offset tower with a steep gable roof. It has a prominent center chimney, casement windows with diamond shaped panes and label moldings, and a porch extending the width of the facade. The original structure was constructed by David Abbott Hayes, a lawyer from Newark, New Jersey, who sold it in 1849 to John Mayer, from whom the church purchased it. James Thompson, a Staten Island carpenter and builder acquired the house in 1869 and it remained in the possession of his heirs until 1948. Reportedly, the connection of Mr. Thompson with St. John's also included his role as carpenter for the exterior and interior carpentry of the church building completed in 1871, particularly noting the church doors and the entry porch. Mr. Thompson was also the builder of the parish hall or Mercer Memorial Chapel.

 

              The Rev. Kingston Goddard was called to become rector, with a salary of $1,000 a year, $750 of which would be raised by pew rents, and the balance by private subscription. Dr. Goddard’s rectorship continued for three years, during which time the parish steadily increased in members and influence. He resigned in June 1847 to take charge of a church in Philadelphia.

 

              The Rev. Dr. Alexander G. Mercer, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania, became rector on June 1, 1847 and remained until September 1852, when poor health caused him to resign. He was considered a “thinker and preacher of extraordinary powers, his manner so strong, so earnest, so full of dignity; he had the unconscious perfection of a work of art. His earnestness gave force and fire to the whole.”

 

              The Rev. Richard M. Abercrombie, of Philadelphia, succeeded Dr. Mercer in January 1853 and served until February 1856. He led the parish in establishing a mission for the German population of the Island, built a chapel called St. Simon’s where a German version of the Book of Common Prayer was used, and a parochial school conducted. His devotedness to his office was valued by the church. He resigned to accept a large parish in Hartford, Connecticut on February 27, 1856.

 

              On February 27, 1856 Rev. John C. Eccleston, D.D., was elected Rector and assumed charge of the parish on the 1st of April. It was his first ministerial assignment, having served an assistant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was a time of intense materialism, suddenly changed by the Bank Panic of 1857. Banks suspended specie payments, businesses failed, railroads went bankrupt, construction halted, factories shut down. Hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off, and others went on part-time schedules or took wage cuts, just as the cold winter months were arriving. Where a general disinterest in religion had prevailed, a new focus on religion was formed, resulting in a Revival that increased church attendance. At St. John’s, constant services were held in the church during the Lenten season, and a class of nearly 100 persons was presented for confirmation.

 

               At the end of 1862 Dr. Eccleston resigned to become rector of Trinity Church, Newark, New Jersey. The Rev. Dr. Thomas K. Conrad was called to fill the vacancy on January 1, 1863 and remained until October 1866. Dr. Eccleston became ill in January 1866, and resigned from the Newark church to take charge of a small church in Western Massachusetts.

 

               In the autumn of 1867 the vestry of St. John’s requested that he return, which he did on November 1, 1867, and remained for another 33 years.

 

             Plans to build a new church were already being made, with John A. Appleton as chairman of the building committee. The effort was totally supported by the people of the church, with no assistance solicited from outside. The Sunday School children contributed the baptismal font and one of the bells. Mrs. Winslow contributed a tenor bell as a memorial to her deceased husband. Other people of the parish provided $500 for a town clock. Mrs. Marsh, Mrs. Dr. Boardman and Mrs. Satterthwaite put in large memorial windows for their deceased husbands and the architect contributed a memorial window for his son. The total cost of the building was just over $108,000.

 

               The cornerstone was laid by the Rt. Rev. Horatio Potter, November 10, 1869 and the consecrated by him on the 30th of September 1871. Since diocesan law forbade consecration of any church with debt, Mr. John Appleton took responsibility for the remaining debt of several thousand dollars, which enabled the consecration to proceed. The Rectory was also constructed at this time, with a stained glass window provided by the people of the Rector’s bible class, and Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt provided furniture for the rector’s study.

 

              The first bride that stood before the altar of the new church was Miss Helen Collins, and the first funeral was that of vestryman, Aymar Cater.

 

              A legacy of $5,000 from the estate of the Rev. Dr. Mercer, became the nucleus of a fund which eventually enabled the construction of a beautiful chapel, called after him the “Mercer Chapel.”


              The parish’s commitment to its community became even more evident when, in 1882, a member of the parish, Sarah B. MacFarland, along with several other women of the church community, founded the Staten Island Diet Kitchen. It was incorporated on June 6, 1882 for the “relief of the destitute sick of the County of Richmond, by the preparation and distribution of nourishing food, and otherwise.” It is considered to be Staten Island's first feeding program.

 

                The managers for the first year were Mrs. MacFarland, Eliza MacDonald, Margaret A. Johnston, Charlotte Meyer, Elizabeth W. Clark, Clara K. Oehme, Mary T. Ripley, and Caroline L. Peniston. These managers, plus Rev. Eccleston and Louis Henry Meyer (first President of the Staten Island Savings Bank), witnessed the instrument of incorporation. In 1885, the Staten Island Diet Kitchen acquired a red brick house at 190 Van Duzer Street and Grant Street in Tompkinsville, and in 1926 they reported serving 38 families with a volunteer board of 30 women.   The building was eventually rented, and the money used to purchase milk which was distributed through various local agencies and schools. The Bishop's Chair currently in use in St. John's is inscribed to S. MacFarland, as Founder of the Staten Island Diet Kitchen.

 

               Notable to the history of St. John's at this time is the friendship of the Rector's daughter Gertrude with Alice Austen, now recognized as one of America's most talented and prolific photographers. Miss Austen grew up in in her grandparents' home known as “Clear Comfort” at the foot of Hylan Boulevard overlooking the Narrows.   Her photos of St. John's and life in Clifton exemplify the lifestyle of the times.

 

By the time of St. John’s 50th Anniversary in 1893, Staten Island was changing drastically. The mansions of the wealthy proprietors, surrounded by large estates, were disappearing and the land being cut up into building lots. The community was no longer populated by men and women of the beliefs and means of the founders. In this changing climate, Rev. Eccleston charged the congregation with the following to “win men’s souls.”

 

  • All the details of public worship should be the best.
  • The music should be the most attractive that art and sacred culture can devise – devotional and inspiring.
  • The reading of the scriptures, and the prayers, they should be reverential and distinct.
  • It must aim to make Christ visible to men.
  • The messaged delivered from her pulpit must duly recognize the facts of our daily life.

“But the world has eyes – it can see a visible gospel. It is waiting for a church that reveals Christ. The orphan asylum, is worth ten thousand sermons; the infirmary, is worth a hundred pulpit orators. The ragged school, the dispensary, the diet kitchen, the Magdalene home, the night refuge, -- these preach the gospel, these make Christ visible, these bring men to the church.

 

                 In the response to the hope expressed by the rector in his memorial sermon, numerous members of the parish contributed the $5,000 of the mortgage upon the rectory, thus freeing the parish from all debt.

 

A new century........

 

                  In 1911 the parish was thriving. According to “The Parish Press” of September 1911, A Parish House was being built, there was a Women's Auxiliary, a Junior Auxiliary, a Men's Club, a Military Band, an Employment Society, the Girls Friendly Society, a Circulating Library and Ministering Children’s League. There had been 18 baptisms from June to September, two marriages, and 5 funerals.   It was a time of pew rentals, but “all seats are free at all night services.” The choir had a Choirmaster, Organist and Librarian, 14 sopranos, eight altos, four tenors, and six basses. The Sunday School had a Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, and a Treasurer, with 25 teachers.

 

                    There was a Children's Fair held in July that held booths for the sale of “fancy and useful articles” that netted $53.63, and others in August and September. Funds of more than $126 were designated for the new Parish House.

 

                    The Parish Fair that same year was a “Muski” which would be held in the new Parish House in December. A Muski was an oriental bazaar which would reproduce the bazaar street of Cairo constructed in the new Parish House and would open into an oriental market place with a large dining hall called after the Cairo hotel “Shepheards.” The newsletter politely notes that “Those who are not yet active in the preparation for the Muski will confer a favor on the committee and the rector by sending in their names at once.”


                 Called “The Welcoming Spire of New York Harbor” in a September 1919 article in the “New York World” the spire of St. John's has welcomed mariners, tourists, overseas troops and immigrants as they sailed in through the Narrows. In 1919, as ships brought returning soldiers from World War I, the sexton of St. John's rang a welcome on the chimes and waved a flag from the base of the steeple, which was received with cheers from the men on the ships. The Herald reporter, John Farrar, relates the experience of the tour of the church provided by the sexton, Frank Phleging, who was proud to show the room where the War Camp Community Service had a club, the dance hall, library, and canteen under the stars.   After climbing to the belfry, and returning back to the parish house, Mr. Phleging spoke of the room that once had pool tables, basketball and games. And then, he showed the service flag, with 138 stars on it, pointing out that five of them were gold. “The first man on Staten Island to go was a member of this parish..I remember him when he was just a kid, and he wasn't much more when he was killed.” He reported that the Rectory had been turned into a workshop, making bandages or planning some way to raise money. And on Sundays they were there helping in the Fox Hills Hospital.

 

Moving Towards the 21st century.....

 

                  Having experienced a Second World War, and the Korean War, St. John's Church emerged into the tranquil 50's and the turbulent 60's and 70's. Church Fairs, Bazaars and Youth Programs abound in the 50's world of “Father Knows Best”, “I Love Lucy” and “Roy Rogers and Trigger.” Television and Radio become the magnets to which people turn for family entertainment and the automobile transports the average family to new places and experiences.

 

                 The Rev. Howard O. Bingley became Rector on February 1, 1961.   A graduate of Clark University, Massachusetts, he served in the Army from 1941 to 1946. He graduated from General Theological Seminary in 1949, and subsequently served at the Chapel of the Intercession, Manhattan, and St. Andrew's Church, Brewster, New York. He was a member of the New York Diocese's Christian Education Department and served as director of the Diocesan Youth Conference. He led the parish through all the changes of the next 17 years. When asked what gifts a priest received in recognition of his work, Fr. Bingley replied with a smile, “Affection, which is enough, really.”

 

                  Mrs. Bingley was equally prominent in Episcopal Church affairs, serving as Executive Director of the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief. She had planned to work with the Episcopal Church's Commission on Human Sexuality.

 

                  The Vietnam War from 1965 to 1975 challenged the church's courage and strength to meet the demands of a conflicted society. The issues of civil rights, with the March on Washington, the Episcopal Church struggle with the approval of the ordination of women, and the development of a new Book of Common Prayer in 1979 created constant changes affecting St. John's. Women were admitted to General Convention, and their role in the parish was also changed, with women accepted as Vestry members and wardens. The parish support of St. John's and its activities continued through these turbulent times.

 

                  The Rev. Dr. Lincoln Harter, and Mrs. Alma Harter assisted St. John’s Parish in these years. Rev. Harter, initially ordained a “permanent” deacon, went on to be ordained a priest after many years of assisting St. John’s and other Staten Island parishes. Alma Harter was active in the work of the church women, both on Staten Island and in Diocesan efforts.


                  The Rev. John Michael Crothers became Rector after Fr. Bingley's retirement in 1978. He had been a Queens, NY resident, was a 40-year old native of Canada. He previously served at Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston, Queens. A graduate of General Theological Seminary, he was also with the American Church Union, an Episcopal Church publishing house.

     

                 The latter part of the 20th Century was not kind to St. John’s as many of its wealthier parishioners either died or moved away from Staten Island.  The parish found itself with a diminished capacity to maintain its mission or physical plant. The former parish hall/chapel which stood where Canterbury House now stands became totally unusable and was only a phone call away from condemnation.  The sexton’s house was in shambles as was the rector’s garage, both needing demolition.  Only the Church and the rectory remained intact, but both were in dire need of significant repairs. The parish was also in arrears on some of its financial responsibilities, and the endowment which had done well for a number of years was not nearly enough to sustain the parish for much longer.  The future looked bleak, and something of significance had to be done soon to arrest the downward spiral.  

  

                In 1995 under the leadership of Father Crothers, the congregation held a retreat to explore options to save the church and its ministry.  As a result of this meeting, the Vestry was charged to develop a plan that would use the parish’s primary asset, its land, and to identify a project that would provide an outreach component, a good facility to replace the loss of the parish hall and a financial component that would prove a surplus to ensure that the church would survive.  

  

                This was a daunting charge in a fluctuating economy, and many different programs were considered; a number were immediately dismissed, and some looked promising until the market changed during the due diligence process.

  

                Kenneth A. Ellis, the Senior Warden, received a phone call from an old friend, Jay Pelliconi.  Mr. Ellis was formerly employed by Trinity Wall Street for twenty years before retiring as Executive Vice President of Operations.   Mr. Pelliconi suggested that he contact the Reverend Peter Larum, President of the Episcopal Housing Corporation (EHC), to see if he could be of help to St. John’s.   Mr. Ellis and the members of the Vestry – David Hayes, Jr., Vivian Murray, Gladys Schweiger, Brian Orlick, Lynn Phimister and Daniel Harris – along with Father Crothers met with Father Larum and the Board of EHC.  As a result, a connection was made with a member of the Board who was a developer of affordable housing; it was this relationship that resulted in the building of the senior housing complex known as Canterbury House.  In addition, the EHC provided St. John’s with a small startup loan.   Canterbury House is comprised of 84 affordable units designated for senior citizens.  Canterbury House offers beautiful views of New York Harbor and contains program space for the residents as well as a modern meeting space for parish functions and an apartment for the resident superintendent. 

 

               The Canterbury House project provided $250,000 generated from the development fees in addition to an annual land rental fee to the church.  These funds were used for renovation of the rectory and for a number of remedial emergency repairs to the church.  The parish augmented this sum in order to perform a more complete renovation of the rectory.  The 1995 charge from the congregation was completed, and the parish was ready to confidently move into the 21st century. 

 

                  Canterbury House was dedicated on September 10, 2000, with the Rt. Reverend E. Don Taylor officiating.  

 

                  The parish began to reflect the changing makeup of the area, with new members of Liberian origin and many others from other countries. The new residents of the senior housing began to move in, and St. John's new-found ministry began.

 

The Twenty First Century .....


                  The year 2000 brought about many changes in St. John's. With the addition of Canterbury House, the congregation recognized this new ministry, and welcomed the residents into the life of the church. Coffee hours became a time of fellowship that included lunch to which the residents were invited. Special events were attended by young and old, and an Activity Center for the seniors now offers weekly programs from grocery bingo to dance and exercise.

 

                       The Rev. John Romig Johnson was instituted on January 12, 2002. He, too, was a graduate of General Theological Seminary – 1960. He played college football at Furman University, South Carolina and was scouted by the Washington Redskins. He first served at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Great Falls, South Carolina, and left to return to Union Theological Seminary and the Rusk Institute. He retired in 2008.

 

                       The Reverend Roy S. Cole was born in San Diego, California into a Navy family. In 2002, Fr. Cole made his way to New York and, after completing a Masters in Sacred Theology at the General Seminary in Chelsea, and his dissertation for a Doctor of Ministry degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary, he became the Priest-in-Charge of two parishes in Yonkers, New York. In the fall of 2008, Fr. Cole accepted the Call to serve as Rector of St. John’s, Staten Island.

 

                 In addition to a new rector, 2008 brought a significant real estate crash causing significant distortions in the financial markets and an ensuing misappropriation of funds by the developer that was threatening the viability of Canterbury House.  The Reverend Roy A. Cole was most critical to the future survival of the parish.  Father Cole assumed direct oversight of Canterbury House and Rosehill HDFC, exhibiting a clear understanding of the facility and its complex partnership structure involving Lehman Housing Tax Credit Fund, Lehman Tax Credit Advisors Inc., and Sheldrake Organization, our co-general partner.  Father Cole’s breadth of experience wedded to a quick command of the facts (including housing and partnership law) was critical when he discovered that the co-general partner was illegally appropriating a substantial portion of the project’s reserve funds.  Subsequently he successfully led Rosehill HDFC and the parish through a complicated legal action with the full support of Bishop Sisk and the Chancellor of the Diocese that resulted in the removal of the co-general partner and a financial judgment.  Father Cole completed negotiations with Lehman Housing Tax Credit Fund and Lehman Tax Credit Advisors Inc. that would transfer the 99.9% combined ownership interests held by these entities to St. John’s Church, making St. John’s the sole owner of Canterbury House.  

 

                  At the same time that Father Cole was working through the Canterbury House issues, St. John’s Church suffered significant damage during the Nor’easter of 2009 and additional damage during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.  Father Cole managed to secure funding through insurance proceeds, grants, and charitable gifts of more than $1.2 million to completely renovate the interior and a significant portion of the exterior of the church, including the complete restoration of our heavily storm-damaged steeple.  


                 In addition to the responsibilities associated with any growing, active parish, Fr. Cole has served as Adjunct Faculty at the General Seminary in the field of Pastoral Theology and is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Religion at Hunter College/ CUNY in Manhattan. His love of teaching is undergirded by an even greater love of learning.

 

                  As a Missioner of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, Fr. Cole led very successful pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 2011 and 2013.

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