Looking Back at St. John’s
Let’s start at the beginning: We are celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary of St. John the
Evangelist’s parish here in 2003, in Greenwich Village. In simple words, our 150th birthday. Which puts
our beginning back in 1853.
What was going on in 1853? Up where Bryant Park and the main New York Public Library now
stand, entrepreneurs had built a Crystal Palace exhibition hall to emulate the recent exposition of
the same name in London. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most successful stage offering of the year.
In fact, three different adaptations of that novel held the boards for months in New York’s
theaters. And, way uptown, Central Park was opened to the public.
Down here in the Village, St. John the Evangelist parish was established June 6th, 1953 as the
successor to St. Jude’s parish which was dissolved at the same time, apparently over real estate
difficulties. (A parish history from the 1950s claims that they owned their own church but not he
land on which it stood, a possibly difficult arrangement.)
At its first vestry meeting, they organized committees to run the place, a “committee on the
Lecture Room” (the space they occupied), a “committee on Vocation”, a “committee for the
purchase of property” and a “committee on music”. We can see what was important even then. In
the very first meetings, they devoted much energy to hiring an organist. The very first was Miss
Julia H. Newton who was paid $175 per annum for her services; the Rector Edwin T.R. Cook
was paid $520.
One of the very first events held for the benefit of the parish was Mrs. Emma Gillingham
Bostwick’s public “Soiree Musicale” on January 14th, 1854.
On September 28, 1854, the Provisional Bishop of New York, Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright,
died. His last Episcopal visitation in New York had been to St. John’s. In October and November
following, the Reverend Cook encouraged a number of women to form a Society of Ladies for
building a Memorial Church dedicated to the late bishop and housing the parish. They were to
attempt to raise subscriptions for ten or fifteen thousand dollars to that end.
Money did matter. The parish filed its first lawsuit against a Mr. Girvan in October of 1855 for
reimbursement of the cost of gas he used for his own purposes in the Bleeker Building where the
parish met. We won.
In February of 1856, the vestry found and purchased four contiguous lots on Troy Street for the
building of their new church. The Ladies Wainwright Society funds were used for the purpose,
along with funds turned over by the vestry; but all did not go well. The rector attended a meting
where several objections were raised:
[Lady #1] Troy Street! Troy Street! That’s so far away, it might as well be in New Jersey!
[Lady #2] What’s this St. John’s?!?!
Fortunately the business was quickly resolved. The Troy Street deal was rescinded. And at the
same time the Hammond Street Presbyterian Church became available, at first for rent and then
for sale. That church had been built at the intersection of Waverly and Hammond Street, as West
11th Street was then called in 1846. Sadly for the Presbyterians, the congregation could not
support the building and so it was sold, first to a Congregational group, then to a Dutch
Reformed congregation, then to Baptists. It was the South Baptist (not Southern Baptist) Church
when it passed to us Anglicans.
The Wainwright Ladies still objected:
[Lady #1] It’s supposed to be the WAINWRIGHT Church. We were building the Wainwright parish church!
But the rector convinced them that CHANGING the parish’s name was much too difficult. So they
appended “The Memorial church of Bishop Wainwright” to the name in the document giving the
building to the Episcopal and were satisfied. We had a home.
II - Our Second Christmas
The hardest things to know about the past are the day-to-day realities of life. We have vestry
minutes and some actual account books from the beginnings of our parish in 1853, but they give
us a rather formal and financial picture of our forbearers goings-on. But we do have an actual
newspaper account of how Christmas Eve was celebrated in December of 1857, the second
Christmas in he new church on Hammond Street. It goes like this:
“After Trinity – the oldest and wealthiest parish church in the oldest and wealthiest prish in the
city – let us look next at the Memorial Church of Bishop Wainwright – a poor Free Church, not
yet out of debt. We call special attention to the donations of the children to the Missions and the
Church debt, amounting to $400.
The coup d’oeil of the church, as we entered it a little before 7 o’clock on Christmas evening,
was like a peep into fairyland. The first thing that caught the eye was a beautiful arch of
evergreens thrown across the middle alley, and in its concave hung a row of variegated lamps.
Directly over it, suspended from the ceiling, were garlands leading to the four corners of the
building, and to the intermediate points on the walls, and as, looking upwards from the brilliant
arch, the eye rested on one of them, the vision was borne onward to the chancel, at the highest
point of which hung the star of Bethlehem, brightly shining ... Various other parts of the church
displayed appropriate emblems and texts in evergreens. But the crowning glory of all was the
Christmas tree. It stood on the chancel steps and towered up fair and tall above the pulpit, and
among the branches hung lanterns, exquisitely wrought with various scriptural devices, similar to
those on the arch. But something better still was in store. Soon the door leading to the Sunday
School was opened, and with their banner at their head, bearing its motto of ‘Little children love
one another,’ the children entered and marched down one aisle and up the others, to their
appointed stations, each class preceded by its teachers and bearing its appropriate emblem. After
passing into the pews all remained standing ‘til the rector entered, when every knee was bowed
for a few moments in silent prayer, and then rising, with one voice they sang their Christmas
‘Oh come children, come, to the Saviour to-day.’
After a short exhortation, the Magnificat was chanted, and a portion of the evening service was
read; and then the sweet voices of the children told the story of Christmas: --
‘Little children, can you tell,
Do you know the story well,
Every girl and every boy,
Why the angels sing of joy
On the Christmas morning.’
After prayers and the singing of the carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, they were addressed by
the rector, who explained to them what the Christmas festival meant, and what were the duties
and privileges of the season, after which they sang the glorious Christmas song: --
Carol brothers, carol,
A collection was then made from the congregation, after which each class, as it was called by
name, sent up its emblem, accompanied by an appropriate text of Scripture, and a verse, original
or selected, stating also the amount it had contributed during the year for Missionary purposes,
and towards paying off the debt of the church. The offerings amounted to $400 ... After singing
one or two more hymns, the benediction was pronounced, and the happy Christmas festival was
In closing, one grateful incident deserves mention. The congregation and children through their
rector, publicly thanked the very kind lady under whose voluntary supervision the church was so
tastefully dressed, and by whose sole and unremitting exertions for months, the beautiful lanterns
Unfortunately, the article omits that very kind lady’s name...
III - The 50th Anniversary
St. John’s celebrated its 50th anniversary in June of 1903 with grand commemorative services.
Pictures remain showing the church decorated in bunting and streamers, with a catafalque erected
by the altar in memory of Bishop Wainwright – his portrait is prominently displayed at the head
of this coffin-like construction. It was obviously a grand event, even if it does look like a cross
between the 4th of July and a funeral.
The celebration was the source of many positive changes for the parish, the most noteworthy step
being the following. (Let’s hear it in their own words, fro the vestry minutes of April 6, 1903):
“... Mr. Faure offered the following resolution(s).
The celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the life of this church shows
that its past and present members have ben faithful for one-half century and,
The needs of the neighborhood and the church call for a continuance of the
same work for the future and
The changing character of much of the population in the vicinity renders
entire self-support somewhat difficult, therefore be it
That the offering at all of the approaching Jubilee services and meetings be
solemnly set apart and consecrated as the beginnings of an ‘Endowment Fund’
which fund is to be used to sustain and perpetuate this free church of St. John the
Evangelist, memorial of Bishop Wainwright.
That all present and future members of this parish be earnestly
requested to aid the present Rector, Wardens, and Vestrymen in this, their
effort to provide for the future of their beloved Church.’”
In this way, St. John’s began to provide for a long future.
In this same year, electricity was installed in the church and parish house and telephone service
also began. Thus we are celebrating not only the sesquicentennial of St. John’s as a parish, but
also the centennial of its entry into the modern age!
IV - the Garden and Growth
During the 19th century the parish grew into a stable and forceful neighborhood parish, despite
the population transitions of the area. As the community changed, many churches moved uptown
or closed their doors, and many of the former communicants of the Church of the Annunciation
and St. Ann’s Church were added to the parish. In 1899 the Parish of St. George the Martyr was
merged with St. John’s. the Chapel of the Comforter joined us in 1950.
The seventh rector of St. John’s, The Reverend Doctor John Armstrong Wade (1910-1933),
carried on the endowment fund established by The Reverend Arthur B. Howard when he was
rector. The Reverend Doctor Wade realized that the stability of the parish in an ever-changing
neighborhood depended largely upon such resources, particularly in the difficult periods of
Believing property to be a sound investment, and hoping to keep stable the area adjoining the
Church property, the vestry began with the acquisition of 224 West 11th Street, to purchase what came to be St. John’s Colony. In 1902 the former rectory at 259 West 11th Street was sold and the purchase of the Perry Street properties and the construction of the garden was begun.
The garden and the Colony were newsworthy. We can hear the approval of the public in this
congratulatory article from 1927.
“On Waverly Place and West 11th Street, in New York City, there stands a church
in proud dignity. And well may it be proud, this church of St. John the Evangelist,
tucked away, just off one of New York’s busiest avenues, for under its eyes it has
seen ugliness give place to beauty, squalor to flowers and birds, song and sunshine.
It was not many years ago that this church was in danger of being swamped by
teeming tenements, rundown apartment houses, and indifferent neighbors. Its
parish house windows looked out upon dirty backyards, clothes lines, and ash
cans. But by bit, its very life was being choked. The Rev. John A. Wade, rector of
the church, realized this and sought a way to remedy it. He conceived the idea of
buying some of the surrounding property, of renovating the houses, of cleaning up
the back yards, and he dreamed of gardens.
Thus, St. John’s Colony began. One by one the houses were acquired. One by one
under Mr. Wade’s guidance they were changed from common, drab tenements
into unusual apartments of distinction and charm. Fences and rubbish were
cleared away and the little back yards were thrown into one – a large, open space
where sunshine and space could have sway. Paths were laid out, trees and shrubs
planted, and today this garden of St. John’s is unique in the garden history of New
As one walks along its winding paths with fountains playing, and sunshine
coming through the trees, casting lacy patterns on the wall, one can hardly believe
that this is new York, for fan-tailed pigeons strut about, and baby ducks go aswimming
in the gold fish pool. There is an aviary of brilliant pheasants. Squirrels
run up and down the trees. There are flowers gay, and seats here and there, tucked
in among the shrubbery, where one can rest awhile and enjoy the wonderful peace
and quiet which is so much a part of this garden.”
Well, times, the garden, and reportorial style are much changed. Eventually it was necessary to
mortgage the church building and the parish house to complete the plan.
Then the Depression struck with devastating force. With another population shift, the parish
found itself in dire financial straits. Dr. Wade died in 1933 and was succeeded by the Reverend
Walter P. Doty. In 1942 he was succeeded by the Reverend Charles Howard Graf. To Father Graf
fell the unenviable task of saving the properties and the dwindling parish in a community which
was being rapidly changed by the Second World War. After considerable struggle, campaigns,
and much toil by the parish, the mortgage on the church and parish house was burned by Bishop
Donegan at a great festival service of Thanksgiving on Sunday, December 30, 1956.
V - The Fire and Building a Future
On March 6, 1971, fire broke out in the church in the early morning. The daily life of the church
seldom makes the papers, but this sort of even does. Here’s how they reported it:
“The cause of the fire is still listed as ‘suspicious’ according to Fire Department officials. There
was a reported prowler near the church, and there were reports of gas leaks from manholes in the
The fire was discovered at 1:15 a.m. by the church’s night custodian, Blair Schench, less than an
hour after he had reported to police that an intruder had apparently broken in my smashing a door
of the parish house.
The blaze raged out of control for two and a half hours before it was extinguished through efforts
of 120 firemen and 22 pieces of equipment. Although there were no injuries, the church’s roof,
interior, and west wall were destroyed. The facade of the church now stands blackened and
In true Greenwich Village brotherhood, the Catholic chapel of St. Vincent’s Hospital was opened
for the use of parishioners or burned-out St. John’s in the Village Episcopal Church last Sunday.
The 11 a.m. Choral Eucharist and sermon was held at the chapel through the invitation of
hospital director Sister Margaret Sweeney.
Rev. Dr. Charles Howard Graf, rector of St. John’s for the last 28 years, first held an 8 a.m.
service at the church rectory at 224 W. 11th Street and then brought the entire choir and about 60
congregants to the chapel. Dr. Graf used the vestments, chalice and bread and wine of the
Catholic Chapel, and the nuns of the hospital staff participated in the services. The congregation
will return this Sunday.
In her sermon, Rev. Graf pledged to reopen the landmark pre-Civil War Church at Waverly Place
and 11th Street despite the severe damage caused by a three-alarm fire over the weekend. The loss
was estimated at $300,000.
He told his parishioners of the mythological bird the phoenix, which was consumed by fire only
to rise more beautiful than ever from its ashes. He spoke of the sorrow of Ash Wednesday and
the resurrection of Easter Sunday, and said that although the church is now in ashes, a more
beautiful one will rise in its place.”
Later, services were held in the upstairs of the parish hall. But soon plans were made to rebuild.
A ground-breaking ceremony was held on June 10, 1973. Congresswoman Bella Abzug dug the
first shovel of earth. Representatives of the Brotherhood Synagogue also participated. In 1974 the
cornerstone of the new church was laid on April 21. The stone contained a Bible, a Book of
Common Prayer, a fire-scorched crucifix from the old church, stones from holy places of Patmos
and Ephesus donated by the Brotherhood Synagogue, and a list of donors. Suffragan Bishop J.
Stuart Wetmore officiated. Edgar Tafel was the architect. The new facilities were opened for use
in late 1974. After thirty-three years as Rector, Father Graf retired in 1975, the reconstruction
process largely completed. The tenth Rector, the Reverend John Dyson Cannon was instituted on
All Saints Day in 1975, He as succeeded by our present Rector, Father Prator, in 1988. The
present church was formally dedicated in October of 1978, making this also, in a way, a twentyfifth
anniversary of this church.
The church has risen, as was said at the time, like a phoenix from its own ashes.
At the time of the dedication, the vestry and congregation put together a sort of mission
statement. Though it was written by different people at a different time, it still says much about
the life of this parish, in particular, why we choose to celebrate this anniversary with song and
entertainment. Listen to what they called:
THE WAINWRIGHT STATEMENT
AFTER A YEAR OF PRAYER AND STUDY BY THE PEOPLE OF ST. JOHN’S . THE
RECTOR, WARDENS AND VESTRY MET IN RETREAT AT WAINWRIGHT HOUSE IN
RYE, NEW YORK, ON THE WEEKEND OF OCTOBER 23-24, 1976 AND DRAFTED THE
FOLLOWING STATEMENT OF MISSION TO GUIDE THE DEVELOPMENT OF ST.
JOHN’S IN THE VILLAGE:
We believe that our location at the center of historic Greenwich Village challenges us uniquely
to explore new models of parish life. Responsive to the social and economic realities of a
changing society, the cultural, racial and ethnic pluralism surrounding us confronts the people
of St. John’s with an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate the viability of Christian faith as
the basis for human community. And the ethos of ethical tolerance, aesthetic sensitivity,
intellectual inquiry, social concern, and creativity that prevails here prompts us to search
critically our own heritage and traditions for the spiritual sources and theological foundations of
secular humanism. In this spirit, we affirm our Christian Commitment, understanding that the
rich traditions we hold in trust will yield their treasure only to the degree that they are lived in
the lives of those who profess faith. Therefore, while we celebrate the gift of life in Word and
Sacrament, confessing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are resolved:
- to equip all our members for ministry, preparing them for intelligent leadership and
productive service in the community and in their several vocations;
- to strive in our common life to represent the diversity of the human family and of the
world-wide Christian fellowship, cultivating caring relationships among young and old,
rich and poor, single and married;
- to celebrate with our neighbors positive moments in the cycle of life – birth, healing, reconciliation, creative achievement and acts of courage – even as we attend with concern and compassion the crises of suffering, estrangement, disappointment, disease and death.
- to express in word and deed our solidarity with suffering humanity, especially victims of
political oppression and social injustice, seeking actively to extend to all persons the
human rights and opportunities we value and enjoy;
- to encourage the exploration of varieties of religious experience, liturgical expression,
theological inquiry and ethical perspective – even as we affirm our Apostolic faith, our
Anglican heritage, and our continuity with the historic Church;
- to facilitate a continuing dialogue between the Christian faith and the artistic
professions, acknowledging in this encounter that we share in common the enterprise of
interpreting life, of advancing the quest for truth, and of reaching a fresh vision of