by Brett Leveridge
New York City is home to some of the most historic churches in the United States. Here are houses of worship located below 14th Street in Manhattan that you may wish to visit when you travel to the Big Apple.
The current Trinity Church is the third edifice for a congregation that received its original charter from King William III in 1697; annual rent at the time was 60 bushels of wheat. The first church was one of hundreds of buildings lost in the Great New York City Fire of 1776. A second structure was consecrated in 1790; George Washington often worshipped there, and Alexander Hamilton was among the church's notable parishioners.
That second church suffered snow damage during the winter of 1838–39 and was razed. Construction on the current building began in 1839 and was completed in 1846. Trinity was, until 1869, the tallest building in the United States, but positioned as it is in the heart of NYC's Financial District, it is now surrounded by towers of much greater height, if not import. Buried in Trinity's small cemetery are Alexander Hamilton, his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, and their eldest son, Philip, as well as Franklin Wharton, third Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, and engineer and inventor Robert Fulton, among others.
John Street United Methodist Church is home to the oldest Methodist congregation in the United States. Two Irish immigrants, Philip Embury and his cousin, Barbara Heck, founded the congregation in 1766, meeting originally in Embury's home and later renting out nearby facilities as attendance grew. On October 30, 1768, the Wesley Chapel, named for Methodism's founder, John Wesley, was dedicated, with 400 congregants in attendance. That chapel was replaced by a new building in 1817, which was, in turn, replaced by the current structure in 1841.
The church hosts a small museum, which features a number of artifacts, among them a clock given to the church by John Wesley, the original chapel's pulpit, which was built by Embury, and Embury's own Bible, which he signed.
When it was built in 1766, St. Paul's Chapel, the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan, was the tallest structure in New York City. The Episcopal chapel was built some distance north of its "mother church," Trinity Church, for the convenience of parishioners who lived outside the city, which had yet to spread northward from the southern tip of the island of Manhattan.
St. Paul's is especially notable for the fact that George Washington worshipped there on the day he was inaugurated as the first President of the United States; Washington continued to attend services there during the two years that New York City served as the nation's capital. St. Paul's also holds a special place in the heart of Americans for the role it played in the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11. Positioned very near where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood, St. Paul's for months served as a refuge for first-responders and recovery workers.
St. Peter’s Church, in Manhattan's Financial District, is the oldest Roman Catholic parish in New York State. The current building, completed in 1840, replaced an earlier structure that was built 55 years prior.
Donations to found the parish included a gift of 1,000 silver pieces from King Charles III of Spain, and the original intent was to build the church on Broad Street, then in the heart of Manhattan, but anti-Catholic sentiments of the time convinced the church's planners to switch to the corner of Barclay and Church Streets, which was at that time on the outskirts of the city. It was at St. Peter's that Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born U.S. citizen to be canonized by the Catholic church, converted from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism.
The Basilica of Saint Patrick's Old Cathedral, or Old St. Patrick's, was completed in 1815 and served as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York until the current Saint Patrick's Cathedral, on Fifth Avenue at 50th street, opened in 1879. Old St. Patrick's was the second Catholic church built in NYC, erected on the grounds of the cemetery associated with the first, St. Peter's on Barclay Street.
There are catacombs undernearh the Basilica which include 35 family crypts and five clerical vaults, with new areas for internment have recently been made available. Candlelit walking tours of the catacombs can be arranged. Today, in order to minister to the neighborhood's diverse residents, Mass at the Basilica is conducted in English, Spanish and Chinese.
The history of St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery extends nearly as far back as New York City itself. In 1651, Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch director-general of the colony of New Amsterdam (later New York), built a private chapel on the land where St. Mark's sits, making it the oldest site of continuous religious practice in New York City. Stuyvesant died in 1672 and his great-grandson sold the property to the Episcopal Church for $1 in 1793. The current edifice, the second-oldest church building in Manhattan, was completed and consecrated in 1799.
The church still functions as an active place of worship, but it has also supported an active artistic community since the 19th century. Poet Kahlil Gibran was a member of the St. Mark's Arts Committee, and dancers Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham performed in the church (in 1922 and 1930, respectively). The St. Mark's Sunday Symposium, a long-running series of lectures, featured such prominent artists, performers and thinkers as poet William Carlos Williams, Edward Steichen, Houdini, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ruth St. Denis and Carl Sandburg.
The Church of the Ascension was first organized in 1827 and their first home, located a bit further downtown on Canal Street near Broadway, was completed in 1829. It was lost to a fire in 1839, and the new building, the first church ever built on Fifth Avenue, was completed in 1841. Not long thereafter, on June 26, 1844, President John Tyler married Julia Gardiner in the new church.
Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, rector Donald Bradshaw Aldrich announced that the doors of the church would remain open 24 hours a day so that parishioners and visitors could pray and meditate around the clock. This policy earned the church a new nickname: "The Church of the Open Door." The 24-hour policy is no longer in place but the church's stained glass windows remain illuminated around the clock. Beginning in 1888, the church also served as home to St. Agnes Nursery, one of the first day nurseries in NYC.
St. Anthony's was the first church in New York (and the second in the country) built to serve the Italian immigrant community. The church was first formed in 1859, but soon thereafter, its founder, a priest named Sanguinetti, returned to his native Italy, leaving the young congregation's future in question. The Franciscan friars stepped in to keep Sanguinetti's vision alive, however, and in 1866, the church was revived in a structure that had formerly been home to Sullivan Street Methodist Episcopal Church. Over the next two years, the parish oversaw the building of a new church just a few doors down on Sullivan Street and it is there that the church, which is still administered by the Franciscan friars, continues to serve the community.
Grace Church was originally organized in 1808 at Broadway and Rector Street. As Manhattan increased in population and began to push northward, the decision was made to move to a new building at the church's current location at Broadway and 10th street. The cornerstone was laid in 1843, and the new church was consecrated in 1846. The spire was originally made of wood, but it was replaced in 1881 by a marble one. Grace Church quickly became one of the most admired sacred structures in the city, much in demand for marriages, baptisms and memorial services. The congregation was such a thriving one that the church spun off three new congregations in neighborhoods north and east of its location.
From the beginning, Grace Church has endeavored to provide social services to the community; in fact, it's said to have provided the first day-care center in New York City, and the church currently operates a shelter for homeless men. It's also known for its rich and varied music offerings, including a renowned Choir of Men and Boys, established in 1894, and a variety of other choral programs and organ recitals.
This church was built by a Baptist congregation that was founded in 1827, whose 12 members originally met in a rented school house. A year later, the congregation built its first church on Christopher Street near Bedford. Some decades later, the growing congregation approved a move to a new building on West 11th Street, for which the cornerstone was laid in 1881; the new structure was consecrated on June 25, 1882. Among the church's most generous benefactors was John D. Rockefeller, a lifelong Baptist. Rockefeller was said to have provided the final $5,000 needed to pay for the new building, as well as paying for the church's organ and providing most of the funding for the sanctuary's stained-glass windows.
Over the years, the church's congregation grew smaller until, in 1945, there were just 112 members; in 1947, the building was sold to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church to serve as its new Manhattan home.
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