Early 20th Century Altar Guild Minutes: Donations to The 99th Street Branch of St. Cyprian’s Chapel

(In August 2017, as part of the long-range 210th Anniversary archives cataloging project, early twentieth century Altar Guild record books were transferred from storage in the Lower Sacristy to the Archives. These previously unexamined records – mostly minutes from weekly meetings – contain rich and significant evidence of daily life at St. Michael’s.)

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the San Juan Hill neighborhood of Manhattan – an area from the West 50s to the 70s, where Lincoln Center is now located – was the first, and sometimes the main, destination for Afro Caribbean immigrants. The Episcopal Church was quick to meet the needs of the new “colored” arrivals in the city: these Anglican immigrants needed a church of their own. The city’s oldest African American Episcopal church, St. Philip’s, was in the process of arranging its move from lower Manhattan to Harlem, had its own deeply rooted culture and traditions, and wasn’t able to meet the needs of the massive Caribbean influx. Accustomed to establishing chapels for recent immigrant groups such as Germans and Italians as well as African Americans from both the South and the Caribbean, the Episcopal Mission Society of the Diocese of New York built St. Cyprian’s Chapel – a “colored” chapel – at 177 West 63rd Street in 1906.

St. Cyprian's Chapel on West 63rd Street

St. Cyprian’s was not the first diocesan African American mission chapel, but, led by its vicar, the Reverend John Wesley Johnson, it was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the best organized.


St. Cyprian's 1906 expansion

But the San Juan Hill neighborhood was bursting at the seams; Caribbean immigrants needed to look elsewhere to find homes. They discovered the West 90s and 100s, an area where African Americans could rent rooms and apartments in the brownstones lining these streets.

St. Michael’s Church, always alert to the needs of its neighbors, noted the growth of the “colony of colored people” on its own street; simultaneously, the Episcopal Mission Society and St. Cyprian’s considered the possibility of opening a “branch” of St. Cyprian’s on West 99th Street. In 1909, St. Michael’s rector, John Punnett Peters, and the vestry decided to explore the possibility of supporting and assuming full responsibility for this mission; it would be led by the newly ordained Rev. Floarda Howard, the talented young brother-in-law of St. Cyprian’s vicar, Rev. Johnson.

The first evidence of St. Michael’s commitment to this new endeavor occurs in the June 1911 Altar Guild minutes.


1911 Altar Guild Minutes

The meeting was opened by Dr. J. P. Peters after which he requested that any choir vestments which could no longer be used by the choir of St. Michael’s Church be sent to The 99th Street Branch of St. Cyprian’s Chapel.

A way to support the new mission … a natural, thoughtful gesture … an impulse which most well-off housekeepers might understand: beautiful and lovely things have become worn, a little drab and frayed perhaps, but they’re still usable in a pinch. What to do with them? It doesn’t seem right to just throw them out. Surely they can still be of use to someone … And the solution presents itself: give the still-good-quality pieces to someone who has none at all. Charity and utility meet.

The recipients of the time-worn cast-offs surely felt … We don’t know actually know the full range of emotions they felt; we only know that, according to St. Michael’s vestry minutes, gratitude was expressed.

Over the years, St. Michael’s regularly donated used vestments, altar furnishings, hymnals and prayer books to The 99th Street Branch of St. Cyprian’s, or, as it was known to all by 1912, St. Jude’s Chapel.

In 1916, the St. Michael’s Altar Guild Minutes report on the gift of “old ribbon markers” for service prayer books in addition to old choir cassocks already sent.

1916 Altar guild minutes

For half a century, the periodic gifts of cast-offs and hand-me-downs from St. Michael’s to St. Jude’s contributed to the complex institutional relationship between the church and the chapel: the charity of “second hand” fit effortlessly into the social and cultural assumptions of “separate but equal” in an era when this arrangement was the law of the land.

November 13, 2017