Preliminary Reflections on Pentecost Celebrations … Century Years: 1819, 1919, 2019, 2119 and 2219 … and the Project of Writing the History of St. Michael’s Church

The 2019 Feast of Pentecost constitutes a good moment to reflect on the forward-looking urgency of St. Michael’s missions and purposes since 1807 and to consider the project of writing St. Michael’s history.

 Interior of St. Michael’s Church, 2019

1919 marked the end of the century long Richmond-Peters era; John Punnett Peters (1852-1921; rector: 1893-1919) was the last Richmond-Peters clergyman to lead St. Michael’s. This turning-point year also witnessed tumultuous local, national and international upheavals: the Gilded Age was over, and the dislocations of the early 20th century changed the social, political and economic landscapes in which St. Michael’s Church was located.

St. Michael’s first church building burned to the ground in 1853, near the end of the rectorship of John Punnett Peters’ grandfather, the Rev. William Richmond; a second church was built the next year and would be the church in which John Punnett Peters’ father, Thomas McClure Peters, served for most of his rectorship. By the mid-1880s, the second church was deemed too small for St. Michael’s large congregation, and the third church was completed in 1890. The first church building had been a country-side church; the third – and current – church building is urban. The history of St. Michael’s Church is, in part, the history of its relationship with those who have lived around and near it.

St. Michael’s Church, seen from West 99th Street, late 19th century (MCNY)

John Punnett Peters (1852-1921; rector: 1893-1919) was a philologist and an archaeologist of the ancient Near East before he became a priest. As both professor and then clergyman, he was keenly aware of history as a way of understanding faith; he used the familiar Anglican and Episcopalian strategy of memorials throughout the third church building (1890) to make sure that St. Michael’s congregants were always mindful of the spiritual achievements of those who had gone before them. 

Integral to the new interior design of the third church building were memorials to William Richmond (John Punnett Peters’ grandfather (1797-1859; rector: 1820-1837; 1842-1858)) as well as James Cooke Richmond (John Punnett Peters’ great-uncle (1808-1866; rector: 1837-1842)).

William Richmond Memorial located within St. Michael’s Church  

Inset credence table memorial to James Cooke Richmond

Only three years after the third church building had been completed, Thomas McClure Peters (John Punnett Peters’ father (1821-1893; rector: 1858-1893)) died. In 1895, John Punnett Peters saw to it that the new white Vermont marble Tiffany altar was consecrated as a memorial to his father.

The Vermont marble 1895 main altar is dedicated “To the Glory of God and the Memory of Thomas McClure Peters, Priest”

Only a few years later, the magnificent new Parish House, under John Punnett Peters’ direction, became the Thomas McClure Peters Memorial Parish House.

“ST. MICHAEL’S PARISH HOUSE TO THE SERVICE OF GOD IN MEMORY OF THOMAS MCCLURE PETERS RECTOR – 1858-1893”

John Punnett Peters understood memorials as inspiration: they affirm the presence of faith’s and liturgies’ lessons in the daily lives of those who now remember. After John Punnett Peters’ death in 1921, the clergy and vestry leadership of St. Michael’s Church and of St. Jude’s Chapel, the African-American mission chapel administered by St. Michael’s, continued the tradition of erecting memorials to the spiritual leaders of the past: the altars in both St. Michael’s Chapel of the Angels and St. Jude’s Chapel were dedicated as memorials to John Punnett Peters.

Now located in St. Michael’s Church, the St. Jude’s Altar, dedicated to the memory of John Punnett Peters, was retrieved from St. Jude’s Chapel after the city razed the Chapel and its neighborhood; the St. Jude’s Altar was reconsecrated during St. Michael’s Bicentennial Celebrations.

But memorials don’t tell history – either in general or of St Michael’s Church in particular – as historians might try to tell it; nor do the buildings and properties – churches, parish houses, rectories; cemeteries  – that contain memorials. Furthermore, the history of St. Michael’s Church can’t be told in terms of rectorships, no matter how luminously inspiring individual rectors may have been. Rectors don’t serve alone: they have colleague priests throughout the church, bishops in their diocese, and assistants in their parish. Rectors work with their vestries, and the vestries are elected by their congregations.

The history of St. Michael’s is the history of the people within it and around it.

On this Pentecost 2019, all the elements of church history were on display.

St. Michael’s musicians, led by Organist and Choirmaster John Cantrell, offered a brilliant jazz service; instrumentalists and singers presented hymns and sacred music, and the congregation joined in, and sometimes even danced in the pews. 

The Rt. Rev. Allen Shin moves up St. Michael’s center aisle to the Processional Hymn, ‘Sweet, Sweet Spirit.’

In his long scheduled episcopal visitation, New York Diocesan Suffragan Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Allen Shin joined the Rev. Katharine Flexer, St. Michael’s Rector, the Rev. Leigh Mackintosh, St. Michael’s Associate Rector, the Rev. Deacons Richard Limato and Elena Barnum,  as well as ushers, crucifers, torch bearers, lectors and a thurifer, to preside over a dense, rich liturgy; the bishop preached and then confirmed, received and reaffirmed members of St. Michael’s congregation.

At the end of the service, before a generous and exuberant barbeque in the Parish House and the back yard, the congregation gathered before the Thomas McClure Peters Memorial Altar and under the seven magnificent Tiffany lancet windows of St. Michael’s Victory in Heaven for “a family picture.” It took several minutes to corral clergy, musicians and choir, and several hundred congregants, from the very elderly to the wiggly, excited very young.

Assisting Priest David Rider on a ladder strategizes about photographing the congregation

The Rev. Rider addresses assembled congregants about looking directly at the camera

In 2119 or 2219, when future historians are thinking about writing accounts of St. Michael’s extended third and fourth centuries, service bulletins and photographs will be among the many crucial primary sources used to illuminate the stories of St. Michael’s people.  

Pentecost is a good Feast for celebrating history itself. How will the narratives of any particular time be communicated? What languages will be used, what lines of enquiry will be pursued, and how will the stories be understood? Some of the answers, for those interested in the history of St. Michael’s Church, lie in St. Michael’s Archives.

June 10, 2019