St. Michael’s Church: Two Centuries and Onward

“Surrounded from early days by a great cloud of witnesses …”

St. Michael’s Church has been located on exactly the same site for more than two centuries.  Since 1807, St. Michael’s history has reflected the history of its diocese, its city and its country, and it continues to do so as it moves into its third century.

 The Experiment in the Village of Bloomingdale: 1807 – 1820

 Located in a village of Manhattan known as Bloomingdale, more than five miles north of the dynamic and cosmopolitan port city of New York, St. Michael’s first church was a simple white frame building with a belfry.  The families who established St. Michael’s were pewholders of Trinity Church near Wall Street; they sought a more convenient place to worship near their Bloomingdale summer homes overlooking the Hudson River.  The new church was located on a hill on Bloomingdale Road, just east of what later became Broadway.  From the beginning, St. Michael’s served many more than just its Trinity founders and their households: Bloomingdale farmers, road-side shopkeepers, migrant and temporary workers, and others worshiped at St. Michael’s.

St. Michael’s first rector was John Bartow, a young man, newly ordained, from a well-established colonial family; Bartow’s father and grandfather before him were Episcopal priests. During the two years of Bartow’s rectorship, the church established itself as a key part of the Bloomingdale community. Bartow himself was energetic in and around both Bloomingdale and Manhattan as a whole: he baptized, married and buried prominent New Yorkers, visitors to the city, day laborers, servants and slaves. To a certain extent, St. Michael’s served as Bartow’s apprenticeship as an Episcopal priest. He was called away to a larger church after only two years, but he left St. Michael’s stable and established enough to ensure that the church’s call to its next rector, the talented Samuel Farmar Jarvis, would be attractive.

 Samuel F. Jarvis led St. Michael’s for eight years. He worked closely with the vestry to stabilize St. Michael’s complex financial relationship with Trinity Church and, simultaneously serving as rector of St. James Church, founded in 1810, provided significant unifying clergy leadership in the Episcopal church community throughout New York.  In addition, Jarvis extended St. Michael’s ministries to isolated northern Manhattan communities as well as to villages and regions of Manhattan that later would become Central Park.

 Though St. Michael’s was still a relatively new institution in a relatively rural area when Jarvis left, it proved to be a church that inspired its next rector and his family to remarkable service and accomplishments.

The Richmond-Peters Century:
Embodying Episcopal Church Ideals of Mission and Service:
1820 – 1920

In 1820, St. Michael’s hired a new rector, William Richmond, who brought both passion and vision to his work.  Richmond’s appointment initiated an astonishing century-long family leadership at St. Michael’s; Richmond himself served St. Michael’s for thirty-three years.  When missionary work, always undertaken with the approval of St. Michael’s vestry and the Bishop of New York, took William away, his brother, Episcopal priest James Cooke Richmond, served as St. Michael’s rector in William’s absence. Later, towards the end of William Richmond’s life, his assistant priest, Thomas McClure Peters, married Richmond’s daughter and afterward became rector himself. Thomas McClure Peters’ total service in the parish lasted fifty years, and, thereafter, his son, John Punnett Peters, became rector in 1893, leading the church until the end of the First World War.

 William Richmond’s rectorship was significant in the sheer scope of its ministries: in his time, the parish extended from 59th Street to the northern tip of Manhattan and from the Hudson River to the East River.  Both before and after the Civil War, St. Michael’s was, in John Punnett Peters’ words, “… the mother of a dozen churches, and almost as many institutions.”  St. Michael’s founded at least six churches in New York City, including All Angels’ Church, located first in Seneca Village, in what is now Central Park, and then on West End Avenue.  In 1829 and 1830, William Richmond was called to missionary work down the full length of the Mississippi River; during those two years, James Richmond led St. Michael’s.  The brothers followed this same pattern in the late 1830s while William concentrated on various New York “daughter” churches, and then again in 1851 and 1852, when William traveled to the far west, founding six churches in Wisconsin and Oregon, one of which, Trinity Church in Portland, Oregon, is now the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Oregon.

 Throughout the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, James Richmond was also engaged in extensive missionary activity when he was not at St. Michael’s: he established St. Mark’s Church in Augusta, Maine in 1832 and four years later assisted in the foundation of the Diocese of Illinois. James alternated mission work in the United States with extensive travels in England, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Land for what he described as theological and ecclesiological trips. In the 1840s, James established four new churches in Rhode Island and distinguished himself for his “out-of-doors” preaching.  Much later, after William Richmond’s death in 1858, James Cooke Richmond served with distinction as a Wisconsin Regimental Union Army Chaplain in the Civil War and subsequently as the ministering priest to a hospital of amputee Union Army veterans in Washington, D. C., where he met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss the tragedies and evils of the war.

 William Richmond’s final years at St. Michael’s were marked by justified pride and calm exhaustion: in the final three years of his life, most of Richmond’s priestly and administrative responsibilities were assumed by his assistant and son-in-law, Thomas McClure Peters, a priest who, Richmond accurately intuited, would expand brilliantly on what William Richmond, and to a somewhat lesser extent his brother James, had established.

St. Michael’s extensive and energetic social ministries, established during the nineteenth century and, in some instances, active well into the twentieth century, included the City Mission Society and numerous asylums for poor and homeless women and children.  The Sheltering Arms for “destitute, friendless children” was the first social service agency in the United States to make foster care a centerpiece for child welfare.  St. Michael’s rectors, together with the assistants whom they trained, established innovative chaplaincies at the Leake and Watts Orphanage and the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum.  The Colored Home in Yorkville and the New York City Asylum for Poor and Destitute Children were also part of St. Michael’s ministries.  After the Civil War, St. Michael’s provided space and financial support for the free Bloomingdale Clinic, District Nurse Association, Day Nursery and Circulating Library.

Thomas McClure Peters became St. Michael’s rector in 1858.  Bloomingdale, no longer rural, was a suburban extension of downtown New York: urbanization was making its mark throughout Manhattan, especially as the implementation of the 1811 Grid Plan actually moved north through the island. The building and installation of the Croton Aqueduct (1837-1842) and the laying of the Hudson River Railroad tracks (1849-1851) broke up the old moneyed estates and large farms north of St. Michael’s.  To the east of the church, amorphous groups of indigent squatters and mobile shanty towns were displaced by the building of Central Park; similar displacement of the stable, predominantly African-descended community of Seneca Village took place.  St. Michael’s founding Trinity families abandoned their Bloomingdale summer homes; by mid-century, the bucolic river-shore countryside had become part of the busy, crowded city.

In 1853, after the small first church burned to the ground, the swiftly built second church, consecrated in 1854, was twice as big as the first.  At this time, St. Michael’s vestry turned its attention to the pressing matter of St. Michael’s overcrowded churchyard.  The church had no choice but to look outside of Manhattan for additional land to bury its dead.  Thomas McClure Peters found appropriate land for a cemetery in Newtown, Long Island, now Astoria, Queens, accessible from Manhattan by means of the Astoria Ferry.  Funding for the purchase of the cemetery land came from Peters himself and from more than fifty African-descended families of Seneca Village. The purpose of St. Michael’s Cemetery was to provide a beautiful and affordable  burial place for parishioners of St. Michael’s and members of other religious and charitable institutions.

At the end of the nineteenth century, St. Michael’s was strong and continuously growing; the vestry was energetically optimistic.  Thomas McClure Peters enthusiastically welcomed the large German immigrant community settling in St. Michael’s neighborhood.  Both Thomas McClure Peters,  and his son John Punnett Peters after him, were fluent in German and preached frequently in German on Sundays and throughout the week.

The second church building, once grand, now seemed inadequate in size; plans were set in place in the 1880s for a major new building — the third and present building — to be set on St. Michael’s 1807 site.  Robert W. Gibson (1854-1927), a highly influential ecclesiastical architect, was hired, and the new church, large enough to seat 1500 people, was dedicated in December, 1891.  Gibson created a daring church of an imagined Romanesque and Byzantine style.  The building is marked at its southeast corner by an elegant bell-tower, visible for more than a mile in all directions.  The vestry encouraged parishioners to contribute generously to the interior decoration of the new building.  In 1895, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was commissioned to design and install the seven great lancet windows representing St. Michael’s Victory in Heaven, along with the marble altar and its brilliant decorations.  Twenty-five years later, Tiffany’s overall design scheme was completed with the Chapel of the Angels reredos mosaic depicting the Witnesses of the Redemption.  From the 1890s through the 1920s, parishioners donated stained glass windows of eclectic styles.  Generous gifts of ecclesiastical furnishings continued until the Depression.  St. Michael’s Church was dramatically beautiful.  The handsome 1902 Thomas McClure Peters Memorial Parish House provided space for the church’s many educational, artistic, athletic, social and spiritual activities, both traditional and innovative.

At the turn of the twentieth century, St. Michael’s continued to be alert to the needs of its most immediate neighbors. As John Punnett Peters reported to the congregation, the “neglected condition” of a densely populated “colony of colored people in West 99th Street” required attention and care.  Beginning in 1909, St. Michael’s established “an institutional mission station” for the residents of 99th Street in two rooms and a small apartment over a grocery store.  The Reverend Floarda Howard, an African-American priest, was called to the 99th Street Mission, soon named St. Jude’s Chapel.  Floarda Howard was from a Philadelphia family; he attended Central High School and then the University of Pennsylvania before training for the ministry at Bishop Payne Seminary, the Episcopal Church’s influential seminary for “young negro men of promise.”  By 1921, St. Michael’s had built St. Jude’s Chapel, a modern facility with “a beautiful place of worship” and a fully equipped settlement house whose guild rooms, sacristies, kitchen and gymnasium were praised by the bishop at the chapel consecration as “the most complete building of its kind” he had ever seen.

 Upheavals and Dislocations: 1920 – 1976

The terrible and confusing events of the first half of the twentieth century were accompanied by profound challenges for St. Michael’s and St. Jude’s.  During the First and Second World Wars, St. Michael’s could barely maintain its social ministries while meeting the wartime pastoral and practical needs of the parish.  The decade of the 1920s seemed to renew the economic strength of the wealthy, but the great poverty of the already poor only deepened.   The Depression proved nearly disastrous for both St. Michael’s and St. Jude’s, though St. Michael’s congregation diminished in size as St. Jude’s increased.

 And after 1919, the Richmond-Peters family no longer led St. Michael’s.  In spiritual and social ministries, members of this family had provided leadership for the church for over a century.  Even more remarkable, from 1818 to 1919, St. Michael’s had had only two treasurers, James DePeyster, a member of one of the original founding Trinity families (treasurer: 1818-1874) and W. R. Peters, son of Thomas McClure Peters and brother of John Pennett Peters, (treasurer: 1874-1918).  In the life of St. Michael’s, the era of Richmond-Peters leadership ended just as the city and country were trying to adjust to conditions after the First World War.

For the first six decades of the twentieth century, the Upper West Side experienced economic and social decay; the area became dangerous and undesirable to many.  The number of communicants at St. Michael’s decreased rapidly.  Rector Thomas McCandless, who had been John Punnett Peters’ assistant, led St. Michael’s according to the old Richmond-Peters style, but the political, social and economic landscape surrounding the church was different from what it had been in the nineteenth century.  In spite of what one St. Jude’s parishioner later called St. Michael’s “climate of conscience,” the church could no longer afford to support St. Jude’s Chapel.  When Robert Moses planned the decimation of that portion of the Upper West Side that became present-day Park West Village, William Corker, St. Michael’s rector since 1948, did not object to the destruction of St. Jude’s Chapel, located on West 99th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  The Chapel was closed and then razed in 1957.  Corker issued a half-hearted invitation to St. Jude’s congregants to join St. Michael’s, but the community as a whole dispersed, and only many years later did a handful of St. Jude’s members return to the Upper West Side and to St. Michael’s.

During the late 1950s and the 1960s, St. Michael’s retained a small core of devoted parishioners in a “bad neighborhood,” an area that epitomized “urban blight.”  The vestry struggled to keep the church solvent with the meager income received from pledges, Sunday service plate collections and the then poorly managed cemetery in Queens.  So precarious was the state of St. Michael’s that the Bishop of New York entertained discussions of closing the church, and and selling the cemetery.  However, in spite of parish-wide anxiety and the national climate of violence and protest, there always remained a spark of hopefulness at St. Michael’s. In 1964, funds, quite amazingly, were raised for a new organ.  Designed for St. Michael’s and built in Germany, the magnificent Rudolph von Beckerath organ took three years to install.  Dating all the way back to the 1850s, music had always been an important part of St. Michael’s worship; now the von Beckerath organ, widely admired by both ecclesiastical and secular musicians, represented determination within the church to keep its doors open.

 Embrace and Inclusion: 1976 – 2011

When Frederick Hill, a dynamic and tireless priest from St. James Church, was called to be rector in 1976, the Upper West Side was experiencing a renewal.  As the neighborhood once again became commercially and residentially desirable, St. Michael’s Church was rediscovered by old and new neighbors alike.  Under Hill’s leadership, St. Michael’s began to grow.  Parish numbers increased as they had not in at least fifty years.  Demographically, the parish reflected the diversity of the Upper West Side.  New members of St. Michael’s were individuals and families of Caribbean, Hispanic, African, Indian, Asian, as well as Caucasian descent; gay men and women felt more welcome at St. Michael’s than at most other churches.  By the early 1980s, both the clergy and the lay leadership of the church were representative of the makeup of the parish and the neighborhood as a whole.  As the parish grew, St. Michael’s finances were strengthening.  St. Michael’s was reemerging as a leader in a dramatically new and renewed neighborhood and city.  Pastorally and philosophically, St. Michael’s embraced and epitomized the most fundamentally welcoming vision of the American Anglican ethos.

 As the centennial of the third church building approached, the vestry and parish made plans to restore the church building, celebrating both the building itself and the remarkable renascence of the parish.   In 1991, St. Michael’s Church received an award from both the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for the restoration of “its intended use as a serene and spiritual place of worship” and the resumption of its status as “one of the noblest  ecclesiastical structures on the Upper West Side.”  In 1997, during the fourth year of the leadership of the new rector, the Rev. Canon George W. Brandt, Jr., St. Michael’s Church became a Designated Historical Building on the National and State Registers of Historic Places.

St. Michael’s tenth rector, George W. Brandt led St. Michael’s transition from the twentieth century into the twenty-first.  George Brandt came to St. Michael’s particularly well equipped for this role.  Born in New York City, Brandt was an attorney before he was called to the ministry.  He served as a priest in Atlanta, Georgia and in Africa before coming to St. Michael’s.  George Brandt was one of the first African-American rectors of a major Episcopal parish in the United States.  Under George Brandt’s leadership, St. Michael’s planned and celebrated the parish’s Bicentennial in a series of events and projects whose centerpiece was the restoration and commemoration of the history of St. Jude’s Chapel.  A memorial stone on the old foot-print of the chapel was placed in Park West Village.  In addition the St. Jude’s Altar, which had been salvaged decades before from the wreckage of the chapel, was moved into the body of St. Michael’s Church, restored and reconsecrated.  George Brandt oversaw the expansion and increased stability of St. Michael’s Cemetery.  Since September 11, 2001, the Firefighters’ Memorial at the Cemetery has become a significant memorial site.

During the seventeen years of George Brandt’s rectorship and since, St. Michael’s has continued to grow.  St. Michael’s has more than nine services each week. Adult education and Christian formation programs include Bible study, lectio divina, centering prayer and Education for Ministry.  The Sunday School has more than sixty children and a faculty of eighteen volunteer parishioners with three child-care assistants.  St. Michael’s superb liturgical music program is carried by four choirs, led by a full-time organist and choir master, and assisted by a children’s choir director.  One of George Brandt’s most lasting contributions to St. Michael’s and to the church as a whole has been his identification and hiring of gifted seminarians and priests who, on leaving St. Michael’s, have gone on to vigorous and highly effective leadership in other churches.

Since 1976, during both Frederick Hill’s and George Brandt’s rectorships, St. Michael’s has maintained its tradition of service to the community.  Since 1983, the Saturday Kitchen and Pilgrims’ Resource Center have welcomed at least two hundred guests every week.  Both church and parish house provide space for extensive parish activities and not-for-profit community organizations.  St. Michael’s is active in diocesan initiatives: St. Michael’s Episcopal Church Women’s group is particularly energetic, and the parish-wide support for Carpenter’s Kids in Tanzania is strong.

 Forward in Our Third Century

After George Brandt’s 2011 retirement, St. Michael’s was led by Interim Pastor Elizabeth G. Maxwell. Together with associate clergy, staff and the lay leadership of the parish, Maxwell oversaw St. Michael’s self-examination in preparation for calling a permanent rector and managed the transition from Brandt to the new leadership.

In late 2014, finding inspiration it its own sustained strengths of inclusive faith, reverent worship and passionate commitment to social service, St. Michael’s Church called the Rev. Katharine G. Flexer as its eleventh rector. Flexer’s confident, enthusiastic leadership comes from her unique preparation for this rectorship: after several years as an assistant priest here at St. Michael’s, Flexer served as rector at a thriving church in California from 2011 to 2014. On her return to St. Michael’s, Kate Flexer has brought experienced insight, bi-coastal perspective and deeply wise faith to her congregation.

Flexer’s formal installation on May 3, 2015 was a day of joy and a foreshadowing of the future’s rich promise.

Jean Ballard Terepka
May, 2012