Views from the Archives

A Skull at St. Michael’s in 1889

In 1889, construction on St. Michael’s third church began. The eastern Amsterdam Avenue wall was being built while the second church, immediately behind it, still standing, continued in use for regular  worship. It was a surprising sight.

1889 Third Church construction photo

Children watched, fascinated.


One of the children was apparently a little girl, Estelle Clark Burdick. Seven years later, in 1896, she was confirmed with an aunt, three  cousins and a group of more than twenty other confirmands by Bishop Horatio Potter at St. Michael’s. That spring, In 1896, the third church had been standing for just six years, and the seven lancet windows of St. Michael’s Victory in Heaven had been installed just sixteen months before.

Confirmation Record, 1896

Estelle Clark Burdick appears nowhere else in St. Michael’s registers.

In 1956, apparently out of the blue, Rev. William Corker, St. Michael’s rector at the time, received a note. It is written in a very shaky and barely legible hand.

280 Chestnut Street

Ambler, Pennsylvania

March 21, 1956

Dear Father

When I was a little girl – I am now 75 – I attended services in the old Saint Michael’s 99th and Amsterdam with old Dr. Peters the rector. Then the cemetery [was] torn up right at the corner to build the beautiful new big stone church … and dear Dr. John Peters was rector then – I was confirmed there in 1896 — … I still remember the glorious stained glass windows over the altar – I always loved the figure of St. Michael … I still remember holding a scull (sic) in my hands as the cemetery was being dug up, a very very old cemetery –


Mrs. Estelle M. B. Wright

Rev. Corker  — or perhaps Mrs. Corker who often helped her husband with some of his correspondence – wrote back that he was pleased that Mrs. Wright had such happy memories of St. Michael’s.


As we think about the construction of the third church and the fact that bones from St. Michael’s first, early nineteenth century cemetery were apparently dug up in the 1889 excavation and building process, we can only hope that the soul associated with the skull that little Estelle held in her hands belonged to a children-loving and good-humored member of the early St. Michael’s community.


October 31, 2017

All Hallows’ Eve


Beyond West 99th Street: The Sheltering Arms … At 129th Street in Manhattanville, and throughout New York City

Some of the most modest memorial plaques in the Chapel of the Angels at St. Michael’s evoke the richest histories. Former children of the Sheltering Arms – no names specified – came together and collected funds for a memorial to Sarah Seaton Richmond (1836-1906, daughter of James Cook Richmond, St. Michael’s fourth rector) longtime Superintendent of the Sheltering Arms.

Sarah Seaton Richmond Sheltering Arms plaque

The Sheltering Arms, founded in the middle of the nineteenth century by clergy and lay leadership of St. Michael’s, was truly revolutionary. It was the first organization to take children from families in crisis, and then feed, clothe, house and educate them while helping parents get back on their feet; the goal was to reunify the family. The Sheltering Arms was a paradigm of what we now know as foster care.

In the beginning, Thomas McClure Peters, rector of St. Michael’s from 1858 to 1893, gave his large home for the experimental first Sheltering Arms building and moved with his family to a new rectory. Though the administration and management of the Sheltering Arms initially proved difficult, the value and success of its core mission were immediately obvious. More children than could possibly be admitted petitioned to be cared for at the Sheltering Arms and Peters’ former private home was soon deemed impossibly small.

A fund-raising campaign at St. Michael’s and among colleague Episcopal churches in and beyond the Diocese quickly accumulated enough money for a new dormitory complex; the large, impressive building extended from 126th to 129th Streets on 9th Avenue, adjacent to St. Mary’s Church in Manhattanville, St. Michael’s first “daughter” church.

Sheltering Arms 129th St drawing

Over time, this Sheltering Arms facility was modified and redesigned, serving as the institution’s base.  However, as the numbers of children being served expanded and the governance structure of the organization was stabilized, the Sheltering Arms moved to Yonkers where several cottages of different sizes were built for girls and boys of varying ages and for invalids.

postcard of Sheltering Arms, no date

In the 1940s, as Robert Moses’ urban redevelopment plans altered the New York City landscape, the 126th Street building was torn down. Today, the only remaining Manhattanville vestige of the original Sheltering Arms facility is the playground which bears its name (

Sheltering Arms NYC Park 2017

As of 2017, however, the legacy of the Sheltering Arms throughout New York City remains strong.

For more than one hundred and fifty years beginning after the Civil War, various charitable organizations, including the Episcopal Mission Society and St. Barnabas House as well as the Sheltering Arms, all founded by St. Michael’s Church, served abandoned and orphaned children, women struggling in poverty, and broken families. At the end of the twentieth century and in recent years, these various organizations and others have frequently been reorganized, reconfigured and consolidated.

Sheltering Arms 2017 logo

Today, the Sheltering Arms ( , with offices and facilities throughout the city, provides counseling support in areas such as domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse and trauma response in early childhood education and after school programs as well as foster care and adoptive services.

October 13, 2017

Beyond West 99th Street: New York City Council Honors the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force

On Wednesday, September 28, 2017, the New York City Council unanimously approved the last formal steps of land use reviews for the Harlem African Burial Ground Memorial and Cultural Education Center. In addition, the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force was issued a proclamation by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito “to publicly recognize those who have worked for many years” to ensure the success of the project.

NYC Proclamation for Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force

Much of the history of the colonial and pre-Civil War Harlem African Burial Ground, sometimes called the Harlem Negro Burying Ground, can be found in St. Michael’s parish registers.

The victory of this major step forward in the memorialization of the Harlem African Burial Ground is St. Michael’s as well as the Task Force’s.

September 29, 2017

Beyond West 99th Street: Jarvis in New Haven

(The history of St. Michael’s Church has its origins in earlier histories and extends out in connection with  many other histories from the early nineteenth century through to the present … as I travel around New York City and far beyond it as well, I encounter St. Michael’s in many places.

As some of you may remember, the June 2017 Annual Conference of NEHA (National Episcopal Historians and Archivists) was held at St. Michael’s. Next summer, the 2018 Conference will be held at Trinity-Church-on-the-Green in New Haven, Conn., and the most recent NEHA Board meeting was held there last week.

National Episcopal Historians and Archivists logo

Periodically, I’ll be posting items from ‘Beyond West 99th Street.’  —  JBT)

St. Michael’s second rector was Samuel Farmar Jarvis (1786-1851); he served from 1811 to 1819. The rectorship of St. Michael’s was Jarvis’ first job, as it had been that of St. Michael’s first rector, John Vanderbilt Bartow.  Samuel Farmar Jarvis was the son of Abraham Jarvis (1739-1813), second Bishop of Connecticut.

Abraham, father of Samuel F Jarvis

Abraham Jarvis was ordained deacon and priest in the Church of England; he served as rector of Christ Church, Middletown from 1766 to 1799, seeing the church through the political upheavals of the Revolution and the creation of the new United States. Jarvis was one of ten clergymen to name Samuel Seabury the first bishop of the newly constituted Episcopal Church of the United States in 1783. He himself was consecrated Bishop of Connecticut in 1797 and was both Bishop and rector of Trinity Church, New Haven when he died.

It was Abraham Jarvis who ordained his son, Samuel, deacon and then priest, in 1811.

Samuel Farmar Jarvis

After his father’s death in 1813, plans for the second church building of Trinity-Church-on-the-Green, designed by architect Ithiel Town, were put in place; in 1814, it was Samuel Farmar Jarvis, by then the well-established Rector of St. Michael’s in New York City, who laid and consecrated the cornerstone of the new church. In his address after Morning Prayer on this occasion, Samuel Farmar Jarvis expounded on the first verse of Psalm 127, “Except the Lord build the house, their labour is in vain that build it.”

Trinity Church, NH, early photograph

Abraham Jarvis’ bones are interred under the altar of Trinity-on-the-Green; his burial plaque is topped by the image of his bishop’s mitre.

Bp Jarvis' monument in Trinity Church, NH

The bishop’s presence in New Haven continues.

Bp Jarvis now Yale Graduate Club 155 Elm St.

Yale University’s Graduate Club, located on Elm Street facing the Green, is Bishop Abraham Jarvis’ home, now modernized and added on to.

September 25, 2017


A Small Memorial: Used Every Day … Seldom Noticed

Memorials come in all sizes: whole buildings, altars and stained glass windows … plaques … hymnals and prayer-books … chalices, patens, collection plates, linens and vestments … Sometimes, memorials figure in our daily church lives, and we don’t even know it.

One such easy-to-overlook memorial at St. Michael’s Church is for a little boy named Frederick Ralph Gleason.

Gleason Memorial litany desk in Chapel of the Angels

Located in the Chapel of the Angels, this prie-dieu lectern, sometimes called a prayer and litany desk, is used every single day for morning prayer and other services. It is an integral piece of the furniture of our liturgy.

The memorial notice itself is located on a brass plate in the front of the litany desk above the metalwork of leaf motifs and a circle-encased cross. The memorial text, in a restrained Spencerian script, is a little hard to see, but once people have noticed it, they never forget it.

Suffer the little children

To the glory of God and in Loving Memory of

Frederick Ralph Gleason

Aged four years 1896

Suffer the little children to come unto Me

There is almost no information about Frederick in the Archives. He wasn’t baptized at St. Michael’s. He appears in the sacramental registers only once, in Burials, in April, 1896. St. Michael’s rector, the Rev. John Punnett Peters conducted the service; Frederick was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. That particular spring must have been a tough one. There were seven funerals at St. Michael’s within the first two and a half weeks of April; of these, five were services for children under the age of fourteen.

Frederick Gleason burial notice in sacramental register

Whoever gave the memorial litany desk – Frederick’s parents? his grandparents? we don’t know – must have loved both St. Michael’s Church and the little boy very much. Ecclesiastical furniture like this was not inexpensive. The litany desk seems to have been custom-made by the J. & R. Lamb Firm: the Lambs were a St. Michael’s family and many of the memorials at St. Michael’s were made by Lamb. The Gleason Memorial litany desk is an adaptation of one of the standard Lamb models as displayed in their 1887 Ecclesiastical Metalwork trade catalog.

Lamb catalog litany desks

The Frederick Ralph Gleason Memorial litany desk has been in continuous use here at St. Michael’s since Frederick’s death. Love for one little boy has enriched our daily life of worship and prayer for more than one hundred and twenty years.

2017 Archives Intern, Christopher Echevarria-Smith

For the sixth year in a row, St. Michael’s Church has proudly participated in the New York City History Student Summer Internship program. In this city-wide program administered by the Deputy Borough Historian of Manhattan, students with particular gifts and interests in history are identified by their high school principals and nominated for this internship. Students are then matched with museums, libraries, historic houses, history societies and specialized archival collections; working on special projects, they spend four to six weeks under the mentorship of an archivist, learning how to handle, catalog and interpret a wide variety of archival materials.

picture of intern in Archives

A rising junior at Stuyvesant High School, Christopher Echevarria-Smith assisted in filing and cataloging service bulletins, Messengers, special event notifications and rectors’ pastoral communications from the 1970s forward. He also assisted in the transcription of 19th century financial records and the completion of an early 20th century legal file.

Archival work presupposes flexibility of temperament: sometimes it requires mental concentration and sometimes it’s like a specialized form of housework. It can be both intellectually and physically demanding, especially when a collection is expanding or being fully cataloged.

intern sitting on floor with files and boses

Past interns have worked on important and useful projects such as the development of a database of pre-Civil War African-Americans listed in St. Michael’s sacramental registers, a database of orphans at the Leake and Watts Orphanage baptized during Thomas McClure Peters’ rectorship, and a chronological file of leases for St. Michael’s downtown properties from the 1860s to the 1920s.

completed project: files in archival boxes

All of these projects completed by student interns enable students to understand what primary sources actually are; they learn what “history” looks like before it ends up in textbooks. In addition, these students’ projects put individual elements of St. Michael’s dense and complex collection into an accessible, catalogable format; this work is invaluable when historians, fellow-archivists and genealogists address inquiries to St. Michael’s and to the Archivist.

John W. Priest, St. Michael’s Second Architect

St. Michael’s has had three church buildings. The architect of the first, a small white clapboard structure, built in 1807 and burned in 1853, is unknown. The architect of the third, Robert W. Gibson, has been well known – and appropriately applauded – since the third church was built in 1890.

exterior view of second church

Until now, little has been known about the architect of the second church.  In John Punnett Peters’ centennial history of St. Michael’s, Priest is named in passing as the architect, but the full extent of his involvement in the day-by-day design and building of the second church has only recently been uncovered by examination of  the examined mid-nineteenth century financial records in St. Michael’s archives.

John W. Priest, just coming to prominence when the vestry of St. Michael’s hired him, was based in Newburgh, New York. He was one of only five architects with membership in the New York Ecclesiological Society (founded in 1848, and still in existence today ( He was a founding member of the prestigious American Institute of Architects (, established just a year and a half after he completed his work at St. Michael’s.

entry from mid-19th c. account book

[Item 653, Building. Received N. York, June 2nd 1854, from J. F. DePeyster, Esq.r, Treasurer of St. Michael’s Church N. Y. one hundred and fifty dollars, on account of plans +c (sic: etc) for said church. $150-. (signed John W. Priest]

St. Michael’s detailed financial records reveal Priest’s close involvement with the building process. He and William Twine, St. Michael’s longtime sexton, worked closely together and with many local craftspeople and artisans. Priest even oversaw many of the church’s interior details. He ordered velvets (for an unspecified use) and chairs and pews; he worked with local glaziers; he coordinated landscaping efforts with the sewer-builders.

There is no explicit record of how the vestry of St. Michael’s came to choose John W. Priest as the architect of the second church. However, he was part of a group of artists, architects, landscape designers who were collectively changing the Manhattan cityscape. Among these was Calvert Vaux, now well known to New Yorkers as one of Central Park’s designers. St. Michael’s vestry were powerful initiators and supporters of the creation of the Park. The Calvert Vaux-John W. Priest circle would naturally have overlapped with the civic leaders who had responsibility for St. Michael’s financial, legal and social well being.

Overall, St. Michael’s Church was one of Priest’s smaller projects. Compared to other Priest buildings, St. Michael’s was not large – it seated about 800 – and, made more of wood than stone, it had the feel of a country church. When St. Michael’s needed to expand – to double in size – in the 1880s, the decision to simply tear down the Priest church seemed relatively simple and straightforward. Thomas McClure Peters would miss the second church, but was wildly proud of the large and impressive third edifice. Today, we do have access to some sense of the size and feel of the second church building: the mosaic floor in front of the Chapel of the Angels altar is, in fact, the altar floor from the second church.

modern photo of Baltimore church restored and redesigned by Priest, 1857

Priest died young in 1859; he was barely thirty-five. Not many of his buildings remain. Although he was not the primary architect on St. Luke’s Church in Baltimore, he oversaw its extensive repair, redesign and expansion right after his work at St. Michael’s. St. Luke’s Baltimore is now on the National Register of Historic Places.