Written by Elizabeth Jensen, 1998 in commemoration of the 100th celebration of ministry on the Upper West Side.
In the six decades since its founding in 1834 on Mulberry Street between Houston and Bleecker, the Second Wesleyan Chapel, as it was originally named, had been a somewhat itinerant congregation. After two decades on the Lower East Side, where it organized the Missionary Society Sunday School to work with underprivileged children, the Church voted to move uptown to Fourth Avenue and 22nd Street.
The new white marble building, with its 210-foot spire, was dedicated on May 9, 1858, a gift from Drew University founder, Daniel Drew. Dedicated as St. Paul’s, but later dubbed the “Cathedral Church of Methodism”, the church could seat 1,300 people and was the scene of pre-Civil War slavery debates.
Despite St. Paul’s stature as one of the city’s leading churches, in the 1880s some influential, younger members broke away to found the Madison Avenue Church at 60th Street. By 1882, the encroachment of businesses into the Gramercy Park neighborhood led the declining congregation to begin considering moving yet again. That decision was made in 1890, and the property was sold in 1891, after which the congregation began worshipping in temporary quarters at 20th Street and Fifth Avenue.
St. Andrew’s Methodist Church, founded on the Upper West Side in 1865, had dedicated a building on West 76th between Columbus and Amsterdam. In 1890 there were discussions about merging the two churches. In fact, a St. Paul’s delegation made the rounds of numerous existing Methodist congregations, from the Madison Avenue Church to St. James at 116th and Lenox Avenue in search of a merger partner.
Pastor Dr. A. J. Palmer finally convinced the trustees that a location in a residential area west of Broadway offered the most potential. The original location, on the west side of West End Ave between 105th and 106th Street, fell through. Land was purchased at 86th and Broadway as well, then quickly sold, when it was deemed too commercial. The site at 86th and West End Avenue was finally purchased in May 1894, despite a strong protest from neighboring St. Andrew’s, and the French Neo-Classicist church, designed by architect Robert H. Robertson, was built at a cost of $343,673.52, including land.
Along the way, however, as the years without a permanent church home dragged on, many parishioners left for other congregations. By the time of the October 3, 1897 dedication, St. Paul’s had dwindled to just 67 members. A long period of rebuilding began, with periods of prosperity alternating with declines. St. Paul’s membership grew with a jump in December of 1937, when St. Andrew’s, whose membership had dwindled, merged with it to become the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. The newly merged SPSA enjoyed an illustrious reputation in the 1920s and 30s, when the church services were known for their paid vocal quartet, which at one point in the 1940s included famed soprano Elaanor Steber. In 1947, an article in the New York Times documents that 150 young people attended meeting of the Church’s 20-30 Club.
But by the 1960s, the flight of families to the suburbs had decimated the Church’s membership. Unlike its early years in the last century, when confronted with a changing neighborhood, SPSA stayed put.
Indeed, the members in the 1960s and 1970s initiated many of the social outreach projects that so closely tie the church to the community today, from the West Side Campaign Against Hunger to the Nutrition and Health Centre for Senior Citizens, the Campus Ministry at Columbia, and the Centerfold Coffee House. SPSA developed close ties to neighbor Congregation Rodeph Sholom. A Spanish-language ministry began in 1963.
But with a changing membership and increasing demands for space, SPSA began to reconsider its aging building. Over the years, the physical structure had changed many times: the stain glass window, “Paul Before Agrippa,” was unveiled in 1903, the sanctuary was remodeled in 1917, and redesigned extensively in 1938 in honor of the 1937 merger with St. Andrew’s.
Many design changes corresponded to the evolving relationship between pastor and parishioners. In 1937, the sanctuary’s original platform with central pulpit and a raised gallery for organ and choir were removed, replaced by a central altar, with the pulpit and lectern in the sides and choir stalls behind. That year the organ was installed, as well. Later, front pews were removed and by the late 1980s, sermons were preached from in front of the chancel rail, to bring the word closer to the people.
There was a major exterior renovation in 1968, but by 1975, the congregation debated which option for the structure would best serve St. Paul’s future ministry. That led to a vote to demolish in 1979. But with the designation of the church building as a city landmark in 1981, the Church began another odyssey, eventually becoming the first congregation to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to ban landmarking of houses of worship as an infringement of First Amendment religious freedom protections.
Meanwhile, the ministry went on. Worship attendance tripled in ten years. The Sunday school grew from one child to fifty children. In late 1990, SPSA began talking with Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, on West 88th Street, about joining programming; after B’nai Jershurun’s roof fell in, the two congregations began sharing SPSA’s sanctuary, starting August 1991. Since 1995, SPSA has shared space with the Ethiopian Evangelical Church, and since 1996 has hosted Iglesia Cristo Vivo, a primarily gay and lesbian Hispanic Church. These relationships have enriched SPSA both spiritually and architecturally, as the banner that now greets all who worship in the sanctuary says: “How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony”.