Holy Apostles’ Long and Varied History


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A church with a rich past on Ninth Avenue continues its community mission


Photos



  • The Church of the Holy Apostles, on Ninth Avenue near 28th Street. Photo: Raanan Geberer




  • The Church of the Holy Apostles, on Ninth Avenue near 28th Street. Photo: Raanan Geberer




BY RAANAN GEBERER

One of the most striking buildings in Chelsea is the Church of the Holy Apostles, As the website of the New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists puts it, “The prominent octagonal spire of the Church of the Holy Apostles is a welcoming landmark among the industrial buildings and red brick towers in the far western blocks of Chelsea.” Anyone who has seen it will understand why the church was designated a New York City landmark.

As the church’s website points out, Holy Apostles, an Episcopal congregation, has “a rich history and commitment to social outreach and justice ... . The Church was rumored to be a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom. It housed the Episcopal Peace fellowship during the Vietnam War, and it was the site of the ordination of Ellen Barrett, the church’s first openly lesbian priest.”

It hosts a wealth of activities, one of the best known being its soup kitchen. According to its website, Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen is the largest emergency feeding program in the city. About 50 volunteers daily serve more than 1,000 meals every weekday, as well as provide counseling and referral services. It also has a writer’s workshop, yoga, meditation and computer classes.

“After Hurricane Sandy, when the church temporarily had no power, soup kitchen volunteers made sandwiches by candlelight. When the kitchen saw it was running out of ingredients, it put out a call on social media to donate sandwiches, and it received more than 3,000 sandwiches by Friday of that week”, says Hannah Albee, communications manager for the soup kitchen.”

The congregation pre-dates the church building. The church’s site says the parish itself was founded in 1844 as an outreach program by Trinity Church to immigrants who worked on the waterfront, but other sources trace it further back to 1836, when a Sunday school was founded. Indeed, The New York Times of Oct. 22, 1926, reported on a celebration of the church’s 90th year.

Holy Apostles’ building, at 296 Ninth Ave., was designed by prominent architect Minard Lafever and built between 1846 and 1848. Further additions were made in the 1850s. “Structurally, the building is unusual for the thickness of its outer walls, which bear the weight not only of the slate roof and beam, but also the weight of the vaulting ... Beams supporting the roof and vaulting are hand finished and pegged together, using no nails, nuts, or bolts,” the website says.

The stained-glass windows are particularly noteworthy. The originbal windows were designed by William J. Bolton, the first artist to craft stained-glass windows in the U.S., with help from his brother John. They feature sepia-toned round panes depicting Biblical scenes, surrounded by panels of geometric and floral glass. In the 1850s, when the church was expanded, the firm of Sharp & Steel designed the additional four windows.

In its long existence, the church has gone through many trials. In 1922, it suffered $10,000 worth of damage due to a fire during which firefighters had to make a hole in the roof, according to news reports. Like other institutions, it felt the sting of the Great Depression — The Times of Dec. 21, 1930, reported that the church borrowed $9,500 to pay a debt to the bank.

Possibly the most devastating event in the church’s history took place took place in April 1990, when fire attacked the building as a renovation of the building was nearing its end. The flames ravaged parts of the roof, the vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows, and there was also extensive water and smoke damage to the organ, walls and furnishings.

However, the generosity of parishioners, neighborhood residents and friends helped to overcome the damage. According to The Times, foundations, corporations, religious organizations, New York State’s historic preservation arm and individuals paid more than half of the $7 million restoration cost, with the rest covered by insurance.

The Times described the reopening ceremony, in which a white-haired woman cried, one of the church’s two cats romped down the aisle, and the fire captain who directed the fight against the blaze attended. The paper quoted the Rev. Elizabeth G. Maxwell, associate rector, as saying, “It’s sort of like a miracle.”

Of course, the soup kitchen is still going strong. Ian Frazier, who started a writer’s workshop at the kitchen in 1994, described the experience in detail in a 2008 New Yorker article, “Hungry Minds.” He wrote about some of the interesting people he met, such as Sundance, a hobo who told him where to hop freight trains; David, who wrote a poem about his job as a bicycle messenger; Jay, a volunteer who often wrote about the neighborhood’s history; and Carol, who wore a different hat every day and wrote about attending a memorial service for Allen Ginsberg.

In addition to getting food, patrons of the soup kitchen can tell counselors about their various needs. The counselors, in turn, can connect them with social service agencies – “many of whom will have representatives here at the kitchen,” says the soup kitchen’s website.

For many years, Holy Apostles hosted Friday night Sabbath services for Beit Simchat Torah, a congregation for LGBT Jews (although it welcomes everybody). As this article was being written, Beth Simchat Torah was preparing to move into a new home on West 30th Street.

In addition, the church hosts the non-sectarian New York City Community Chorus, which welcomes singers of all levels.





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