St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery has 350 years of history! It’s New York’s oldest site of continuous religious practice, and the church itself second-oldest church building in Manhattan.  If you’re planning to visit St. Mark’s and you’re interested in its history, consider taking a self-guided walking tour, provided by the St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund.

New York’s oldest church. St. Marks in the Bouwerie—where the first English Governor and the last and greatest Dutch Governor are buried—as it appeared in 1853, at the corner of Second Avenue and Eleventh Street

New York’s oldest church. St. Marks in the Bouwerie—where the first English Governor and the last and greatest Dutch Governor are buried—as it appeared in 1853, at the corner of Second Avenue and Eleventh Street

The First 250 Years

In 1651, Petrus Stuyvesant purchased land for a farm—a Dutch “bouwerij,” pronounced “bower-ay”—and by 1660 he had built the first chapel on the site. It was a family chapel, and when he was died, he was buried beneath it. This is why the church building faces true South, even though that makes it skewed from the City’s grid: it originally stood on a rural lane, before the city grew north to meet it.

That structure isn’t the one that stands today, however, because in 1793, the Stuyvesant family sold the chapel to the Episcopal Church for $1. In 1795 the cornerstone of the present fieldstone Georgian style church was laid, built by John McComb Jr. (who also built New York City Hall!); it was consecrated on May 9, 1799. Alexander Hamilton helped incorporate St. Mark’s as the first Episcopal parish independent of Trinity Church in the United States. By 1807, the church was flourishing.

St. Mark’s continued to grow in stature and prominence throughout the 1800s. It was the spiritual home to many notable families, including New York City mayors Philip Hone and Gideon Lee, New York State Attorney General Thomas Addis Emmet, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, and New York State Governor (and later Vice President of the United States) Daniel D. Tompkins. During this time the building was improved as well—in 1828 the church steeple (designed by Martin Euclid Thompson and Ithiel Town) was erected; in 1835, the Parish Hall was built; and in 1836 the Sanctuary was renovated, replacing its square pillars with slender Egyptian Revival pillars. The cast- and wrought-iron fence was added in 1838; in 1856, the Italianate cast-iron portico was added; and in 1861 the building gained a brick addition. In 1903, beautiful stained-glass windows were installed (you can still see some of them in the Sanctuary’s first floor) and in 1913, St. Mark’s was given the altarpiece of the annunciation in the Parish Hall—a reproduction of an original created c.1475 by Andrea della Robbia.

 
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Arts Ascendant

Around the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood around St. Mark’s changed. The German community of the Lower East Side was devastated by the sinking of the General Slocum passenger steamer (resulting in the deaths of more than 1,000 women and children), and wealthier families migrated uptown. The Lower East Side became home to a growing community of artists and writers.

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Rev. William Guthrie (rector from 1911-1937) created the St. Mark’s Arts Committee, with members including Kahlil Gibran, Vachel Lindsay, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and with their guidance St. Mark’s took its place as a cultural center. For example, In 1922 Rev. Guthrie astonished many by declaring that dancers could and would be trained to interpret religion, saying that “the dance is the most inevitable form of expression; it is the human body speaking…an intelligent religion will idealize it.” Despite the disapproval of the broader Church, Guthrie was undeterred. Under his sponsorship Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis danced in the Sanctuary—a tradition that has continued ever since, as the church has hosted the Danspace Project (founded by Larry Fagin and Barbara Dilley) since 1974 and continues to feature dance in worship services. (Isadora Duncan was supposed to dance as well, but her performance was canceled at the last minute due to the Bishop of New York’s disapproval.) Rev. Guthrie also installed the Solon Borglum statues—Aspiration and Inspiration—that still stand in the church’s portico.

Under the next two rectors, Rev. Richard E. McEvoy and Rev. Michael Allen, the church’s commitment to the arts continued. W.H Auden was a parishioner; free jazz concerts were offered in the west yard. In 1963 the Umbra collective held a festival that featured African-American painters, poets, musicians, and others. In 1964, St. Mark’s congregant Ralph Cook founded Theater Genesis, a playwrights group, and Sam Shepard’s first plays were among the early productions; Rev. Allen also welcomed screenings of experimental films at the church in the 1960s, when New York City had banned so-called “underground” films. Eventually, the incipient arts programs were recognized by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare with a first, significant grant; shortly thereafter, the Poetry Project officially was founded in 1966. In 1969, the band Mind Garage performed the Electric Liturgy—the first-ever documented Christian rock worship service—at St. Mark’s, live on national TV.

The goal of these arts projects was, in part, to attract young people; Michael Allen said, “We were not out to reform kids. It was our commitment that people find their own identities. What we were after was the opposite of juvenile delinquency: a serious meaningful, committed community.” As part of this goal, the Preservation Youth Project was founded—including some youth who had previously been arrested for robbing the church!—to restore the long-neglected buildings to glory, with the support of Georgia Delano’s Friends of St. Mark’s, an organization with such luminous members as William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Mead, Dore Ashton, LuEsther Mertz, Meredith Monk, and Lewis Mumford. In 1976, the remaining pews were removed from the Sanctuary and the old linoleum floor was replaced with hardwood, creating a beautiful open space for worship, dance, and readings. The steeple was repaired and nearly $500,000 was spent on upgrading and restoring the church.

 
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Fires & Rebuilding

On July 12, 1978 a fire started—apparently caused by a restoration worker’s acetylene torch. It turned into a three-alarm blaze. The iron fences around the church prevented fire companies from using normal equipment, and there was fear that the steeple would collapse. Fortunately, no one was injured, and the steeple stood the blaze—but a back section of the roof did fall in, and 9 of the 23 stained-glass windows in the church were destroyed. The 1836 church bell was cracked beyond repair. (The bell and the steeple’s original clock still sit in the East and West churchyards today!)

A growing city tree results in a broken sidewalk … but a gift from the diocese allowed us to fix it!

A growing city tree results in a broken sidewalk … but a gift from the diocese allowed us to fix it!

The fire was undoubtedly a disaster, but within hours St. Mark’s had committed to rebuild, and the Friends of St. Mark’s had become Citizens to Save St. Mark’s, later the St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund. It took a year to clear the rubble and five years before the church could be rededicated, but rededicated it was. The windows in the gallery—which were destroyed in the fire—were replaced by remarkable abstract stained-glass artwork designed by Harold Edelman. Their colors represent the liturgical year. Almost as soon as the rebuilding work was over, another fire struck and destroyed the Ernest Flagg Rectory. Fortunately, the rectory was able to be rebuilt.

St. Mark’s dedication to the arts by no means ended with the fires—Richard Foreman’s avant-garde Ontological-Hysteric Theater was housed at the church from 1992 to 2010, and the Poetry Project, Danspace, New York Theater Ballet Workshop, and Loco-Motion Dance Theater are all currently housed at St. Mark’s. Under the guidance of recent rectors, however, St. Mark’s has also been experiencing a period of rejuvenation as a place of worship and a site of radical Christian welcome. Building projects have reflected this focus: for example, in 2018 an accessibility ramp was added to the historic portico, enabling all of God’s children to take part in St. Mark’s programs—whether they use feet or wheels to get around; sidewalks broken by the root systems of city trees have also been repaired, thanks to a gift from the diocese; and with the support of the St. Mark’s Landmark Fund and generous donors, the tower clocks were finally permanently restored to working order after their destruction by fire nearly 40 years before.

 
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