On 10th Street in Manhattan’s East Village, standing at an angle offset from the surrounding city streets, stands St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery
, the oldest building of continuous worship in New York City. Built in 1799 by Peter Stuyvesant II, the great-grandson of the 17th-century Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, the parish became the first Episcopal church independent of the famous Trinity Church in America. The church was actually built atop the burial vault of the elder Stuyvesant, who had been buried on the family farm that once occupied the land (Bowery comes from the Dutch word for farm, bowerij
). This explains the building’s north-south orientation, as the grid of streets that now surrounds it had not yet been laid out.
We recently paid a visit to St. Mark’s during last month’s 5 Dutch Days 5 Boroughs
festival, which celebrated Dutch culture and the city’s historical ties to the Netherlands. Rev. Michael Relyea, as associate pastor who has worked at the parish for 40 years, led us on a guided tour of the church’s rich history and many ongoing projects and programs.
The offset orientation of the church creates open spaces around the building, including the East and West Burial Yards and a public triangle in front. The triangle is dedicated to Abe Lebewohl
, the owner of the famous Second Avenue Deli
(now located in Murray Hill), who was murdered during a robbery in 1996. Peter Stuyestant’s burial vault lies beneath the church in the East Yard, but unfortunately, no one has been able to access it since 1953, when his last surviving direct descendant, Augustus Van Horn Stuyvesant, was laid to rest. in his will, he ordered the chamber sealed, and he, along with 80 of his relatives (and perhaps a few slaves who worked on the Stuyvesant farm) were encased in a truckload of concrete.
In the West Yard, there is a curious burial slab marked Vault No. 95. The vault belongs to John Slidell, who died in 1854, but beneath his name is engraved “Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry.” Commodore Perry, famous for opening up Japan in 1854, spent a large part of his career at the Brooklyn Navy Yard
. He was second-in-command of the yard during the 1830’s, overseeing construction of the steam warship USS Fulton
. In 1841, he was promoted to commandant, a post he held until 1843. Perry died in 1858 in New York City, and though he was meant to be buried at his family plot in Newport, Rhode Island, difficulties transporting his body caused him to be temporarily interred at St. Mark’s in the burial vault of his friend John Sidell. In 1866, his body was disinterred and moved to its current resting place in Newport.
St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery has long been a supporter of the arts, and the church has been transformed into a multi-use performance and exhibition space as well as a place of worship. Since the 1920‘s, the church has hosted cutting-edge dancers, actors and poets - the poet Khalil Gibran was appointed to the parish arts committee in 1919. The Poetry Project
has been in the church since 1966, and St. Mark’s is currently home to the Ontological-Hysteric Theater
, an experimental theater founded by Richard Foreman and housed in the church since 1992. St. Mark’s also has a long history of involvement in historic preservation and community outreach. In the 1960’s, the church took in active role in trying to revive what was a rapidly declining neighborhood by launching the Preservation Youth Project, a program which enlisted neighborhood youth in cleaning up and revitalizing the church’s outdoor spaces. The yards were transformed into parks for the community, and the West Yard was laid with cobblestones recovered from the construction of the 2nd Avenue Subway tunnel
(which remains unfinished).
The parish’s involvement in preservation has continued through its relationship with the Neighborhood Preservation Center
, which is housed in the church rectory. The center provides resources for research and meeting spaces for organizations and individuals engaged in efforts to “facilitate and encourage citizen participation in the improvement and protection of New York City’s diverse neighborhoods.” The center is currently holding an online auction
, which runs through December 7, to raise funds for its various programs. Among the items for auction are a trip to the oldest bath house in New York City
, a gift certificate and cookbook from Veselka
, a membership to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum
, and four tickets for our Brewed in Brooklyn Tour
for the 2010 season.
St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery does offer occasional guided tours, but they do have an excellent self-guided tour
of the church and grounds available on their website.Correction:
St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery is not the oldest building of continuous worship in New York City, but it sits on the oldest site, as there was a Dutch Reformed chapel where St. Mark's stands today. Many thanks to the keen eye of Rev. Relyea for spotting our mistake.For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.