Saint John's Episcopal Church
Staten Island, New York

 

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St. John’s Episcopal Church

Staten Island, NY

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

(information provided by the Office of the Borough President, http://www.statenislandusa.com)

St. John’s Church is located in one of the oldest and most stable neighborhoods of Staten Island. Staten Island is one of the fastest-growing boroughs in New York City. Like the borough itself, the St. John’s community is extremely diverse. With a population of only 443,728 as of the 2000 Census, Staten Island has long prided itself on being the most suburban of the five boroughs of New York City. Despite its suburban feel, travel to any of the other boroughs, and particularly to Manhattan, is easily accessed and convenient, by either the Verrazano Bridge or the Staten Island Ferry. We have the luxury of also being proximal to New Jersey. In some ways, Staten Islanders experience the best of all opportunities.

Staten Island is home to several attractions, including the Richmond County Bank Ballpark, which is located next to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.  The stadium is home to the Staten Island Yankees, who have launched the career of celebrated New York Yankee pitcher Wang;  it overlooks the East River and the Staten Island September 11th Memorial, a beautiful tribute to the dozens of Staten Island men and women who lost their lives in 2001.  Other celebrated attractions are the Staten Island Zoo and both South and Midland Beaches, where yearlong visitors stroll along the Boardwalk.  A restaurant and catering hall have provided “economic and visitor enhancement” since 2004, by providing dinner guests with stunning views of the shoreline.  The Boardwalk also provides easy access to a nearby senior park, which contains special features such as checkerboard tables, benches, and bocce courts.  The Ocean Breeze Fishing Pier, opened in 2002, at 835 feet long, is one of the largest in the city.  Freedom Circle is also the site of frequent visitors, to commemorate the many servicemen and women from Staten Island who have fought to defend America’s freedom.  Staten Island is also home to the Greenbelt, a preservation of 2,800 acres of woodlands, wetlands, and meadows.

Cultural diversity is important to Staten Island, as well.  The landmark Snug Harbor Cultural Center, originally established as a nineteenth-century residence for retired seamen, also houses the Staten Island Botanical Garden and the Staten Island Children’s Museum.  This location is also the future home of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, which is currently located at 75 Stuyvesant Place. The Sandy Ground Historical Museum was established as a farming community during the nineteenth-century by freed slaves, and is the oldest such community in America.  Many descendents of the original settlers still live in the area.  Staten Island is also home to the National Lighthouse Museum, the beautifully restored St. George Theatre, and the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, which is the first Chinese Scholar’s Garden in the United States.  Visitors also flock to the Garibaldi Meucci Museum, the Alice Austen House, and the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, located on Lighthouse Hill, which contains a complete replica of a Buddhist Temple.  The CSI Center for the Arts, located at the College of Staten Island, features five theaters under one roof, making it Staten Island’s ideal performance venue.  For a bit of 'home-grown' Broadway entertainment, audiences flock to the campus of Wagner College, where students from the drama department stage sophisticated renditions of popular musicals, both recent and classic, throughout the year.

Staten Island is a land also rich in historical significance.  Historic Richmond Town and Conference House Park provide history aficionados with a glimpse into colonial life; the former is the original seat of the Richmond County Government, while the latter is the site of a 1776 peace conference between representatives of the Continental Congress and the Commander of British Forces during the Revolutionary War.  Fort Wadsworth, now the Gateway National Recreation Area, is one of the oldest military sites in the United States, having guarded New York City for almost two hundred years.

A brief history of St. John’s Church, Staten Island

(Originally compiled by The Reverend John Romig Johnson, Ph.D., and Mrs. Marjorie Johnson)

In the 1840’s the population of the South Eastern end of Staten Island was very small.  The area known as Clifton was occupied by large landed gentry and opportunities for worship were limited.  The first suggestion about worship was that a “union church” be built which would serve all the various denominations.  This plan seemed impractical and since the Episcopalians were the largest and most influential group, it was agreed that an Episcopal Church would be built and it would join the diocese of New York. The agreement was that a pastor of “evangelical views” would be called as rector.

On September 23, 1843 a meeting was held at the residence of William B. Townsend for the purpose of organizing the parish.  Wardens and vestrymen were chosen.  All were men of prominence in the community and in larger affairs. 

The first services were held at the Clifton Hotel on Cliff Street but a steady increase in attendance revealed a need for a proper Church building.  Construction of a small Carpenter’s Gothic structure across the road from the present church was completed in 1843 and consecrated on March 30th the following year.  It is of particular historical interest that the first child baptized in the church, was Cornelius Vanderbilt and the first bride married there was Mrs. Sophia J. Torrance, the daughter of Commodore and Mrs. Vanderbilt.

The first rector, the Reverend Kingston Goddard, had served Emmanuel Church in Brooklyn and for three years he provided faithful pastoral leadership and eloquent preaching at St. John’s.  With his departure to become rector of a large Philadelphia parish, he nominated the Rev. Dr. Alexander Mercer who was then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania to be his successor.  He was unanimously elected rector by the vestry.  Ill health forced this brilliant preacher and thinker to retire after five years.  He was followed by Richard Abercrombie the scion of an illustrious family both in the States and in England.

Certainly no name is more associated with St. John’s Parish in the Nineteenth Century than the Rev. John C. Eccleston who was rector from 1856 to 1863 and again from 1867 to 1899.  His ministry at St. John’s spanned nearly half a century.  In his Jubilee sermon of December 31, 1893 he exhorted the parish not to rest on past achievement however grand or however weary they might be, but to press on to what remains to be done for realizing God’s Kingdom here on earth.  It is also worth noting in passing that his daughter Gertrude was Alice Austen’s best friend and she and Austin enjoyed many happy hours together at the rectory.

Bishop Horatio Potter laid the corner stone of the present church on November 10, 1869 and the church was consecrated on September 30, 1871. It was built in Victorian Gothic style with the exception of large clock tower and steeple that served as a landmark for ships entering New York Harbor.  At the close of World War I, St. John’s sexton, Frank Pfleging, welcomed each shipload of soldiers returning from the War by waving a flag from the steeple and ringing the fine bells of the church.

In 1881 a rectory was built on the grounds.  It was a charming Victorian home, made of stone and cedar shingles with a rich piazza running across the back of the building. Later a legacy of $5,000 from the estate of the Rev. Dr. Mercer was the nucleus for building the Mercer Chapel.  This was the first Sunday school building and parish house.  All three buildings are reportedly the work of Arthur Gilman a noted 19th Century architect who donated his services as well as a stained glass window as a memorial to his son. From Bay Street the three buildings presented a picturesque scene. 

Later, in 1911 a large hall, the John C. Eccleston Parish House, was added and until it was razed in 1998 served as center for Christian education as well as for social and community functions of all sorts.  There were classrooms, a large auditorium, kitchen, and later, even a basketball court.

In the 1950’s the church was redecorated by colorful decorations of blue, green, red and gold painted in the arches and at the heads of columns of the church.  Most recently, in July of 2000, four new memorial stained-glass windows were added to the Church, which were designed and rendered, by Michael and Son, a venerable Staten Island institution.

One interesting aspect of the clerical leadership in the Twentieth Century was the length of their tenures.  Edward Dodd served from 1907 until 1920; William Pott served from 1920 to 1940; Albert Frost, 1940-1943; Alexander Frier, 1943-1960; Howard Bingley from 1961 - 1978, and John-Michael Crothers, 1978-1999, and John Romig Johnson, 2002 – 2005.  We are currently served by Rev. Rhoda Treherne-Thomas, Priest Associate since 2003.

Today we are in a period of restoring our buildings, deepening our faith, and extending our witness to the wider community.  Since 1974 the church has been granted landmark status because it has “a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.”  We are concerned both to honor our rich heritage as part of the historic Catholic Church and our new opportunity to serve Christ in the 21st Century.

Social, demographic and economic changes in the 1970’s and 80’s hit St. John’s Church hard and for a time in 1973 the parish house had to be closed in the winter to save fuel costs. The parish house, the sexton’s cottage and the rector’s garage were all in appalling condition and presented the parish with an overwhelming financial burden that could not be ignored. Eventually through the efforts of the Wardens, Vestry and the then rector, Rev. John-Michael Crothers, a bold plan was conceived.  The old, dilapidated parish house was taken down and a new building began to be constructed.  This gave birth to Canterbury House, a moderate-income senior apartment building with lovely ground floor rooms for Church School classes, parish gatherings, and other social and religious occasions.  The building is a model for such facilities in the future and a major opportunity for ministry. 

In 2002-2003 the parish restored the outside of the rectory removing the aluminum siding which was installed during the 1970’s and returned the look to the Victorian period, back to the gingerbread molding.  The interior of the rectory was both restored and up-dated to include central air-conditioning.  The basement was converted into a beautiful parish office which includes an attractive meeting room.

When Dr. Eccleston spoke at the Jubilee celebration of St. John’s Church on December 31, 1893, he chose as his text, Joshua 13:1.  Now Joshua was old and stricken in years; and the Lord said to him, thou art old and stricken in years and there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed.”  Eccleston argues that while the Israelites were weary and their zeal was flagging, God called them to fresh exertions.”  Dr. Eccleston’s point was that God will not let his people rest on past achievements, but calls them to new challenges and new fields of wider service for His purposes.  It seems that this dear old parish has struggled valiantly with a limited number of lay leaders and difficult hills of financial necessity to climb.  We, responding to God’s clarion call, have begun to identify this church as “none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven” and it is becoming a place of refreshment, peace and cheer for all of us.  We are deepening our devotion to our Lord and gaining inspiration and purpose to tackle the future under His guiding hand.

A thumbnail sketch like this does not do justice to the rich and varied programs, which this church has sponsored and directed over the many years of its life and ministry.  There have been large church schools, choirs and youth choirs, boy scouts and campfire girls, pageants and plays, basketball teams, altar guilds, and the Episcopal Church Women just to mention a few.

Our Programs and Parish Ministries

St. John’s Church is entirely reliant upon the assistance of its parishioners, who are able to serve the church at any age, and at every stage of their individual religious journeys.  Without the aid of these volunteers, St. John’s would be unable to function, and therefore accepts, even welcomes, the unique contributions offered by such a diverse congregation.

Both volunteerism and special services have worked to foster the communal relationship among parishioners, bridging the age gap between the youth and the elderly in order to create a unified church at St. John’s, with common goals for its future.

Lay Eucharistic Ministers

Eight parishioners compose the body of St. John’s Lay Eucharistic Ministers, who also act as Lay Eucharistic Visitors.  These trained and licensed volunteers assist in administering the chalice at the Eucharist during the weekly masses, and deliver communion to those of our parishioners who are hospitalized, invalids, or otherwise unable to travel to church services. 

Acolytes

Men, women and children ranging in age from 7 years to well-seasoned adults serve as acolytes, assisting the celebrating priest during regular masses and special services, including holidays and other holy days.  They are trained to be crucifers, servers, thurifers, and boat-bearers.  They are an enthusiastic group who attend training sessions, and also participate in Acolyte Festivals in the Diocese of New York as well as the October Festivals at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Our acolytes provide an escort of the cross and torches to present the gifts of bread, wine and the collection to the sanctuary at the time of the offertory.

 

Altar Guild

Our Altar Guild currently consists of six people who make up three teams and serve for three-weeks at a time preparing the altar before the services, clean up afterwards, change the altar and votive candles throughout the church, launder and care for the linen and Eucharistic vestments.

Children’s Worship

Our children’s services are a recent addition to St. John’s.  During these services, which are held periodically throughout the year, the children perform various roles in the service, including those of lectors, ushers, and gift-bearers.  The youth are also the focus of the day’s sermon, with the celebrating priest coming down from the pulpit to address the children in a way that is both concise and contemporary, thereby describing Biblical stories and concepts so that children can understand and relate to them.

Church School

St. John’s has one of the largest Church School groups of the Staten Island Episcopal Churches.  Each week from September through June we provide the children with a Bible-based program for the one-room school which includes stories, crafts and activities. They meet at 9:45 and join the parish in church at the “Prayers of the People.”

Ushers

Both our 8 and 10 AM parishioners are greeted by a dedicated group of five men who welcome each person, provide them with the weekly Bulletin and whatever handouts are necessary, making sure that each person wishing communion receives the sacrament, notifying the priest of those who cannot make the steps to the communion rail.

           

Music

Music plays a large role in the worship at St. John’s.  We have a small but dedicated choir who meet each Wednesday evening for rehearsals.  The 1982 Hymnal, which we have been using since 2001, still is considered to be the “new hymnal” by many.  We have sung approximately 250 hymns and several mass settings from this hymnal but there are still a few die-hards who prefer the 1940 hymnal.  We use “Wonder, Love & Praise” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for anthems and to sing congregationally.

We have recently hired a new organist who is willing to take requests from the parish of their favorite hymns.  Together we hope to expand our repertoire.

For the past two years we have hosted Con Brio, an acapella group from England, who performed both sacred and secular pieces.

In November 2007 the Wagner College Concert Choir opened their fall season with a concert at St. John’s, sponsored by the Richmond IPC (Inter-Parish Council) and the Island-wide Lutheran Churches.

Adult Education

This is one point where we have been historically lacking.  We recently have held Bible study groups led by Rev. Rhoda Treherne-Thomas and by a parishioner, Dr. John Abraham, who has a background in Bible training and teaching, as well as a degree in theology. Both were educational and enjoyable.  We are lucky to have such talented educators in our presence.

We hosted a graduate-level discussion on the Apocryphal Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Dr. Deidre Good, a well-known theologian and scholar.

All of these programs were well received by our parishioners.

Outreach

Our commitment to the community is proven by our participation in the many possibilities provided to us.  Our parish donates food on a weekly basis to The Episcopal Feeding Ministry, which is located at All Saints Episcopal Church where the ministry is based.

Each Shrove Tuesday finds us preparing and eating pancakes and bacon with our neighbors, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church.  Each year we alternate picking a charity, which receives the free-will offering donated from this event.  We consider it an opportunity for reflection and giving as we proceed to the Lenten season.

This year we celebrated our diversity with our sister-church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, located in nearby Stapleton.  A Cultural Weekend was held on our grounds, with food of cooked by the African and Caribbean members of our parishes.  It was enjoyed by all who participated and was a first of its kind, a joint parishes fundraising event.

A collection box in the back of the church is there for used eyeglasses, which are given to the Kiwanis Club for distribution to the needy.

We have a donation box in the church which is for items needed by our troops in Iraq.  One of our parishioners is responsible to send packages of collected items to the troops.

Last year our Church School students helped organize the collection of Christmas gifts during October and November.  They brought them to the St. Nicholas Festival at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to be given to people who are suffering with AIDS and their families and caregivers.  Our parish provided the largest donation and our church school youngest participants there.  We are proud of them!

Sponsorship is happily extended to the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and the Venture Crew.

Sunshine/Hospitality Committee

We are blessed to have three wonderful women who see to it that each visitor who signs our guest book is sent a welcoming, personal note.  Our sick and shut-in members receive cards reminding them we are praying for them.

Episcopal Churchwomen (ECW)

We have an active ECW group who do fundraising for our special projects, and are counted on to bake and cook for our special receptions.   These women send flowers to the shut-ins at Christmas and Easter as well.

WORSHIP

At St. John’s we believe we are basically a traditional parish although, we do not perceive ourselves to be strictly High Church.  On Sunday mornings, we celebrate the Rite I Eucharist (no music) at 8:00a.m., and at 10:00 a.m., we celebrate Rite II Eucharist with music and choir.  Our 8 am parishioners are faithful to this mass which is a said mass at our “Lady Chapel.”  The only time this mass is changed to 10 am is on Christmas Day.  The Rite II Sung Eucharist is each Sunday at 10 am from September through June.  During July and August the ordinaries of the mass are not sung.  Our Christmas Eve Mass is currently at 10 pm which we find more convenient for families and older parishioners as well.

During Lent we have a service of Stations of the Cross on Friday nights.

Staten Island has a very active IPC (Inter-Parish Council) and we celebrate the feasts of All Saints and Ascension as a community at those respective parishes.

We have an extremely close relationship with our neighbor, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church which lies approximately ˝ mile north of St. John’s on Bay Street.  We have a joint Blessing of the Palms on Palm Sunday at Von Briesen Park, also on Bay Street then sing as we process to St. John’s where St. Mary’s parishioners join us in prayer before they process to their church. This has been a tradition for over a decade.

(Picture above is from Palm Sunday 2005 – The Rev. Victor Buebendorf of St. Mary’s R.C. Church, The Rev. Deacon Ted Clemens, The Rev. John Romig Johnson, and The Rev. Rhoda Treherne-Thomas, in Von Briensen Park)

During Epiphany, St. Mary’s parishioners are invited to St. John’s for Lessons and Carols.  St. Mary’s hosts an evensong during the Lenten or Easter Season.  For these events our priests also exchange pulpits as well. 

Our parishioners are comfortable with and committed to maintaining this schedule and to the use of both Rite I and Rite II traditions. We are looking for a rector who shares these values and who can bring clarity and relevance to the liturgy.

Canterbury House

Canterbury House was a joint venture between St. John’s Church and Sheldrake Corporation to offer affordable housing for seniors in Staten Island.  Two of our buildings, the parish house and the sexton’s house, were raised and Canterbury House was built on that property.  The goal was for the parish to provide outreach to the community as well as giving us a safe, dry space for our functions and Church School.   This project would also relieve some of the church’s financial burdens while leaving a legacy for future generations.

Canterbury House has 84 one-bedroom apartments, which are affordable to seniors with specific income guidelines.  The residents have a community room, and St. John’s has its own room to use for our coffee hour, and other parish functions.

The female residents have formed a social group called the “Canterbury Girls,” which meets twice a month.  Its members hold social events that are popular with our parishioners as well.

Many of the residents have become active in St. John’s, while others attend Thursday night Rosaries in their community room.

Looking Forward

As stated above, the parishioners at St. John’s do not wish to change the times of Sunday services. We do, however, wish to strengthen our youth involvement. It is our belief that a rector, who can bring clarity and relevance to the liturgy will inspire the youth in our community. We are seeking a rector, who has strong skills as a preacher and as a teacher.

While most of our parishioners prefer a traditional form of service, there are some who strongly believe that we should explore other, more contemporary alternatives, especially regarding music, which might appeal to younger parishioners. To this end, members of our community have indicated their willingness to offer their time and expertise in this endeavor.

 

         

 

 

(Pentecost 2006)