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St. John's History - 1. The Founders of St. John's

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

               The first formal meeting of St. John's Church was held on September 23, 1843, in the residence of William B. Townsend for the purpose of organising the parish. Chosen as wardens were Charles McLean Simonson and William H. Aspinwall, prominent members of the community. They were joined by vestrymen William B. Townsend, William D. Cuthbertson, Levi M. Cook, James R. Boardman, M.D., Lewis Lyman, Daniel B. Allen, William Fountain, and William H. White, men considered “Protestant in the rejection of all unscriptural additions to the faith; Episcopal and Catholic in her creed, government and three-fold ministry.”

                It was a time when the population of Staten Island was very small and occupied by large landed proprietors. In 1843 it was a rural seafaring community of 10,000 residents living in hamlets. It was isolated from the rest of New York and facilities for worship were few and far between. The parish of St. Andrew encompassed virtually the whole Island, and its Rector, The Rev. Dr. Moore, ministered to all Episcopalians at the time. The town of Clifton has various denominational preferences, and a proposal that a “union church” be erected in which various evangelical churches would officiate alternately, was found to impracticable. Since the majority of the organisers were Episcopalian, it was determined that a pastor of their evangelical views should be called as rector.

                  In this community, these men of large catholic sympathies, men of prominence in the community and of large affairs, were able to start St. John’s Church on its mission of mercy. The land for the present church building was owned by Charles McLean Simonson, the first senior warden, who was of Dutch descent. He was known as a hospitable and generous man, and a trusted friend of the pastor of St. Andrew’s Church. Records show that members of his family still worshipped at the church 50 years later.

                 William H. Aspinwall, the junior warden, was a successful merchant, with ships in ports throughout the world. He was considered an honest and sincere Christian. Other vestrymen were William B. Townsend, proprietor and editor of the New York Daily Advertiser and William D. Cuthbertson, a president of the St. George’s Society of New York. St. George’s Society of New York was founded in 1770 by English settlers for the purpose of offering advice and relief to fellow Englishmen in need or distress. Its mission today is to assist disadvantaged people of British and Commonwealth heritage living in the New York area. The Society provides two major forms of assistance, a Beneficiary Program helping elderly and disabled people, and a Scholarship Program at Lehman College (part of CUNY) supporting outstanding students with university tuition.

                  Mr. Cuthbertson was also a co-founder (with William Aspinwall and Jacob Le Roy) of the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children of Seamen. In 1937 and based on a need for the agency to remain”…up to date and keeping with the times”, the agency’s name was changed from The Society for the Relief of Destitute Children of Seamen to the Society for Seamen’s Children. In 1998, in recognition of the agency’s historical roots, the agency’s name was revised to Seamen’s Society for Children and Families. Today, Seamen’s has grown to become a full-service child welfare agency meeting the needs of children and families in New York City.

                 Occasional services were held at the Clifton Hotel, on Cliff Street, and as attendance increased it was decided to build a sanctuary. The cornerstone of the first St. John’s Church was laid by the Rev. D. David Moore; assisted by the Rev. Kingston Goddard; the Rev. Vandervort Bruce and the Rev. Gregory T. Bedell, rector of the Church of the Ascension, New York. On March 30, 1844 the building was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Benjamin T. Onderdonk and on the following Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Moore preached the first sermon in it. Gifts offered for the first building include a large bible presented by Commodore and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt. The first child baptized in the church was Cornelius Vanderbilt and the first bride was Sophia J. Torrance, the daughter of Mrs. Commodore Vanderbilt.

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