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Standing the Test of Time: Father’s Heart Church

One of the East Village’s few individually designated New York City landmarks is a distinctive Gothic Revival church at 545 East 11th Street. The building, today known as Father’s Heart Church, has been a distinctive presence in the East Village for more than 140 years. Its name and the nature of its congregants have changed over time, but its mission of spirituality and service has been consistent through the years.

The Father’s Heart Church was constructed between 1867 and 1868 as the Methodist Episcopal Chapel by the New York City Sunday School and Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, an organization that provided religious services as well as housing, food and clothing. Its construction was funded by the sale of the Dry Dock Mission at East 9th Street & Avenue B, with donations and pledges totaling $25,000.

Dry Dock Mission, demolished 1975

The Greek Revival style Dry Dock Mission building (1846-47) was sold to the Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession in the City of New York, now the Trinity Lower East Side Parish. The Dry Dock Mission building was demolished in 1975 and replaced with a modern building in 1993 but, Trinity Lower East Side Parish remains at the corner of East 9th Street & Avenue B. The Dry Dock District, now known as Alphabet City, was a prosperous neighborhood of single family homes known for its connection to the ship-building trade. Like the Mission, many buildings from this era have been lost and GVSHP is working diligently to research, document and protect what remains.

The Methodist Episcopal Chapel was an early project of the architectural firm of William Field and Son who would go on to design a number of notable buildings including the Hastings Building (1870) at 134-40 Grand Street in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District Expansion and worker housing financed by housing reformer and philanthropist Alfred Treadway White. The Home (1876) and Tower (1888) Buildings and the Workingmen’s Cottages (1879) in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn had indoor toilets and running water in the apartments, open stairways for better ventilation and playgrounds as well as libraries – all marked improvements from the living conditions in tenement buildings.

Throughout its history the church has served the spiritual and social needs of its congregants and the community. In 1868, the Chapel established the Cornell Reading Room (Sound familiar? No, not that Cornell but close…) which offered “intellectual instruction and amusement for persons of both sexes, above fourteen years of age, who live in that overcrowded and poverty-stricken locality. Supplied with books, magazines, newspapers, stereoscopes, soetropes, and other parlor amusements,” according to the New York Times, March 27, 1869. The Reading Room was funded by William Wiggins Cornell, President of the City Sunday School and Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church of New York. Cornell, with his brother John Black Cornell, operated one of the largest cast iron construction firms in the city, J. B. & W. W. Cornell & Co. You’ve probably walked by one of their many foundry marks on buildings they worked on throughout the city. Cornell is also the namesake of the Cornell College (1855) in Mount Vernon, Iowa, not Cornell University (1865), in Ithaca, New York which was founded by his distant cousin Ezra Cornell, of Western Union.

In addition to the Reading Room the Church sent local children to the country and had a medical dispensary. Dispensaries were the 19th century equivalent of today’s health clinic that offers free and low cost medical care. The Stuyvesant Polyclinic at 137 Second Avenue was another medical dispensary in the area.

As it expanded its services, the Church grew and evolved. In 1874 a small rear addition was added to house a school. Twenty five years later the Church bought the neighboring tenement building at 543 East 11th Street and renovated both buildings. The architectural firm of Louis E. Jallade & Joel D. Barber completed the work which included converting the tenement for classroom use and changing the façade of the church by remodeling the door in the Colonial Revival style, adding brick quoins and a stone lintel as well as moving the door from the center to the western bay where it remains today. Following the completion of the renovations, in 1901 the church was renamed the People’s Home Church and Settlement. In addition to a sanctuary, the buildings housed a kindergarten, nursery, gymnasium, public baths and classrooms. The Church primarily served a German population but also had a large Italian Mission and services were offered in both languages.

Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, demolished 1969

The Methodist Episcopal Church closed the church in 1930 and it became a Russian church in 1931.  In 1941 the Church and the tenement were sold to the Russian Ukrainian & Polish Pentecostal Church, the first Slavic Pentecostal Church in the United States. The Russian Ukrainian & Polish Pentecostal Church was established in 1919 by Ivan Efimovicha Voronaeff a Russian-born minster who converted from the Baptist faith to Pentecostalism. Before acquiring the buildings at 543-545 East 11th Street, the Church used the facilities of the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church at 737 6th Street, between Avenues C & D. The Emmanuel Presbyterian Church remains at the same location, but its stunning High Victorian Gothic building (1874) was demolished and replaced by a Brutalist style building in 1970.

By 1983, the Ukrainian and Polish speaking congregants had formed separate churches and the building was renamed the Evangelical Christian Church. In 1998, the Evangelical Church merged with The Father’s Heart Ministries and was renamed The Father’s Heart Ministry Center. Social services and community outreach continue to be a focus for the Church. Today it provides a number of valuable services for the community including a food pantry, parenting classes, youth job training program and English language classes.

Certainly, the services this Church has provided to the community are remarkable. But, what is also remarkable is that while other religious institutions demolished their historic buildings, the Father’s Heart Ministry Center and the institutions that preceded it remained committed to maintaining and utilizing this historic building. Institutions like churches are key players in the narrative of an area’s history. In the East Village, in particular, with many of these precious sites lost and under threat from development, the remaining edifices that have stood through time like the Father’s Heart Church remind us how important it is to protect and preserve these sites with landmark designation. GVSHP is actively working to research, protect and preserve the architectural and cultural treasures of the East Village. To learn more about our efforts please click here.

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