The life of a parish is like the life of a family, and the parish of Calvary, Holy Communion and St. George's in the City of New York traces its roots to 1749 when Trinity Church established the Chapel of St. George’s on Beekman Street in lower Manhattan. Over the years, the congregation developed in strength, until in 1811 it became a self-supporting parish of the Episcopal Church. In 1846, St. George’s moved to Stuyvesant Square.
Meanwhile the ministry of Calvary Church began in 1832 at an uptown site. The church moved to Gramercy Park in 1846. The writer Edith Wharton used Calvary, the church of the Roosevelt family, as the setting for her novel, The Age of Innocence.
The Church of the Holy Communion was built in 1844 on what is now the Avenue of the Americas. The church's founder, Reverend William Muhlenberg, a leader of the evangelical Catholic movement within the Episcopal Church was closely involved with the design. Muhlenberg established a parish infirmary that became St. Luke’s Hospital. The parishioners' Easter tradition of carrying flowers to the infirmary was the beginning of what is now the Easter parade.
The Reverend Dr. Samuel Moor Shoemaker served at Calvary for 28 years (1928-1952). Shoemaker’s role in the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) is still remembered. As Bill Wilson wrote in AA Comes of Age, “It is through Sam Shoemaker that most of A.A.’s spiritual principles have come. Sam is one of the great channels, one of the prime sources of influences that have gathered themselves into what is now A.A.” The parish is proud of its connection to this program, and continues to provide meeting space for A.A. groups each week.
Artists, writers, and musicians are an important part of the parish history at all the churches. Few have had so long and rich and influence on the life of a parish as the beloved Harry T. Burleigh. Harry T. Burleigh, called one of the saviors of spirituals, was born in 1866, grandson of former slaves. He sang in St. George’s choir for more than 50 years. “He literally sang his great heart out to the glory of God, and especially so in those haunting spirituals,” said the Rev. Elmore McKee, a rector at St. George’s. Burleigh’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” arrangement is said to have inspired Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World.” The two composers worked together during Dvorak’s stay in New York.
During the 19th century, the three congregations sought to balance a commitment to the Lord with a deep desire to serve the community. Programs were developed, hospitals established, and efforts were made on a personal and corporate level to express the biblical and theological recognition of the deep worth of personhood. There was a concern for justice and the pursuit of truth, as well as giving value to aspects of life that were sometimes seen as peripheral to the religious experience. The parish operated health and dental clinics, fresh-air camps, and the first trade schools in the city. Soup kitchens were opened and fresh water was supplied at fountains for tenement dwellers who lacked running waters.
In 1975, the three congregations merged to form one, and later the Church of the Holy Communion was sold to meet the needs of an economic crunch. In that sense, the Parish of Calvary-St. George's is new. But there is strength to be found in the knowledge that generations of the parish family, in times equally trying, have been faithful in their efforts to be the church in New York City.
Parishioners in History
--Chester A. Arthur (1829–1886) – The future 21st President of the United States was married to Ellen Lewis Herndon in Calvary Church on October 25, 1859.
--John Jacob Astor III (1822-1890) – Astor, a parishioner who married Charlotte Augusta Gibbes in Calvary Church on December 9, 1846, was a financier and philanthropist and the father of William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor.
-- Mary Simpson (c.1752-1758 – 1836) - freed slave of George Washington.
--Edith Wharton (1862–1937) – The George Frederick Jones family, including young Edith Newbold Jones, lived in the parish and worshipped at Calvary. The rector’s daughter, Emelyn Washburn, introduced Edith to Goethe, who became her favorite writer. Calvary was used as the setting for Mrs. Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence, and Dr. Ashmore, a character in the novel, was modeled after the Rev. Edward Washburn (rector, 1865–81).
--Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890) – A parishioner and a prominent social reformer, Brace is considered a father of the modern foster care movement and was most renowned for starting the Orphan Train movement of the mid-19th century and for founding The Children’s Aid Society; he is commemorated in a window in Calvary’s chapel.
--Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908) - Eidlitz designed the plain interior and the original openwork spires of St. George's Church. The congregation was so satisfied with the design that they rebuilt the church after a disastrous fire in 1865 following the same design, under Eidlitz' supervision. By that time the design was also influenced by Dr. Stephen Tyng, a new pastor hired for what had become a changing urban congregation, in a neighborhood largely filled with immigrants. J.P. Morgan, still an influential parishioner, helped support many social services programs started by the church.
--Seth Low (1850-1916) - St. George's vestryman - 92nd Mayor of New York City, mayor of Brooklyn, President of Columbia University,and US diplomat.
--Henry Bacon (1866-1924) – Attended St. George's Church. Architect of the Lincoln Memorial
--Samuel Moor Shoemaker (1893–1963) – The Reverend Dr. Samuel Moor Shoemaker, Calvary’s rector from 1925 to 1952, is remembered as a co-founder and spiritual leader of Alcoholics Anonymous.
--Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright (1792-1854) – Dr. Wainwright was elected rector in 1850; he was instrumental in the founding of New York University (NYU) and was later a bishop.
--Arthur Cleveland Coxe (1818–1896) – Coxe, who became rector of Calvary in 1863, was consecrated as the second bishop of Western New York in 1865.
--James Renwick Jr. (1818–1895) – Architect of the present building.
--Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) – Like several members of the Roosevelt family, the future First Lady of the United States was a Calvary Church parishioner. Her parents, Elliott Bulloch Roosevelt and Anna Rebecca Hall, were married in Calvary Church on December 1, 1883. Eleanor Roosevelt was baptized at Calvary Church in 1885 with her uncle, the future President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, standing godfather.
--Calvin Hampton (1938–1984) – Calvin Hampton, a leading American organist and sacred music composer, served as Calvary’s organist and choirmaster from 1963 to 1983.
--Childe Hassam (1859–1935) – Calvary Church was depicted by the American Impressionist artist Childe Hassam. Works featuring the church include “Calvary Church in the Snow,” painted in 1893.
--General George B. McClellan (1826–1885) – General McClellan, the major general during the American Civil War who organized the Army of the Potomac, was married in Calvary Church on May 22, 1860.
--J.P. Morgan (1837–1913) – It was one of our rectors, The Rev. Stephen Tyng who converted J.P. Morgan to Christianity at St. George’s original location at Beekman and Wall. J.P. Morgan was a warden of St. George’s for decades and built up social services at St. George’s with Tyng’s successor, The Rev. William S. Rainsford.
--Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866–1949) – was an African-American classical composer, arranger, and professional singer. He was a soloist at St. George’s Church for 50 years by the endorsement of J.P. Morgan at a time when many other churches did not allow African-Americans to worship in their churches. His singing directly influenced Anton Dvorjak’s “New World Symphony” and his compositions brought African-American spirituals to widespread recognition. His work influenced the Harlem jazz scene. To this day, we still honor Harry T. Burleigh’s work by singing and arranging his music at Sunday Services.