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
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.