Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first Holy Communion service in the chapel on Hackett Boulevard. The chapel was designed to replicate a 1940s-era memorial chapel in the Lancaster Street church building, using the older building’s memorial windows and furniture. The new chapel even uses the communion rail from the main Lancaster Street chancel.
Only one new window was created for the new Hackett Boulevard chapel: the window named “Te Deum laudamus” behind the altar. It takes its name from the early Christian hymn of that name, and its donor describes it thus, mirroring the text of the hymn: “The group of figures includes saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, and figures representing the Holy Church throughout all the world, all praising God.” The donor was William Starr McEwan, St. Paul’s vestryman, treasurer of the Hackett Boulevard building fund, and the McEwan for whom our parish hall is named. McEwan gave the window in memory of the Reverend Nelson Fremont Parke, St. Paul’s rector from July 1959 until his death in November 1962.
While Nelson Parke was rector here for only a little more than three years, his influence will long be felt, because it was his enthusiasm and leadership that held St. Paul’s family together in a difficult period, and and it was his powers of persuasion that convinced the State that St. Paul’s Lancaster Street building was of particular value.
St. Paul’s was not a strong parish in 1959. Changes in the neighborhood and flight to the suburbs had reduced the size of the congregation and its income, and since 1954 they had been unable to support a rector. Just a year before, the outlook was so grim that Bishop Frederick L. Barry advised the vestry that calling a new rector was “unthinkable,” and suggesting a choice between merging with another parish, or continuing as before, with a priest-in-charge, while considering other options.The vestry chose to call Father Parke. Nelson Parke brought energy to St. Paul’s. In 1960, they painted the buff brick of the church façade white, with gray trim, in an effort to brighten the down-at-the-heels neighborhood.
In January 1962, the Temporary State Commission for the Capital City, which was planning urban renewal for the Capital District recommended that “the focus of state government be returned to downtown Albany.” Two months later, on March 27, 1962 they announced that the State would take 98.5 acres of downtown Albany by eminent domain for the South Mall. St. Paul’s Church was in the middle of this “take area.”
In early comments on the situation, Father Parke suggested that St. Paul’s might be spared. On two occasions in early spring 1962, he quoted the Commission’s chairman, Lt. Governor Malcolm Wilson, as saying that there was a possibility the church would be allowed to remain. Leaning on this slender hope (Wilson never publicly made such a statement), Parke pushed for the concept of St. Paul’s remaining in the South Mall. In a May 15 letter to Lt. Governor Wilson he wrote, “We can envisage this white church, appropriately floodlighted, surrounded by lawns and gardens looming large in the middle of the Complex, as a spiritual and aesthetic center in the midst of the new State Buildings.” Parke also encouraged the congregation to “work to keep up our property, maintain it to the best of our ability and press forward in our ministry to those who will find a spiritual home in old St. Paul’s.” Parke closed this letter with another argument, this one more light-hearted:
“We notice that the excellent Telephone Company is to be left in the Mall area. May we suggest, perhaps not too seriously, that if this admirable institution which provides for the communication of man to man is left – St. Paul’s might well be left to provide a system whereby man might communicate with his maker.”
Through the summer of 1962, the congregation waited hopefully for a response from the State. As Parke suggested, they continued to maintain and improve the building, including a major renovation to the church kitchen.
The State’s response was to come in a September 12 meeting with William F. Meyers, Assistant Commissioner of Housing. As related in a September 8, 1962 Knickerbocker News article, “Mr. Mayers [sic] said the talks would be merely fact-finding discussions to sound out the feelings of the two congregations. He said that at this point, as far as he knew, all buildings in the South Mall area were slated for demolition but, he added: ‘We will have a better insight into what may happen when the planners complete their work.’” In the same article, Father Parke continued to express hope for St. Paul’s Church-in-the-Green concept, suggesting that “its Romanesque architecture might ‘lend color, among the modern buildings in the South Mall.’”
But at the September 12 meeting, Meyers shut down all of St. Paul’s hopes for staying in the Lancaster Street building, and all but closed off the possibility of relocation within the South Mall area. As Parke summarized the meeting, Meyers
“told us quite bluntly that plans for the South Mall in the block bounded by Lancaster, Hawk, Jay, and Swan Streets were such that the continued existence of the Church at its present location was entirely impossible, that the demolition of the Church was inevitable, that we would have only three years in our edifice before it was torn down, and that the possibility of our being able to relocated in the South Mall area was extremely remote.”
The plans to which Meyers referred may be the placement of the Central Air Conditioning Plant and Main Transformer Vault between Chestnut and Jay streets, an area that included the church site. Once the planners made that decision, there was no hope for St. Paul’s to remain on Lancaster Street.
By early the next week, internal memos in the governor’s office show the level of anger and frustration from St. Paul’s warden and vestry. Governor Rockefeller’s administrative assistant suggested that Parke write directly to the governor. But that same week, within a few days after the meeting, Father Parke fell ill with pneumonia and was hospitalized at Saratoga Hospital. This fact was known by the Governor’s administrative assistant, who wrote in a memo to Lt. Governor Wilson that “Mr. Parke has been hospitalized recently but is now apparently picking up the cudgels again.”
On September 27, St. Paul’s church secretary, Nancy Knapp, was driven to Saratoga to take dictation from Father Parke. In his letter to Governor Rockefeller, Parke wrote:
“This then, Governor Rockefeller, is a prayerful plea to you that our Church be saved from demolition. We ask it because of its historic value as a building which will be 100 years old on next November 2 – because of its great beauty, particularly in more than 20 stained glass windows, not capable of replacement and not exceeded in magnificence in Albany – because we can offer a place of rest, meditation, and prayer to the thousands of State Workers of all denominations in the Mall (as Trinity Church does to those employed in the Wall Street Area) – and because, most importantly, with the passing of the Greek Orthodox and First Methodist Churches, ours then would be in the 98 acres of the South Mall the only House of God.”
That same evening, St. Paul’s vestry met in a special session, with Bishop Allen W. Brown as a guest. There were only two items on the agenda: arranging for substitute clergy during Mr. Parke’s absence, and determining a site for relocating St. Paul’s. At the conclusion of the meeting, “[t]he Vestry voted to go on record as in expression [sic] our intent of joining with the diocese in the purchase of the 4 acre site adjacent to the Good Samaritan Center for the purpose of construction and relocation of a new church for St. Paul’s Parish.”
It is apparent that Nelson Parke wanted to return to work. In an October 2 letter to the parish “from the rector’s temporary study (at Saratoga Hospital)” he wrote:
“My doctor has advised that I am coming along nicely with only rest stipulated before I am allowed to get back into harness. It is my understanding that our Wardens, Mr. Eckel and Mr. Foskett, have joined with my doctor to enforce this stipulation by having made arrangements for substitute priests for the next few weeks. This leaves me no choice.”
In this letter, Parke gives a summary of the September 12 meeting, and the vestry’s decision (with his full approval) to join the diocese in taking an option on the Hackett Boulevard property. As always, he expresses full confidence in St. Paul’s ability to thrive in this new location.
The letter was to be one the last acts by Father Parke as rector. On October 17, 1962, Bishop Brown announced that Parke would take a leave of absence until January 1, 1963. Nelson Parke and wife went to Florida, where he maintained at least weekly contact with the church, eager to return. But on November 9 he died of a heart attack. His funeral was held at St. Paul’s on November 15, 1962.
Father Nelson Parke played a particularly important role in his brief period at St. Paul’s, by invigorating a parish at its low ebb, by maintaining the congregation’s positive spirit in the face of the State’s plan to demolish our building, and by eloquently arguing for the importance of our presence in the the South Mall area. When the Lancaster Street building was demolished in 1964, the parish was far stronger than it would have been without him. And his advocacy for the building’s architectural and artistic merits resulted in a reimbursement from the State far higher than any other church in the South Mall area. The Te Deum window is an appropriate memorial to this good man.