St. Paul’s in Albany’s South End: the Old Engine House

St. Paul’s was originally founded in Albany’s South End. While we chose to leave that neighborhood in 1839, we established an important presence there thirty years later, when we created our Free Mission Chapel on Madison Avenue in 1867. This post discusses the intertwined reasons why St. Paul’s chose the Madison Avenue location for its Chapel, and why, after fourteen successful years, we chose to leave.

St. Paul's Ferry Street Building as it looked in the early 20th century

St. Paul’s Ferry Street Building as it looked in the early 20th century

The first home of “St. Paul’s Church or Congregation in the City of Albany” was  at what is now the corner of South Ferry Street and Dongan Avenue. The parish was organized as an outreach to that rapidly growing part of the city, and most of the early congregation was drawn from the neighborhood. Purchase of the property and construction of the building were too great a burden for the congregation. By 1830, only a year after the building was completed, debt and mounting interest payments were already threatening to overwhelm the young congregation. The parish struggled along on South Ferry Street until 1839, when creditors forced the vestry to sell the building. The leadership of St. Paul’s decided to leave the neighborhood and to modify a theater on Pearl Street as their church home, starting what they called “a new venture” in the center of Albany.

Trinity Church (image credit: Albany Group Archive)

Trinity Church (image credit: Albany Group Archive)

The decision to abandon the South End was not unanimous: a number of St. Paul’s families, including those of two vestry members, started a different “new venture.” Choosing to remain in the neighborhood, they formed a parish and named it Trinity Church. The new congregation was not strong or wealthy in its early years, but by 1848 they were able to build a handsome building on what is now Trinity Place, where they remained until they were closed in about 1980. As the only Episcopal congregation in Abany’s South End, Trinity will play a role as our story progresses.

St. Paul's Second Building on Pearl Street

St. Paul’s Second Building on Pearl Street

St. Paul’s stayed at the former Pearl Street Theater for twenty-three years, only leaving in 1862 after what had been an upscale residential neighborhood became Albany’s business district. We moved to our third home on Lancaster Street, a structure originally built as the Dudley Memorial Reformed Church. Five years after moving to Lancaster Street, St. Paul’s decided to establish a mission chapel. Vestry minutes record the purchase on December 20, 1867 of the former fire house on the south side of Madison Avenue, just east of Green Street, for a cash deposit of $1,500 and a mortgage totaling $2,366.16 “on behalf of the Missionary Society of the Church.”[i] The rector at the time says that this was “in response to an earnest desire to enter upon some mission work in the city.”[ii] But what were the Mission’s purposes and what were the reasons for the timing of purchase and the location selected?

The chapel’s name suggests the purposes for this new outreach: it was called a Free Mission Chapel. Like the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, this was to be a free chapel, meaning that seating was open to all, without the requirement to pay pew rents, the most common method of financial support for churches at that time. And it was to be a mission chapel, serving the underserved: the unchurched, the poor, recent immigrants. Importantly, it would also be a home for the deaf ministry, which had been active at St. Paul’s since early in that decade.

The timing of this decision, shortly after the move to Albany’s west end, was hardly coincidental. The congregation had moved almost half a mile northwest, but many in the congregation would still have lived in the old city center. A newspaper article of the period suggests that in this location “[a] considerable number of families who formerly attended St. Paul’s Church when located in South Pearl Street, but who were unable to follow it to its present location, will doubtless reunite themselves with the church by attendance at this mission.”[iii]

Albany's South End (base map circa 1895)

Albany’s South End (base map circa 1895)

In addition to being close to the city center, the Madison Avenue location had another advantage: it was only four blocks from the site of the first St. Paul’s on Ferry Street. Our vestry may have hoped to reestablish our presence in the neighborhood in which we had been born, encouraging the return of those who had fallen away after St. Paul’s left the South End , and perhaps even attracting those who were attending Trinity Church.

"The Old Engine House" The former Free Mission Chapel as it looked in the early 20th century

“The Old Engine House” The former Free Mission Chapel as it looked in the early 20th century

The Mission Chapel congregation affectionately referred to their building as “the old engine house.” The former fire house was located at 62 Madison Avenue, on the south side of the street, a few doors east of Green Street. It was originally the home of Steamer 5, and later that of the Daniel D. Tomkins Engine Company No. 8. When it was officially opened, on the first Sunday of 1868, the building held 250. In 1872, the Mission’s priest-in-charge, Walker Gwynne, raised money to expand the chapel by 25 feet, increasing its seating capacity to 300.[iv]

From the beginning, St. Paul’s supported the majority of the mission’s expenses by voluntary contributions. In 1870, in declining to pay a diocesan assessment of $600 for missions, the vestry reported supporting the Mission at a cost of about $2,500 annually, as well as being “the sole supporter of the Mission for Deaf Mutes in this section of the state.”[v] The Mission’s priest-in-charge was St. Paul’s assistant rector, whose salary was also paid by St. Paul’s contributions.

In 1874, the Mission Chapel opened a night school, which taught adults the three R’s. The Albany Morning Express reported that the school “is well attended, and is a good move to reach the masses and finally lead them to Christ.”[vi]

The little chapel must have been a very busy place. By the late 1870s, the original schedule of morning and evening Sunday services had been expanded with an afternoon Sunday School, Tuesday and Friday choir rehearsals and a Friday evening service, with another choir rehearsal following, as well as the evening classes and services for the deaf.

Thomas B. Berry

Thomas B. Berry

As a sign of the importance of the deaf ministry in the Chapel’s life, its priest-in-charge from 1872 until 1874 was Thomas B. Berry, who before his ordination had taught in schools for the deaf in England, New York City and Frederick, Maryland. During his term as the Chapel’s pastor, Berry also assisted Thomas Gallaudet in work of Church Mission for Deaf Mutes around the state.

In 1879, a very active Young People’s Association had a full slate of officers and many activities (they were mainstays of the chapel choir), including a short-lived publication, “The Chapel Monitor.” A Guild of Purity and Truth for girls attracted a good many postulants (ages 10 to 12) and members (over age 12).

Masthead of "The Chapel Monitor"

Masthead of “The Chapel Monitor”

Ten years after it was founded, St. Paul’s mission showed a growing sense of independence. In 1879 “The Chapel Monitor” called for the Chapel to become an independent parish. An editorial in the second issue of the “Monitor” laid out a detailed plan that would allow this to happen within ten years. At this time, the Mission congregation was still only able to provide about one-third of the cost of operations there, the remainder coming from offerings by members of St. Paul’s. We don’t know what happened to these plans, but assume that the Chapel was not able to obtain commitments for larger donations from the Mission congregation. In 1882 and 1883, St. Paul’s was still paying two-thirds of the Mission’s costs.[vii]

1882 Annual Report, St. Paul's Free Mission Chapel

1882 Annual Report, St. Paul’s Free Mission Chapel

Although the Free Chapel was placed on Madison to expand St. Paul’s access to those living in Albany’s South End, the location also resulted in competition with St. Paul’s offshoot, Trinity Church, which was located only five blocks away. “In 1884, at the request of Trinity Church, which felt that it should have a clear field in that part of the city, the building was sold and the congregation united with that of Trinity.”[viii]

So it was that the Mission congregation was merged into the parish that had split off from St. Paul’s in 1839. The South End was better served by a parish strengthened by the Mission’s congregation and one dedicated to that part of the city. In the early twentieth century Trinity, under the leadership of Creighton Storey,  created the Trinity Institute, which more than a century later (now as Trinity Alliance) is still providing social services for the South End.

St. Paul’s, looking for a different mission field, found the far western part of the city underserved, and used the proceeds of the Chapel’s sale to fund a mission organized by the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, with services conducted by our assistant rector. St. Andrew’s Mission was initially begun in 1892 in a room in the West End Loan Association on Madison Avenue, moving the next year to a house on Ontario Street.[ix] By 1897, the first service was held at St. Andrew’s Chapel and St. Andrew’s Church became an independent parish in 1899.[x]

[i] St. Paul’s Vestry Minutes, Volume 2, 19 Dec 1867 and 27 Jan 1868.

[ii] J. Livingston Reese “Historical Sketch of St. Paul’s Parish,” in The Semi-centennial Services of St. Paul’s Church, Albany, N.Y. (Albany: The Argus Company), 16.

[iii] Albany Argus, 31 Dec 1867.

[iv] Albany Morning Express, 25 Jul 1872.

[v] St. Paul’s Vestry Minutes, Volume 2, 11 Feb 1870.

[vi] Albany Morning Express, 7 Nov 1874.

[vii] “St. Paul’s Mission Chapel 1882” and “St. Paul’s Mission Chapel 1883” in St. Paul’s archives.

[viii] George E. DeMille, A History of the Diocese of Albany 1704-1923 (Philadelphia: The Church Historical Society, 1946), 126.

[ix] Albany Morning Express, 31 Dec 1892, 5.

[x] DeMille, 126.

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