1600 to 1699
The origins of the French Church of Saint Esprit go back to the original settlement of New Amsterdam. Many of the first European settlers in 1624 were not Dutch, but French Calvinists, who were known as Huguenots. They were also joined by Walloons, or French-speaking Protestants from Belgium. Both of these groups had previously fled to Holland to escape religious persecution in their home countries. By joining Dutch colonists in coming to the New World, they hoped to find greater opportunities to own land and to prosper at their trades.
New Amsterdam's early population has been estimated at about 270 persons. During its irst four years of existence, the colony did not have an ordained clergyman. The first one, Jonas Michel, was of French descent and arrived on April 7, 1628. Following the custom of Dutch clergy at the time, he latinized his name to Jonas Michaelius. He began conducting regular services in a room above the village's grist mill on what is now William Street near Pearl Street.
Correspondence suggests Michel spoke French rather well and could preach in French after a fashion. It is certain that he began holding regular French services every Sunday afternoon following the morning service in Dutch. The date chosen for the founding of the French Church of Saint-Esprit is somewhat symbolic. In a letter dated August 11, 1628, Michaelius wrote to a colleague in Amsterdam that: …the Lord's Supper was administered to them (the French and Walloons) in the French language, and according to the French mode with a discourse proceeding, which I had before me in writing, as I could not trust myself extemporaneously." Easter Day, 1628, thus became the date chosen to represent the founding of Saint-Esprit.
Jonas Michaelius returned to Holland in 1633. For the next fifty years the religious needs of the French-speaking population were met as well as possible by the various Dutch clergymen. From comprising almost a majority in the beginning, the French-speaking segment of New Amsterdam, which became New York in 1664, declined steadily, although it never entirely disappeared.
The first wave of persecution against Protestants in France was resolved by the Promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which gave legal status to Reformed Christians. As a result, the outflux of refugees slowed. Following a pattern that was to be repeated in the future, the Huguenots who had migrated worked hard, prospered and quickly intermarried with the residents of their new countries.
The second and largest influx of Huguenots to the New World began in the last quarter of the 17th century. Louis XIV renewed the persecution of Protestants in a series of harsh repressive measures, which culminated in the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the determined effort not only to crush all practice of Reformed Christianity in France, but to forcibly convert all Protestants to Catholicism. This tragic and misguided action drove from France hundreds of thousands of her most able and industrious people.
This new outflux enriched those countries and colonies which wisely offered them shelter. England was the place of refuge for Huguenots from the maritime provinces of western France: Poitou, Saintonge, anad Aunis. A smaller number came from the rest of France, especially Normandy.
From England, thousands of Huguenots then migrated to the colonies in America. Jean Maynard, in his history of Saint-Esprit, estimates that the French Church of New York received about one-quarter of one percent of the overall Huguenot immigration. This small percentage was enough to dramatically increase the French-speaking population of New York. By 1697, according to Dr. Maynard, there were 4,000 inhabitants of New York City and, of that number, about 15 percent were Huguenots.
The first independent French Church in New York was organized under the Rev. Pierre Daille who had been a professor at the French Protestant college of Saumur before it was closed by order of the king and its faculty banished. Seeking refuge in Holland, Mr. Daille then went to London where he received Anglican holy orders. He came to America to work with the French and Dutch, not only in Manhattan, but in the surrounding area, going on a regular schedule to Huguenot communities in New Paltz, Staten Island, and New Jersey.
In 1687 Rev. Daille was aided by the arrival of the Rev. Pierre Peiret, a native of Béarn in the South West of France. Concentrating on the French of New York while Mr. Daille continued his work in the surrounding area, Mr. Peiret organized the first French congregation to have its own edifice. This small church was located on what was then called Petticoat Lane, later Marketfield Street. Today it is Battery Place between Broadway and West Streets. It was called simply "L'Eglise Française a la Nouvelle York."
Click here to read more about the history of Saint Esprit in the 18th century.