1800 to 1899
After much discussion, Saint Esprit's members unanimously voted to join the Episcopal Church in November of 1802. In doing so, they hoped to remedy the church's precarious financial situation and to keep in step with New York City's evolving social landscape.
This decision by a tiny French Calvinist church, which was characterized by its simplicity, plainness and democratic structure, to join with a much larger denomination which to some evokes elaborate ceremony, aristocratic mannerisms and a "Catholic" hierarchy, merits some explanation. At the time, the decision made sense.
The contemporary Episcopal Church in the United States is, in many aspects, the result of the Oxford Movement, which began in England in 1833, 30 years after Saint-Esprit had joined the Episcopal fold. It brought elements of Catholic tradition, liturgy, and doctrine back into the life of the Anglican church, and spread rapidly in both England and the United States.
The Episcopal Church of 1802, however, was still much more Calvinist and Protestant in outward aspect than it was to become later, and the elders and members of Saint-Esprit saw no insurmountable obstacles to this union. Other Protestant denominations were rejected by the Saint Esprit's members for reasons which would not be important today. The Dutch Reformed (Collegiate) Church was considered too Dutch, the Presbyterians too Scottish, and the Lutherans too German. The Congregational Church was not represented in New York City.
The members of Saint Esprit also remembered the English kings had welcomed French-speaking Protestants in England and the colonies at times when they were persecuted at home. This tradition of warm relations with the Church of England was continued in the United States by the Episcopal Church after the Revolutionary War. Several of the pastors of Saint Esprit had possessed Anglican ordination, and in the past, when the children of the Huguenot refugees joined American churches, they tended to go to the Church of England. The Episcopal Bishop of New York at the time, Dr. Benjamin Moore, was impressed by Pierre Albert and enthusiastically encouraged Saint Esprit to join the Diocese of New York.
There was the added inducement of the Des Brosses legacy. In 1773, Elias des Brosses, a Huguenot who had become a vestryman of Trinity Church, Wall Street, made a will shortly before his death in which he left a thousand pounds, to be administered by Trinity Church, for the maintenance of a French clergyman who "shall perform Divine Service in the French Language according to the liturgy of the Church of England." At the time, this money was badly needed by Saint Esprit.
However, Saint Esprit's most compelling financial reason for joining the Episcopal Church was not the Des Brosses endowment. It was the fact that in those days, churches were supported by the rents charged to those who bought pews, and since so many descendants of the former members of Sain -Esprit had become Episcopalians, it was hoped that these people would, out of loyalty, buy pews in Saint Esprit now that it was part of the Episcopal Church.
So, on Whit-Monday, 1803, Bishop Moore consecrated the little church at Pine and Nassau Streets as an Episcopalian house of worship. The following day, he ordered Pierre Albert to the diaconate, and three weeks later, to the Priesthood. Almost all the pews were soon bought, membership grew, and Saint Esprit was well along on its path of recovery.
Unfortunately, Pierre Albert died in 1806. For the next ten years, the vestry searched for a suitable replacement. Their search for a replacement from Europe was made more difficult by the fact that the region was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars. Finally in 1816, after many letters and disappointments, a clergyman from Neuchâtel, Henry Penevyre, accepted a call to come to New York. He was ordained into Episcopal orders by Bishop Hobert and for 10 years had a successful ministry at Saint Esprit. Under his leadership, the parish consolidated its gains in membership and, finally, was able to exist on a firm financial footing. Mr. Penevyre was well-respected in the community and was honored by a doctorate of divinity.
In 1826, Mr. Penevyre, growing older, resigned in order to return to Switzerland. Before his departure, he corresponded with various theological faculties in his native land to arrange for his successor. The most outstanding candidate was a young man named Antoine Francois Verren, aged 24. He had been an excellent student at the Theological Academy of Geneva and was currently ministering in Marseilles, his native town. The vestry issed a call; Mr. Verren accepted, and arrived in New York in August of 1827. He was to be the rector of Saint-Esprit for the next 48 years.
Antoine Verren had the distinction of having officiated in three different church buildings and of having erected two of them. His long ministry covered a period when the city of New York was experiencing tremendous growth. Among the multitudes of immigrants who poured into New York were many French and Swiss Protestants. They greatly strengthened the parish.
By the time of Dr. Verren's arrival, the neighborhood around the old church building at Pine and Nassau Streets had turned almost completely industrial. The residential neighborhoods were moving rapidly north. The building and property were sold in 1831 and a new church, designed in Greek revival style by the noted architects Town and Davis, was constructed at the corner of Church and Franklin Streets. It was simple yet elegant and it was greatly admired for the beauty of its design.
However, the northward advance of the residential areas of Manhattan was so rapid that, fewer than 30 years later, the neighborhood around the church had become almost completely commercial. The French section had moved northward on the West side. So in 1862, the property was sold and a new church was constructed at 30 West 22nd Street. Unfortunately, in accordance with prevailing taste, the new church was designed in an undistinguished neo-gothic style. It was to serve the parish for less than 40 years.
After a long and distinguished ministry, Antoine Verren died in March of 1874. The vestry called as rector the Rev. Leon Pons, living in Troy, New York. He served for only five years. It seems that his personality was not as strong as Dr. Verren's and that he suffered the inevitable problems of a newcomer arriving after a long tenure of his predecessor. After five years, Mr. Pons decided he would rather be a full-time professor of French and so he resigned to accept a teaching position.
Fortunately, a young Lutheran clergyman, born in Alsace but receiving much of his theological training in the United States, named Alfred Wittmeyer, wa available to succeed Mr. Pons. Called as rector in 1879, he was ordained to Episcopal orders by Bishop Horatio Potter. He was to be rector for the next 46 years. Mr. Wittmeyer was an ideal choice for Saint-Esprit. He was equally at home in both French and American cultures.
Wittmeyer's ministry lasted almost as long as Dr. Verren's, and paralleled it in many respects. Both came as young men to Saint-Esprit and stayed there for the rest of their lives. Both were of strong personality and gained wide respect in the community at large. Both were competent leaders and Saint-Esprit thrived at the height of their ministries. Both had to cope with declining membership toward the end of their tenures as rector.
Mr. Wittmeyer had a remarkable talent for business and put the parish on a sound financial basis. The church property on West 22nd Street had become quite valuable. He was able to sell it, purchase a new location at 45-57 East 27th Street, build a new and larger church there (unfortunately also designed in a mediocre neo-gothic style) and have a profit left over.
One of Mr. Wittmeyer's most enduring contributions was his leadership in the founding of the Huguenot Society of America in 1883. He was its secretary and guiding light for 15 years and he worked tirelessly to bring together Americans of Huguenot descent in order to foster in them an appreciation of their ancestors. Led by his example, the Huguenot Society became a source of strength for Saint-Esprit which continues to this day.
Click here to read more about the history of Saint Esprit in the 20th century.