1900 to 1999
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[After several years, the Bishop of New York, Dr. Paul Moore, felt strongly that a successor to Dr. Vaillant must be chosen as soon as possible. The vestry was reorganized under the leadership of Theodore Whitmarsh, the new Senior Warden. Clergymen with a knowledge of the French-speaking world were approached for suggestions. The name of Thomas Wile came up. He was an American Episcopal clergyman who had served for several years on the staff of the American Cathedral in Paris and who spoke French. At the time, he was a student in New York. He was called by the vestry, he accepted, and he began his ministry in January, 1977.]
Tom Wile was the first rector of Saint Esprit not born in Europe and, with the possible exception of Leon Pons, the first to have been ordained to the Episcopal priesthood prior to his association with the parish. At the time he joined Saint Esprit as Vicar, Sunday attendance ranged between 12 and 61 souls. Wile was occasionally assisted in his sacramental duties by Chaurize and Marie-Louise Sherwin, a psychiatrist who was ordained at Saint Esprit in 1978. At the suggestion of Bishop Moore, Wile became a part-time Rector for three years in 1982, and his contract was repeatedly renewed until 1987.
Besides its regular Christian celebrations, the parish also commemorated dates related to its Huguenot and francophone heritage, such as a Huguenot Society Day and Bastille Day. In 1978, Saint Esprit celebrated its 350th anniversary with an official visitation by Bishop Moore, followed by another service led by Wile a few months later, attended by 132 people. In December of that year, a Dedication of Shields service brought 78 people to Saint Esprit, including the families whose coats of arms were represented on the shields that had been hung in the church sanctuary.
Being an artist, Wile was intimately involved with designing elements within the church interior. He was behind the newly designed window in back of the altar, containing a Huguenot cross of stained glass to be placed in the center panel and a medallion of the seal of the Huguenot Society on one side pane and the seal of Saint Esprit on the other; these windows were dedicated at a special service in 1984 and can be viewed in the sanctuary today. He also proposed a design for new glass front doors to the church, increasing their size, widening the entryway and installing new brass lighting fixtures. A new flagpole and organ arrived in 1985, and new pew card holders included cards for visitors and new members to fill out. Also in 1985, Reverend Wile presented a new brochure about Saint Esprit’s history that he had written and illustrated himself with drawings of the new altar windows, the new organ and new front doors. His brochure is still used today.
Several notable acts of Christian outreach during this time demonstrated the parish’s desire to build its charitable mission. In 1986, a winetasting was organized in an effort to get the parish involved in supporting worthy causes; the funds raised went to the Huguenot Society’s scholarship fund. A fund named after a Saint Esprit warden, the Darlington Fund of the American Bible Society, donated 70 new French Bibles to Saint Esprit. In 1987, the church raised $600 at a concert and wine and cheese party in order to sponsor several children or Saint Esprit members at the Church of the Incarnation’s summer camp.
Despite its regular services, improvement projects, faithful leaders and members, Saint Esprit suffered from a debilitating lack of staff and programs. In 1979, a vestry discussion on charitable contributions concluded that the church did not have sufficient staff or income to properly carry out a broader urban ministry, and that the Diocese could more effectively use the parish’s funds. In 1986, responding to the Rector’s suggestion that the parish establish its own pastoral programs, the vestry decided not to embark on these but to continue to support the pastoral, charitable and educational programs of other organizations. The same year, a proposed weekly vesper service ran for a few months and then was tabled.
It is not surprising, then, that efforts were made to combine Saint Esprit’s worship life and operational management with other churches. In 1980, a joint communion service was to be held first at the French Evangelical Church on West 16th Street followed by one at Saint Esprit, but the 16th Street’s pastor felt that very few would attend a Sunday afternoon service at Saint Esprit and would not consider holding such a service. In 1984, announcing his desire to retire the following year, Reverend Wile urged the Vestry to consider a future shape for the parish’s ministry and the duties of the future Rector before seeking a new one. Over the next year, discussion ensued on the parish’s strengths and weaknesses, ways to enhance its ministry and determine its objectives. Consideration was given to having the 16th Street church’s pastor take charge of Saint Esprit’s pastoral work and arrange for Episcopal priests to administer Holy Communion.
At the end of the day, the Rector’s contract was renewed until December 1987, at which time he left with the good will of the parish, who threw a luncheon party for him in honor of his ministry. The Reverend L. Dickens Célestin served as a temporary substitute from January to April 1988, when the newly chosen Rector of Saint Esprit, the Reverend Dr. Jacques Bossière, came to deliver his first sermon on the seven last words of Christ on Good Friday. Célestin would return as an occasional supply priest for Bossière.
The Reverend Dr. Jacques Bossière had been an assistant at the American Cathedral in Paris, and accepted a call to a three-year Rectorship at Saint Esprit. Unlike previous priests, he was provided with an offsite apartment as the rectory was considered to be too small for his family. He was officially installed in February 1989, during a pastoral visit by the Bishop attended by 70 people.
At the time of Bossière’s arrival, Saint Esprit was holding Sunday services at 11:00 am and Holy Communion once a month. One of his innovations was to observe noonday prayer five times a week. An entry in the church’s Red Book for December 14th, 1988 noted: “First day the church opens 12-1 daily.” In 1989, a French-speaking Alcoholic Anonymous group began meeting on Sunday evenings. Nevertheless, by 1989 Saint Esprit’s service attendance was still small enough for Bossière to inform the vestry that the “number of prospective attendees at Good Friday services was not sufficient to warrant opening and staffing the church and he would therefore announce that all who wished to attend such services do so at nearby All Saints.”
The church benefited from several beautification projects, such as brass pots for the altar flowers, evergreen trees outside the church entrance, and an exterior glass-enclosed board announcing services. A June 1989 Red Book entry noted that “Today we received as a gift a superb crucifix made of brass” and, in a separate entry in June, that the 1803 chalice and cruet were being used for the first time. New baptismal fonts were blessed, and the parish held a reception for the first time the new pascal candle stand was used. The church also rediscovered its plot at Cedar Grove Cemetery and held discussions on its future use.
Reverend Bossière was well-connected in Parisian circles and brought greater cachet to Saint Esprit, attracting a well-heeled crowd and inviting guest celebrants and preachers from neighboring churches such as Bon Samaritain, All Saints, the French Evangelical Church on West 16th and Diocesan officials such as the Archdeacon. Bossière made several visits locally or abroad, to New Paltz, New Rochelle, the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference, and Versailles and Paris to represent Saint Esprit at the Commission des Eglises Evangéliques d’Expression Française à l’Extérieur, an arm of the French Protestant Federation. Most importantly, he founded a new international association, Rencontres, which offered various types of support to French-speaking Anglican and Episcopal dioceses, especially in the Third World.
Charitable outreach was a cornerstone of Bossière’s ministry. In 1989, the Outreach Committee reported to the Annual General Meeting that the Rector had so far in 1989 raised over $10,000, with commitments made organizations in India, Zaire, to Rencontres, to AIDS research, to Incarnation’s summer camp, the Episcopal Mission Society’s South Bronx project and the Haitian congregation in New York. The Rectors’ Discretionary Fund also was subsequently increased. Bossière initiated a Christmas Drive fundraiser letter, calling upon Saint Esprit members twice a year, rather than canvassing for pledges, to help with the church’s needs distinct from donations to its charitable outreach program. Besides his own efforts, one lay leader designed the artwork for Saint Esprit Christmas cards whose proceeds would benefit the church’s needs.
Alas, a dispute broke out in the Spring of 1990 between the Rector and a majority of the Vestry, and May 23rd, 1990 was Bossière’s last service at Saint Esprit. A settlement was reached for his departure and he was granted the title of Rector Emeritus. From this Sunday onwards, weekday meditations and weekly AA meetings ceased. The church reverted back to Sunday morning 11:00 am services, with a number of supply priests ensuring continuity through the end of 1990.
In the fall of 1990, the search for a new Pastor began. Perhaps feeling wounded by the disputes with its Rector, the Vestry decided to change its Bylaws to provide for a Pastor, or Vicar, instead of a Rector and to reduce from 8 to 2 years the time a Pastor must serve before being eligible as as Rector. The Diocesan Deployment Office reported that only 2 of the 23 local French-speaking priests contacted had sent in positive responses, and the Search Committee expanded its search to a wider area. Although earlier that spring the church leadership had met with officials at Trinity Church to discuss its taking over Saint Esprit’s management operations, the parish appeared to regain its footing when the Reverend James Harkins arrived as spiritual leader.
In September 1991, the Reverend James Harkins was called for a two-year contract as Vicar, which he accepted in December. His first service in November 1991 marked a nearly two-year run of steady services by the same priest. He decided to hold two Sunday services – 9:30 am and 11:00 am – which began in January 1992 and continued until his departure in 1993, accompanied by more frequent Holy Communion than the once-monthly practice of his predecessors. Services also began on Wednesdays at 12:15 pm in April 1992. That December, a service was held to commemorate Reverend Harkins’s 40th anniversary as a Priest.
Reverend Harkins’s period of ministry, being short, was relatively uneventful. The church allocated $5,000 of its Outreach Program to be disbursed at his discretion, and allowed him to purchase new candelabra and cabinetry for the church. His tenure could be characterized as a relatively smooth transitional period before the church sought a more permanent spiritual leader. By September 1993, this transition was already being prepared with the vestry reaching out to potential replacements. One candidate, the Reverend Nigel Massey, joined Harkins on September 5, 1993 to preach as Harkins celebrated. October 31st was officially deemed a “farewell” service for Reverend Harkins.
From October 31st of 1993, the church once again changed back to Sunday 11:00 am services only, with several guest and supply priests covering the parish for nearly a year. One supply priest, the Reverend Auguste Pluviose, covered services from December 1993 all the way through to October 2nd, 1994, date of the arrival of the Reverend Nigel Massey.
Reverend Massey had already preached and celebrated at Saint Esprit in October 1993 and again on Huguenot Sunday 1994 and on October 2nd with Auguste Pluviose. He began full-time with the October 9th service. In the Fall of 1994, the vestry of Saint-Esprit called Nigel Massey to be Pastor. Born in Staffordshire, England, he grew up on the island of Cyprus and studied Egyptology and Hieroglyphics at Birmingham University, England before going on to study theology at Oxford. Upon ordination he joined a parish in Birmingham, then went on to work for the Board of Mission and Unity of the Church of England, researching into Christian / Muslim relations in France. After returning from France to work for the Bishop of London as advisor to the Diocese on relations with people of other faiths, he came to Saint-Esprit.
Reverend Massey discovered what was essentially a chapel that needed to be transformed into a church: its membership had diminished severely and consisted mainly of French expatriates living in New York, American francophones and francophiles interested in attending services and activities in French, and parishioners of Huguenot descent and members of the Huguenot Society of America who found it meaningful to worship in the sanctuary of their ancestors. It was not uncommon to find less than 10 people in the pews on a Sunday.
Under his prayerful and devoted leadership, the church began to blossom as new activities brought new members and a fresh spirit and mission. Free French classes on Sunday mornings brought many new people interested in learning French, some of whom continued on to attend services and became part of the congregation. In 2002, a weekly Bible study group began delving into the weekly lectionary readings in preparation for Sunday sermons. In 2004, staged readings in French and English that grew as an offshoot of the French classes developed into the founding of the Little French Church Players, a theatrical troupe that has staged performances in the sanctuary and elsewhere at least twice a year. In ____, a group of pilgrims meeting weekly to pray in the Taizé style began meeting every Thursday evening at Saint Esprit, deepening the spiritual and prayer life of the church and holding Taizé prayers on Sunday four times a year.
The founding of these new groups has been accompanied by a number of projects that have strengthened the life of the parish. A hymnal project is nearing completion, that seeks to gather in one volume the hymns dear to Huguenot ancestors and French-speaking countries around the world, many translated to French for the first time. Capital improvements have maintained and beautified the church’s infrastructure and in 2009, the sanctuary was completed renovated and a new organ installed. Twice-yearly visits began to Saint Esprit’s cemetery plot in Flushing, Queens, with prayers and hymns in memory of those who have passed on recently or in distant memory. In addition to these special interest groups, the Church continues to celebrate important days in the Christian calendar as well as special events of interest to this rejuvenated community: Bastille Day, Oktoberfest, Rentrée Sunday and Afrique Fete.
New groups, new activities and many prayers and the work of the Spirit resulted in an explosion in membership in the early 2000s, accompanied by a demographic diversification as francophones from outside France, most especially Haiti and French-speaking Africa, were welcomed with open arms at Saint Esprit. This has brought new opportunities for this special parish to serve as a resource to the broader church and wider community in ways unique to the history and faith of its founders. New ministries at Saint Esprit have developed to serve newly arrived immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, much as our Huguenot ancestors did nearly 400 years ago.
The presence of these people, from all walks of life, is a living testimonial not only to the mighty contribution of the Huguenot refugees who came to these shores but also to the longevity and ongoing witness of their church, which continues to proclaim and to keep alive the faith of its founders. Huguenot descendants gather every year with the regular congregation on Huguenot Sunday, to worship as their ancestors did, to sing the hymns that they sang, and to honor the faith and courage of their forefathers. The liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, in French, is still celebrated each Sunday morning. French hymns are sung, many of them the same ones sung by the Huguenots of Saint-Esprit over 300 years ago. On the walls of the chapel are the coats of arms of many Huguenot families, a constant reminder to present-day worshipers of their heritage. The Huguenot cross and seal of the Huguenot Society adorn the stained glass behind the altar. The beautiful silver chalice, paten, tankard, and baptismal bowl, given to the parish at the beginning of the 19th century, are still used at festival services.