Our History

How did West End church begin?

shaw_john_balcom_smWest End church began with a Sunday School in 1887 and had become a church by early 1888.  The first pastor of West End, the Rev. John Balcom Shaw (pictured here), recalling when he first heard about the new church, said it was in a “neighborhood with which I was not acquainted, but which I had come to regard as little less than a howling wilderness, inhabited mostly by shantyites and goats.” The population in the area expanded after the New York Elevated Railroad began to carry passengers along Ninth Avenue (now Columbus Avenue) in 1879.  But it was a trip along Tenth Avenue (now Amsterdam) in a horse car that sparked the interest of a member of the Sunday School Committee of New York Presbytery. Here would be a good place for a Sunday School, he said, as he passed 104th Street. And so the Presbyterian Extension Committee leased a lot on the street and put up a temporary building made of prefabricated metal parts. Meanwhile, a group of “earnest, hard working Christians” was brought together to  provide furnishings and equipment for the building and to enlist students and teachers for the Sunday School. When the Sunday School started in May 1887, it had sixty-one members, ten teachers, and six officers. Within six months, a decision was made to begin organizing as a church, with the core of the sixty-nine founding church members coming from other congregations and two becoming members by confession of faith. The formal date of West End’s organization was February 7, 1888, and Shaw was installed as pastor on May 15 of that year.

What were the early days of West End Presbyterian Church like?

Church growth was rapid in West End’s early days. A spirit of friendship toward “the stranger who sits next in the pew” was encouraged, and the pastor was well known in the community. In 1904, an article in the New York Herald stated, “The Church . . . was organized only sixteen years ago with 69 members, and now numbers 1,864 communicants. In the sixteen years 2,996 persons have been received into membership. The Sunday School has shown corresponding growth and now numbers 1,366 pupils and teachers. Their property, worth $300,000 entirely free of debt, supports seven home and foreign missionaries, and carries on extensive sociological work . . . It is the largest of the Presbyterian body in New York and the fifth largest in the country.” A plaque placed in the church’s session meeting area in 1904 read, “In this room over one thousand persons have publicly confessed Christ as their personal Saviour and been formally received as members of his visible Church.”

keigwin_photo_faceshotIt is not possible to trace information on all the early church leaders but it is possible to glean bits. The church officers in 1898 included James Noyes, called a “Wall Street merchant” by the New York Times; Charles Burdick, son of a long-time professor at Columbia Law School and himself a long-time teacher at Cornell; Henry Elliott, a member of a local Good Government Club interested in reform on behalf of people of all classes; and, as clerk of session, Payson Porter, a one-time officer of the International Sunday School Convention.  Among the benefactors who contributed to the church building was Dr. Charles Butler, a philanthropist who was president of the board of Union Theological Seminary and supported the liberal side in the theological battles raging in New York Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly. Shaw, the first pastor, was noted as having a “knack for administration.” Both he and the second pastor, Rev. A. Edwin Keigwin (pictured left), were associated with conservative theological positions.

How do our present church buildings relate to this history?

West End’s numerical growth was matched by a series of building projects. On Christmas Day 1888, the new church’s trustees resolved to purchase property on the northeast corner of 105th Street and Tenth Avenue, the present church site, where a building to replace the original “Little Tin Chapel” was erected. This “Second Chapel” was a beautiful marble structure but had serious problems. Nevertheless, it remained in place until the present Parish House was built on its site in 1913. By 1891, the church officers decided to build the “Main Church,” still in use. The cornerstone was laid in June of that year and the building was dedicated in April 1892. It was designed by Henry S. Kilburn, a noted church architect. American Architect and Architecture said the building was a good example of “rapid building” as it was then being carried out.

What stories are there about furnishings in our sanctuary?

baptismalfont_edited2The church’s baptismal font is the church’s oldest memorial gift. It dates from 1890 and was given in memory of young Stanley Lawson, the first member of the Sunday School.

The  chandelier over the choir loft dates from the last refurbishing of the sanctuary, in 1966. The heavy dark wood was given a new lighter color and the lighting was improved by placement of the crystal and bronze fixture. It is one of a pair from the Fifth Avenue mansion of Thomas Fortune Ryan and was purchased in memory of Mrs.Francis MacDonald Sinclair who had died not long before and left an endowment to the church.

West End’s Communion vessels accommodate individual communion cups. The church appears to have been an early user of the individual cups. Though the modern history of such cups is not completely clear, a publication from that time claims they were invented by the man who became West End’s interim pastor after its first minister left to go elsewhere.

Did West End’s membership come from the neighborhood in the past?

In West End’s first decade, most of its members and visitors lived in the vicinity of the church. Church elders and pastor canvassed the neighborhood and invited those who lived nearby to worship at West End. Later, as news of its good preaching spread and as public transport and motor cars became readily available, some people from other parts of the metropolitan area became members. After World War I, many of the brownstone houses in West End’s neighborhood were replaced by high-rise apartment buildings. Many of the new residents were adherents of other traditions. The membership of the church began to decline. Changes in the neighborhood population have continued to affect the church’s ministry and its approaches to it.

How does it happen that West End has a media booth in its balcony?

Seeking to expand its outreach, West End embarked on a radio ministry, first on station WJZ, then on WABC and WOR. Sermons of Dr. Keigwin, West End’s pastor for forty years, were broadcast each Sunday morning from 1922 to 1931, and he became known as the “radio pastor” to countless people. Time magazine reported in 1924 that West End had conducted a Communion service by radio for the first time; Keigwin blessed the elements, then “the invisible audience did not partake until all had been served, so that all in the church might partake simultaneously with those who served themselves bread and wine at home.” Later, in 1931, West End church’s name again came into the news when Keigwin officiated at what was said to be the first telecast wedding ceremony.

How did West End come to be a church with such a diverse membership?

West End has always lived in a neighborhood with people from many lands, speaking many languages. Many of these have become church members. Interestingly, West End had Sunday School in Spanish as far back as 1897, when it encouraged a seminary student, a Mr. Ferrando, to practice for future missionary work. In 1901, the church’s Missionary Committee discussed the need to approach the Chinese residents in the neighborhood whose spiritual needs were not being met.

The present Spanish-speaking ministry of West End was started in 1966 by the Rev. Francisco Berly Colon with six members. The Rev. Angelina (Helen) Burgos, the first Hispanic woman ordained to the ministry of Word and sacrament by New York City Presbytery, was a beloved part of West End’s life and ministry for many years. For a number of years, a Haitian group was an integral part of West End, before many of its members became a separate independent group. The church’s present Eritrean members began to study and worship in Tgrinya in the church chapel in 1998. An independent Tgrinya-speaking congregation now meets in the chapel area each Sunday afternoon.

What kind of activities have characterized West End over the years?

Over the years, West End has had numerous organizations and activities. There have been sports teams, sewing and knitting groups, drama clubs, scout troops, summer day camping, after school programs, community meals. An early innovation was a nursery for babies during Sunday services. Community gatherings featured movies and were attended by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Summer sleep-away camping for the young was introduced in the 1920s. An early Ladies Aid Society provided dinner baskets for needy families in the neighborhood on holidays, distributing as many as 400 such dinners during the 1920s, when the church also served 10¢ lunches do children of working mothers. In the earliest years, West End helped people find employment and new homes. Many of these activities were dropped in time, as governmental institutions and agencies took responsibility. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought financial crisis to the church and it was unable to serve an ever increasing number of people needing assistance. West End helped the needy to make connections with government agencies and private philanthropies. Today the deacons of the church carry responsibility for responding to those in need.

warren_david_young_manWhat is the history of West End’s pastors?

It is unusual for a church to have had as few pastors as West End has enjoyed. In nearly a hundred of its 125 years, it has been served by four pastors, the Rev. Mr. Shaw, the Rev. Mr. Keigwin, the Rev. John David Warren (now pastor emeritus of the congregation; pictured here), and the Rev. Alistair Drummond, its current pastor. Drummond was called by the congregation in 1993, while he was still in a pastorate in his native Scotland. Other former pastors are the Rev. Paul C. Warren, the Rev. Andrew Osborn, the Rev. Theodore Gill, and the Rev. J. Wesley Megaw. The congregation has apparently always placed particular emphasis on the preaching of its pastors.

 And what about West End’s music leadership?

West End has also been a church filled with music. The first organist whose name was recorded was Clifford Demerest, who started in 1910. The NYC Organ Project, which documents organs installed throughout the city, lists West End’s present organ as dating from 1913. Since then the musicians have included Ward Stevens, who was an assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera for three years and a composer of sacred music, and David Greer, who founded the Bloomingdale School of Music to offer classes to low-income community residents while he was at West End. Dr. Eugene Hancock, a noted organist and a composer, served as our organist and worked with the church’s choirs from 1984. Later Jorge Lockwood introduced a broad spectrum of music during his tenure. The current director of West End’s music ministry, John Bowen, has worked with an energetic gospel choir begun during his tenure. Church member Finesse Banks is the choir’s leader. (Click here to hear it singing.) A series of community concerts provides free concerts as an outreach to the wider community under the organizing leadership of church member George Voorhis.

If you would like to read more:

Celebrate the Journey: A Short History of the West End Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, edited by Anne Jones, prepared for the 1988 centenary celebration of the church. Click here to read in pdf format.

Architectural History and Analysis of the West End Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, written by George Voorhis for submission to a Columbia University class. Click here to read in pdf format.

Daytonian in Manhattan blog on West End Presbyterian Church, written in 2014. Click here to read online.