HISTORY TOPICS: HOUSES OF WORSHIP

Reformed Church
The Reformed Church, Steinway

The study of religious affiliation in a large city can be a rewarding and informative experience for both the sociologist, and the historian. Religious affiliation or lack of it gives us an indication of the pro­portion of the population that is settled and family-structured and most likely to affiliate with a church, and the proportion that is transient and generally unchurched. Even more valuable is the indication of ethnic origin that church membership reflects, for people in the 19th century especially gravitated to and felt comfortable with persons of their own national and confessional background. In Long Island City the oldest churches were in Astoria and this is properly so since Astoria is the area of oldest settlement. Farming had been continuous here since the 1 7th century and the village itself was formally incorporated in 1839; Ravenswood, in comparison, was a late development of the 1850's, a one-street community along the river, while Hunter's Point was largely a tidal marsh before 1860. The four pioneer churches, St. George's (1828), Astoria Reformed (1839), Trinity Methodist (1844) and Asto­ria Presbyterian (1846) represent the two strains in colonial western Long Island: the British Isles (the En­glish and Scotch-Irish) and the Dutch. The Episcopal Church had so completely identified itself with the Tory cause in the Revolution and had earned so much odium throughout rebel Newtown that 50 years went by before it was able to shake off the stigma of its past and win acceptability with Americans of English origin. The Dutch, settled along the East River coast since the 1 6th century, had their own Dutch Reformed Church. The Scotch-Irish were generally Presbyterian as were some of the Welsh. The middle­class English and the poor had flocked to the chapels of the Methodist preachers in the late 1 8th century and early 19th century and preserved this affiliation in the New World.

For many years the British and Dutch-descended formed almost the whole of the population of western Long Island. The founding of Astoria as a village with streets, stores, residences and the com­mercial and social life that developed attracted immediately the first influx of a new group- the Irish. Within a year's time the first Irish church made its appearance in the tiny village, the Roman Catholic church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (1840).

In the next dozen years the patterns repeated themselves exactly: more new Reformed and Method­ist churches, several Episcopal churches representing a renaissance in that denomination; a Baptist church and two large Catholic churches for the Irish, St. Mary's (1868) that eventually developed the largest congregation in Long Island City, and St. Raphael's (1867) fronting on the large Irish Catholic cemetery, Calvary, founded in 1846.

The German emigration from Europe which surged in 1848 and continued at high levels thereafter was poorly represented in Long Island City. Not till 1878 was a specifically German Catholic church founded (St. Joseph's). Remarkably, the Protestant Germans, normally outnumbering the Catholics, took two more years to make a beachhead in Long Island City with the founding of the Trinity Lutheran Church in 1890. In the same year a German Methodist church, the First German Methodist Episcopal, was founded, and a year later, the Steinway First Baptist (1891). The Germans, as a large compact ethnic group, settled heavily in the Williamsburgh section of Brooklyn and on New York's lower East Side. It seems probable that Long Island City's small German element before 1880 attended Reformed churches if they attended any at all. The small number of German names in the directories for Long Island City of the 1860's and 1870's correlate with the absence of German churches before 1880.

The brief but fanatic anti-German feeling during World War I did not kill off any German congrega­tion, although the Teutonic character of these congregations was somewhat muted; at least two went over to the use of English earlier than had been planned.

The high tide of church founding in Long Island City came in the years just before and just after the turn of the century. In the ten new houses of worship established during 1896-1910, two new ethnic elements emerge: the Italians and the Negroes. The few Italians living in Long Island City previously- Italian names are rare in the directories- probably attended the Irish Catholic churches, but beginning in 1908, the Methodists began to proselytize among them, using Italian Protestant clergymen but with scant success, only 200 members in 20 years. Italians worked in numbers in Long Island City on the sewers and on the railroad, but Brooklyn was a more attractive home. Negroes reveal their presence ecclesiastically in the form of Baptist and Episcopal missions during the 1890's and early '00's. St. Stephen's Baptist ( 1898), the African First Union Methodist Episcopal (1898), and All Souls Colored Mission (Episcopal) (1902). None of these white-sponsored efforts can be said to have been a success for the congregations ranged from 15 communicants to a high of 150. Curiously, there are no churches organized and run by the blacks themselves- no Southern Baptist or Pentecostal groups. It is probable that the few blacks in Long Island City were scattered too widely to support a church in any one locality. The presence of a small body of Swedish Lutherans is evident in the existence of Salem Swedish Lutheran Church beginning in 1899. Thereafter, no other national groups appear in a religious context until the 1920's. The Greek element, now so prominent in Astoria, first surfaces in St. Demetrios' Church in 1927. in summary, church founding in Long Island City has been as follows:

1828-1849

7

1863-1875

10

1876-1895

7

1896-1910

10

1911-1920

1

1921-1930

7

As is evident from the table the founding of new churches was cyclical, a spurt followed by slower intervals and almost nothing at all during the World War I period. By denomination the picture over 100 years- 1840 to 1930- is as follows:

Roman Catholic

8

Lutheran

4

Episcopal

7

Presbyterian

3

Methodist

6

Christian

1

Reformed

6

Bohemian Bretheren

1

Baptist

5

Greek Orthodox

1

     

Total:42

Some of the omissions are as noteworthy as those appearing. There is no Congregational church at all, yet this group is strong on the east end of Long island and overwhelming in New England. Jewish congregations are well represented in the Rockaways before 1920 but unknown elsewhere except for one small temple in Jamaica and one in Flushing. The advance and retreat of religious congregations is another interesting factor in the religious profile of Long Island City. The Catholic church increasingly acquired huge congregations: St. Mary's in Hunter's Point with its 8000 communicants easily outnumbered all the other non-Catholic churches combined and some of the other Catholic churches were not far behind: Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, 6000; St. Joseph's 4000; St. Rita's 5000 and St. Patrick's 3000. The Lutherans, though starting belatedly with Trinity in 1890, founded new churches in the 1920's: St. Mark's (1927), Grace (1928). Strangely, the Baptists disappeared altogether: Steinway Baptist (gone 1900), First Baptist (gone 1914 or 191 6), Ravenswood Baptist (gone 1918) and East Avenue Baptist (gone 1925). Church distribution geographically through Long Island City appears as follows:

Astoria

17

Dutch Kills

4

Hunter's Point

7

Blissville

1

Steinway

8

Sunnyside

1

Ravenswood

4

   

We would expect that the Astoria area would lead in the number of churches because of its almost wholly residential character; what is surprising is the existence of 7 houses of worship in the Hunter's Point area over the years in the face of heavy industry encroachment, the noise & traffic of the Long Island Rail Road and the general commercial cast of the area.

In studying the tenure of ministers in the various churches over the years, one is struck by the high mobility of the ministerial calling. In a group of 135 ministers covering all the 42 churches in the city during the period from 1897 to 1930, the results are as follows:

0-less than 3 yrs.

37

3-5 years

23

6-1 0 years

23

11-15 years

13

1 6-20 years

4

21-25 years

3

26-30 years

1

over 30 years

1

Many ministers came and went in a year's time; at the opposite extreme is the Rev. C.D.F. Steinfuhrer of the Second Reformed German Church whose ministry lasted from 1867 to 1922- 55 years! Undoubtedly, one of the chief reasons for brief tenure was the smallness of many of the Protestant congregations; nearly all these churches had fewer than 300 communicants and many lasted for years with 50 or less. Under these circumstances few churches could decently support a pastor and his family and there was little inducement to stay and face years of poverty and deprivation if a call came to a more prosperous post.

How many people in Long Island City attended church at all? There is no data for church membership before the late 1890's; statistics become available with 1898, the beginning of the Greater New York. In 1900, the population of Long Island City was 48,272 and all the churches then existing reported a combined membership of 20,487; this gives 42.4% of the population affiliated with some one church. In 1910, with 61,763 persons and 22,680 enrolled in some congregation, the percentage declines to 36.7%. In 1920, with 78,805 people in the First Assembly District (embracing Long Island City but leaving out a very small part of Northeast Steinway and a few blocks along Queens Blvd.) and 26,610 church-connected persons, the churched population falls to 27.4%. As the population grew, the contributing members of churches steadily declined, about what we might expect in a heavily industrialized city like Long Island City. Apartment houses began to dominate large parts of Astoria and industry began to displace the old one-family residences. A transient apartment house population and the increased demand on workers' time by industry with increasing female employment weakened the former social appeal of the churches. The emergence of home radio in the early 1920's and the coming of the motion picture palaces further weakened the appeal of the neighborhood church. Nevertheless even in the face of these negative forces seven new churches made their appearance in the 1920's.

Text from '300 YEARS OF LONG ISLAND CITY 1630-1930' by VINCENT F. SEYFRIED

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Historical Society