Manhattan — L’Église Française du Saint Esprit

Categories: Religious and Houses of Worship

L'…glise FranÁaise du St. Esprit - New York City (Episcopal)
109 East 60th Street
New York, N.Y. 10022
The first independent French Church 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 he was aided by the arrival of the Rev. Pierre Peiret, a native of Languedoc in the South 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 Francaise a la Nouvelle York."
However, Huguenot immigration was so great that after a few years the congregation became too large for the building. In 1704 a new and larger church was built at the corner of Pine and Nassau Streets and was called, for the first time, "Le Temple du Saint-Esprit." It was to serve the parish for the next 130 years. The church was a simple rectangular building, 50 by 75 feet. Beside it was a graveyard. There was a wooden fence on the sides which bordered the streets. It possessed a small tower which was surmounted by a cupola. By all accounts, it looked like a small country church.

However, beginning around the 1730s, the membership of Saint-Esprit steadily declined for several reasons. Huguenot immigration to the American colonies, after the great influx during the period following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, dwindled to a small number. Louis XIV died in 1715 and his successors, while still not recognizing the practice of the Reformed religion, had no great zeal for persecuting it. French immigrants for reasons of conscience were few in the 18th century. Those Huguenots who came to America during the great immigration followed the familiar pattern of working hard, prospering, and assimilating rapidly. Many of them became distinguished in their communities and as they did so, other, larger churches eagerly sought their support and leadership. The lists of English and Dutch congregations in the 18th century are filled with Huguenot names. The children of the immigrants were no longer comfortable worshipping in the French language. Against these counter trends, Mr. Rou struggled with diminishing success. Revenues fell and were not enough to cover expenses. As the size of the congregation diminished, petty issues began to split the remaining elders and members. By 1750 Saint-Esprit was in a very weakened state from what it had been.
Because its situation was so precarious, it became evident to everyone that Saint-Esprit would fare much better if it joined with a larger Protestant denomination. After much discussion, in November of 1802 the members of the parish unanimously voted to join the Episcopal Church. This decision of a French Calvinist church characterized by simplicity of manner, plainness of ritual, and democratic structure to join with a church which, in the popular imagination, is felt to stress elaborate ceremony, aristocratic mannerisms, and a "Catholic" hierarchy has never ceased to puzzle people. An explanation is in order. At the time the decision made sense. The modern Episcopal Church is, in many aspects, the result of the Oxford Movement. Starting in England in 1833, 30 years after Saint-Esprit had joined the Episcopal fold, it brought Anglo-Catholic tradition, liturgy, and doctrine back into the life of a church which, for centuries previously, had been far more Protestant in character. From its beginnings in the Church of England, the movement spread rapidly in the American Episcopal Church throughout the 19th century. However, the Episcopal Church of 1802 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 problems. Other Protestant denominations were rejected 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. Everything favored the Episcopal Church. Since the time of the first persecution of French Protestants, the English kings had always welcomed Huguenots in England and in the colonies. This tradition of warm relations with the Church of England was continued 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, 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." This money was badly needed. However, the most compelling financial reason for joining the Episcopal Church was not the legacy. 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 Saint-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. (1834-1862) By 1827, 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. The design of the portico of this church may have been inspired by William and Henry William Inwood's Saint Pancras New Church, London (1819–22). The interior was based on Christopher Wren's Church of Saint Stephen's Walbrook, London (1672–79). The dome was destroyed by fire in 1839, and the building was demolished in 1864.

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.
Fortunately, a young Lutheran clergyman, born in Alsace but receiving much of his theological training in the United States, named Alfred Wittmeyer, was 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. His ministry, almost as long as Dr. Verren's, 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 there a new and larger church (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.

After years of growth in the 19th century, the size of the French community of New York began to decline about the beginning of the 20th. The trades and industries which had employed so many of them began to move out of New York. Prohibition, when it came, dealt a severe blow to the French restaurant business. For the first time, immigration from Europe was greatly restricted by new immigration quotas. The congregation had become too small to maintain the church building on 27th Street. It was decided to sell the property and build a smaller church. The church was sold in 1926 and the congregation moved to the auditorium of the French Institute on East 60th Street for its worship services for what was expected to be a short time. The rector and vestry, hoping to raise all necessary funds before they bought property or started building, did not move fast enough and their efforts to raise the money were stopped short by the Depression. After five years of meeting in the auditorium the parish was able to rent, on a temporary basis, a townhouse at 114 East 76th Street which served as a chapel and meeting place until 1934 when the parish moved into an unused Methodist church at 229 East 61st Street. This church, although in need of repairs and expensive to maintain, served the parish for seven years until it was sold by its owners to make way for an apartment building.
Once again, the parish was faced with having to look for a home. A search was begun and after some time, a former school at 109 East 60th Street was located which was for sale. Again, a fund raising campaign was undertaken; this time, with the improved national economy, it produced much better results. Saint-Esprit bought the building in 1941. By making extensive changes to the ground floor level, a small chapel, seating about 70 people, was created. The pews, altar, lectern, and memorial tablets from previous churches were taken out of storage and provided a historical continuity in the new setting. A French school was established on the upper floors. By another stroke of luck, three years later the parish was able to buy the adjoining brownstone at 111 East 60th Street for a very reasonable price. This building provided rooms for a clergy residence, a Sunday school, and a Huguenot Museum which functioned until 1976 when its contents were transferred to larger facilities at the restored Huguenot village of New Paltz, New York.
In 1978, the French Church of Saint-Esprit celebrated its 350th anniversary. Bishop Moore made an official visitation and presided at the celebration of Holy Communion. A number of projects have strengthened the life of the parish. Improvements have been made to the interior of the chapel. 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 of the leading Huguenot families, a constant reminder to present-day worshippers of their heritage. Behind the altar, in stained glass, is the Huguenot cross as well as the seal of the Huguenot Society. The beautiful silver chalice, pattern, tankard, and baptismal bowl, given to the parish at the beginning of the 19th century, are still used at festival services. The present congregation is composed of French Protestants who live in New York, Americans who love the French language, and parishioners of Huguenot descent who find it meaningful to worship in the church of their ancestors. Once a year, on the Sunday closest to April 15th, the day that the Edict of Nantes was promulgated in 1598, Huguenot descendants from all over the greater New York area gather with the regular congregation to worship as their ancestors did, to sing the hymns that they sang, and to honor the faith and courage of their forefathers. 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.


Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Dunlap, David. From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan's Houses of Worship. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
L'Église Française du Saint Esprit website:
"Ehilse [sic] Du Saint Esprit," New-York Spectator (July 6, 1840). Courtesy Stephen Pinel and Anthony Meloni.
Ogasapian, John. Organ Building in New York City: 1700-1900. Braintree: The Organ Literature Foundation, 1977.
"Opening of the First Moravian Church," The New York Times, April 19, 1869.
Organ Historical Society Pipe Organ Database:
Webber, F.R. "Organ Scrapbook" at Organ Historical Society Archives, Princeton, NJ. Specifications of Henry Erben organ (1863). Courtesy Jonathan Bowen.
Wilson, James Grant, ed. The Memorial History of the City of New York from Its First Settlement to the Year 1892. New York: New-York History Company, 1893.
Illustrations Alexander J. Davis: Eglise du Saint Esprit, New York City (front elevation and plan and section and two plans) (24.66.82,4)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.,4.htm (October 2006).
L'Église Française du Saint Esprit website: archival photos of early church buildings.
The Huguenot Society of America. Church on West 22nd Street.
Lawson, Steven E. Henry Erben organ (1840) in First Moravian Church.
Lewis, James. Drawing of Henry Erben organ (1834).
III/37 George Jardine & Son (1875)
Henry Erben (1863)
II/21 Henry Erben (1840)
Henry Erben (1834) – burned 1839
Hall & Erben (1824)


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ORGAN 14/5 -- Hall & Erben [Jardine]

---------- Church located at 229 East 61st Street:

George Jardine & Son

New York City (1875)
Mechanical action
3 manuals, 37 stops
In 1934, the congregation acquired the former Sixty-first Street Methodist Episcopal Church where there was an organ built by George Jardine & Son in 1875. Specifications of this organ have not yet been located. Church located at 30 West 22nd Street:

Henry Erben

New York City (1863)
Mechanical action
Specifications of this organ have not yet been located. Henry Erben Organ (1863) at First Moravian Church - New York City (photo: Steven E. Lawson)
1840 Erben Organ now in First Moravian Church
Church located on Franklin & Church Street:

Henry Erben

New York City (1840)
Mechanical action
2 manuals, 21 stops
This 1840 organ by Henry Erben was installed in a new church building, and both were described in the July 6, 1840 issue of The New-York Spectator. A paragraph about the organ stated: "The case of the organ is entirely different from any yet constructed in this country. It is ornamented with carved columns, representing the palm trees at Athens, surmounted by a cornice enriched with carved water leaves and honey suckles, the whole bronzed and gilt in the highest style of elegance." The display pipes in the facade are of of large scale: there are three towers of five metal pipes each, and two flats containing small dummy pipes, of wood, shaped to look like diapasons. The Erben organ originally had a G-compass: manuals were GGG to f' (58 notes), and the pedal compass was CCC to C (25 notes).
In 1863, the St. Esprit church was sold at auction, and the Erben organ was purchased by the Church of the Mediator, an Episcopal society, who had the organ moved and installed in their building located at 154 Lexington Avenue at 30th Street. In 1869, the Church of the Mediator was sold to the FIrst Moravian Society, which remains there today. In 1907, the organ was reconfigured with a C-compass by Thos. H. Wood of New York City.
Specifications of this organ have not yet been located. Henry Erben organ (1834) in Eglise du St. Esprit - New York City Church located on Church Street:

Henry Erben

New York City (1834)
Mechanical action
This organ burned in 1839. Specifications of this organ have not yet been located. Church located on Franklin Street:

Hall & Erben

New York City (1824)
Mechanical action
Specifications of this organ have not yet been located. ----------