Dumpster Picked Date for New York City Church

Photo: Christopher Bonanos

One morning last November, I was walking down East 35th Street, near Park Avenue. It was cold, my face pulled down in my scarf, and my eyes turned toward the sidewalk. A piece of paper fluttered over my shoe, and the handwriting caught my eye. It looked ancient, like a copper plate text. I bent down to pick it up.

As I did, I saw six or seven boxes of paper at the sidewalk spilling out their contents. One was tucked into a plastic drinking cup, and it was almost certain that a walker had left it there shortly before then, but the rest of the contents were relatively undisturbed. I saw some musical notes, financial records, and other things. One of the chests in the middle was filled with those very old handwritten items. I saw documents grouped into reddish cardboard, and bound with tape, including one that read “Association of the New Church,” which marked the New Jerusalem. The annual report of the Board of Trustees. / 1883. There were many, too. clippings. Letters.

By nature, I am a documentation researcher and occasional archiver. My apartment – a short walk from this pile – has a lot of old books, magazines, and old photos. The bookshelves run from floor to ceiling, and they are full. The last thing I need is another set of old papers, I said to myself. Besides, there can be bed bugs or cockroaches. And I injured my shoulder not too long ago, and I couldn’t lift or carry much.

I looked down the street, toward Lexington Street, and saw garbage bags piled in front of every building. It was garbage day. All this will be a garbage dump in a matter of hours. I made it through from 1883 to 2021. I shrugged my bad shoulder as best I could, sighed, and picked up a chest. A few minutes later, after I dropped it at home, I came back with two more arm loads.

I did some sorting, leaving behind things that weren’t unique: some ragged books with smashed covers, some copies of what looked like hymns. I paused at a few huge, heavy folders filled with financial records ranging from the forties forward, and left them as well. Later in the week, I saw that the garbage truck had bypassed the church that day, and the notebooks were still there, so I pulled another one. My wife knows me so well that she says (with a small sigh) “It’s okay.” Our family walked around the heap in Bhuna for two weeks while I figured out what I had.

I had discovered in front of the New Church, also known as the New Jerusalem Church. I knew quite a bit about it already, having lived in the neighborhood for a long time. It was the spiritual home of New York City’s Swedenborgians, the Protestant followers of an eighteenth century Swedish mystical philosopher named Emmanuel Swedenborg. It is difficult to encapsulate their beliefs in a sentence, but they do not differ significantly from those of the Unitarians, with a strong belief in philanthropy and a commendable history of promoting racial equality. (They were early abolitionists.) There are 30 peculiar Swedenborgian denominations in the United States, and the church’s membership peaked at 7,000 in 1900. Today there are about a quarter of that number. What I was carrying home was the equivalent of 170 years of New York church records.

Church today.
Photo: Christopher Bonanos

The building, located at East 35th, opened in 1859, a few years after the congregation was founded, and is the oldest on this street to date. It’s old enough, in fact, that it predates the buildings next to it, and thus not quite in line with the brownstones in the block. Aside from the relocated entrance, it looks exactly the same as it did in the 19th century. The Swedenborgian sect, as of 2008, has fallen to 18 members. As the population dwindled in the late 20th century, the building deteriorated, but church elders were able to fund a major restoration in 2008, and it still appears to be in good condition.

Since the main community is reduced to very few people, others have begun to hold prayers here: the Coptic congregation, and some of the Korean Presbyterian Church. In 2020, Sweden ditched the ghost and listed the building for sale. (They dropped the price in late 2021, after which the listing disappeared; it either just sold out or he changed his mind.) The prospect of the building being sold certainly caused a cleanup that sent these crates to the curb. . (I contacted the church while writing this story but received no response.)

Photo: Christopher Bonanos

Photo: Christopher Bonanos

The contents were very clean, which puts me at ease. (Not a lot of dust, no bugs.) I left the packages tied up for now, worried that they might be too fragile to handle, and focused on loose items that I could easily unravel. There was, near the top of the mound, a document older than the building, dating from the year the devotees were founded. “The following is an extract from the minutes of the quarterly meeting…” which reads, “held at Mr. Waldo’s house, Tuesday evening, the fifth of October, 1852.”

Photo: Christopher Bonanos

This is almost certainly Samuel L. Waldo, an important figure in the American Church. He was a successful artist, and you can see his portrait of his wife, called Deliverance Waldo, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His house appears to have been on East Ninth Street, near Cooper Square.

There was more the deeper I went into the chests. Report of the Church’s Ladies Aid Society from 1907. Proof of membership documents from the nineteenth century. A bunch of those annual reports. Some were historically insignificant, but vividly evoked details of everyday life, such as a $125 bill for coal to heat the building in the fall of 1904. (twenty tons, at $6.25 each). to another Swedenborgian church in Brooklyn and a box of pictures of that building. The prints were eight by ten glosses with a whiff of an amateur darkroom, and the photographic paper box they were in had an early 1960s expiration date. I soon discovered that there was already a Swedenborgian church on the corner of Monroe Place and Clark Street, and it was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the redevelopment of Cadman Towers. The easy assumption is that a church member photographed it to make a record before it was demolished, and all records were transferred to the sister institution.

The papers faded at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and in its last days, I noticed some fleeting signs of diminishing church herd and finances. Newer items consist of photocopies and laser prints of Microsoft Word documents. They are less compelling when looking at them, of course: The Times’ New Roman text is hardly written in steel pen and inkwell, and bears no trace of a human hand. But it’s also part of the small and important story of an institution’s creation, growth, decline, and near disappearance.

Clockwise from top left: meeting minutes from 1880; powerful speech from the early days of typewriter correspondence; Documents from the women’s assistant; laws. Photos: Christopher Bonanos.

Clockwise from top left: meeting minutes from 1880; powerful speech from the early days of typewriter correspondence; Documents from l…
Clockwise from top left: meeting minutes from 1880; powerful speech from the early days of typewriter correspondence; Documents from the women’s assistant; laws. Photos: Christopher Bonanos.

As it happens, shortly before I brought all this stuff home, I interviewed (on a different topic) Julia Julia, principal historian for the New York Public Library. I thought she might have advice on what to do with all this stuff, and we quickly got on the phone. I started filling it up. When she got to the point of the church’s impending sale, she said, “Did you go inside or something?” I said, “No, it was all at the sidewalk.”

a beat.

She said, “Oh God.” “Did you catch him?”

Yes, I definitely did. She said, “Okay.” “First of all, How much is the material?“After a few days, I came up with a full sizing, and explained that a manageable group like this was more likely to find an institutional home than a truckload of stuff that would take years to process.

After some backstage conversations, Jolie finally handed me over. She explained that the pick-up queue at the New York Public Library was running a bit slow because of the pandemic, and she was sensitive to the fact that the pile of things in Bhuna was a bit of a burden. And anyway, I talked to Edward O’Reilly, an curator I knew at the New York Historical Society, who has a lot of church-related records from this period, and it was a game to add these to the collections. After a week or so, he parked in front of a building in a pickup SUV, and we gently stacked Swedenborgians in the back.

If there was one page in this cache that stuck with me, it was a direct listing titled “Baptism, 1887”. There seems to be something about all these kids, who live in New York City and beyond, strangely immediate — because 1887 is a long time gone by, but it isn’t. who – which long. It’s a long, straight life. Take, as a random example, Jesse Reynolds and Elisa Rebecca Hammett, the eleventh and twelfth names on the list. I thought someone alive today might remember them well.

“Baptism, 1887.”
Photo: Christopher Bonanos

In this way, this week I found myself on the phone with Jesse’s somewhat surprised son, Benjamin Lacey. Aged 96 and living in Massachusetts, he retired from practicing corporate law in Boston. He explained that his mother was actually born to a Swedenborgian family living in Brooklyn, although they later moved to Sewarden, New Jersey. Jesse worked as a librarian at Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studio—”or if not, for an architecture firm that was closely allied with Tiffany’s studio”—and met her future husband, Frank, when he came east from Iowa to commission a memorial artwork. They married that fall and returned to Dubuque. Benjamin says it is the strange man who has returned to the East. He added that the family did not adhere to Swedes; His father was an Episcopalian, and that’s how he was brought up. Toward the end of our conversation, he got curious and asked, “How did you find I? The answer was after fashion It didn’t rain that day.

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