Parish History

The life of a parish is like the life of a family, and the parish of Calvary, Holy Communion and St. George's in the City of New York traces its roots to 1749 when Trinity Church established the Chapel of St. George’s on Beekman Street in lower Manhattan. Over the years, the congregation developed in strength, until in 1811 it became a self-supporting parish of the Episcopal Church. In 1846, St. George’s moved to Stuyvesant Square.

Meanwhile the ministry of Calvary Church began in 1832 at an uptown site. The church moved to Gramercy Park in 1846. The writer Edith Wharton used Calvary, the church of the Roosevelt family, as the setting for her novel, The Age of Innocence.

The Church of the Holy Communion was built in 1844 on what is now the Avenue of the Americas. The church's founder, Reverend William Muhlenberg, a leader of the evangelical Catholic movement within the Episcopal Church was closely involved with the design. Muhlenberg established a parish infirmary that became St. Luke’s Hospital. The parishioners' Easter tradition of carrying flowers to the infirmary was the beginning of what is now the Easter parade.

The Reverend Dr. Samuel Moor Shoemaker served at Calvary for 28 years (1928-1952). Shoemaker’s role in the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) is still remembered. As Bill Wilson wrote in AA Comes of Age, “It is through Sam Shoemaker that most of A.A.’s spiritual principles have come. Sam is one of the great channels, one of the prime sources of influences that have gathered themselves into what is now A.A.” The parish is proud of its connection to this program, and continues to provide meeting space for A.A. groups each week.

Artists, writers, and musicians are an important part of the parish history at all the churches. Few have had so long and rich and influence on the life of a parish as the beloved Harry T. Burleigh. Harry T. Burleigh, called one of the saviors of spirituals, was born in 1866, grandson of former slaves. He sang in St. George’s choir for more than 50 years. “He literally sang his great heart out to the glory of God, and especially so in those haunting spirituals,” said the Rev. Elmore McKee, a rector at St. George’s. Burleigh’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” arrangement is said to have inspired Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World.” The two composers worked together during Dvorak’s stay in New York.

During the 19th century, the three congregations sought to balance a commitment to the Lord with a deep desire to serve the community. Programs were developed, hospitals established, and efforts were made on a personal and corporate level to express the biblical and theological recognition of the deep worth of personhood. There was a concern for justice and the pursuit of truth, as well as giving value to aspects of life that were sometimes seen as peripheral to the religious experience. The parish operated health and dental clinics, fresh-air camps, and the first trade schools in the city. Soup kitchens were opened and fresh water was supplied at fountains for tenement dwellers who lacked running waters.

In 1975, the three congregations merged to form one, and later the Church of the Holy Communion was sold to meet the needs of an economic crunch. In that sense, the Parish of Calvary-St. George's is new. But there is strength to be found in the knowledge that generations of the parish family, in times equally trying, have been faithful in their efforts to be the church in New York City.