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MOVABLE CHURCHES: SHIFTING RELIGIONS AND ADAPTIVE REUSE IN GRAVESEND, BROOKLYN

By Joseph Ditta

Joseph Ditta is a native New Yorker whose Italian immigrant ancestors moved in 1922 from Manhattan to Gravesend, Brooklyn, the historic neighborhood where he has resided since birth and which he chronicles in his book, Gravesend, Brooklyn, a title in Arcadia Publishing’s “Then & Now” series that was released on July 20, 2009. Frequent visits to the Gravesend Cemetery (New York’s oldest burial ground, established about 1650) piqued his desire to learn about the area’s original inhabitants, whose surnames grace many Brooklyn street signs. A two-time graduate of the Conservatory of Music of Brooklyn College, Ditta later obtained a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Pratt Institute, and despite plans to find work as a music librarian, he was serendipitously hired by the New-York Historical Society in 1998, where he happily assists researchers in unraveling their own local history puzzles. He is currently documenting the ties of family and community among 133 individuals whose names appear on a quilt pieced by the Sewing Circle of the Gravesend Reformed Dutch Church in 1879.

To order a copy of Gravesend, Brooklyn click here or here.

FIGURE 1. An 1879 view of the Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend (right, built 1833) and adjacent lecture room (left, built 1850s).  West side of Gravesend (now McDonald) Avenue between Village Road North and Gravesend Neck Road, Brooklyn, New York.

FIGURE 1. An 1879 view of the Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend (right, built 1833) and adjacent lecture room (left, built 1850s). West side of Gravesend (now McDonald) Avenue between Village Road North and Gravesend Neck Road, Brooklyn, New York.

This stable scene belies the surprising physical mobility of Gravesend’s building stock at the turn of the 20th century. Some structures, in the paths of long-planned streets, were moved to conform to new grid patterns once roads were opened and graded. Other buildings that outlived their original functions but were still sound structurally were put to adaptive reuse at new sites. A case in point, the frame chapel to the left in Figure 1 had two addresses after it was removed from Gravesend (now McDonald) Avenue in 1893. Its moves and subsequent religious uses also illustrate the ecumenical ease enjoyed in Gravesend, the 1645 patent to which granted the founders “free liberty of Conscience…without molestation or disturbance from any magistrate or…ecclesiastical minister that may pretend jurisdiction over them, with liberty likewise for…their associates, heirs, etc.”1

The basement of the 1833 building of the Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend proved an unsuitable place for holding consistorial meetings and teaching Sunday school: it was “dark, gloomy…and so damp as to be inimical to health.”2 But it was not until the 1850s that funds and land were secured for a separate lecture room.3 Carpenter John Bergen, Jr. erected “a neat and comfortable house, about 25 x 45 feet” on a site just south of the church, at the northwest corner of Gravesend Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road. 4 Then, “[i]n 1879 a gallery was made across one end, and fitted up for an infant-class-room, [it had] sliding-doors so arranged that the upper and lower rooms [could] be thrown into one, during the opening and closing exercises of the Sabbath-school.”5 A slightly later photograph taken from the identical spot as Figure 1 shows the lecture room at some point lost its projecting, pediment-crowned portico with supporting Tuscan columns (see Figure 2).

FIGURE 2. Private mailing card, printed 1898-1901, showing the 1833 Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend and adjacent 1850s lecture room prior to their removal from Gravesend (McDonald) Avenue in 1893.  Compare altered lecture room with Figure 1 and note railroad crossing sign at the corner of Gravesend Neck Road.

FIGURE 2. Private mailing card, printed 1898-1901, showing the 1833 Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend and adjacent 1850s lecture room prior to their removal from Gravesend (McDonald) Avenue in 1893. Compare altered lecture room with Figure 1 and note railroad crossing sign at the corner of Gravesend Neck Road.

The opening in 1875 of the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad down Gravesend Avenue signaled the impending end of the Reformed Dutch Church’s presence at the central crossroads of town, where it had met, in one building or another, since 1667.6 Noisy, puffing steam trains passed and stopped directly in front of the sanctuary every two to three minutes, shattering the Sabbath stillness on each trip to Coney Island and back.7 By the early 1890s, with parishioners threatened by ever increasing traffic, the site was abandoned for one less traveled.8 The grounds had become valuable for other purposes and were bought by the Town of Gravesend with the stipulation that the buildings be removed by 16 June 1893.9 The church was demolished (its pews carted home by members who owned their use by ancestral purchase)10 , but the lecture room was moved to a spot near East 1st Street to shelter services while the new sanctuary was under construction11 (see Figure 3).

FIGURE 3.  Map charting locations of the lecture room of the Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend.

FIGURE 3. Map charting locations of the lecture room of the Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend.

The Reformed (Dutch) Church in America was no longer the principal Christian denomination in Gravesend by the end of the 19th century. Roman Catholics established the parishes of St. Mark in 1861, Guardian Angel in 1880, St. Mary Mother of Jesus in 1889, and Ss. Simon and Jude in 1897.12 Homecrest Presbyterian Church was organized in 1900.13 St. John’s, a Protestant Episcopal congregation in Greenfield, just north of town, was incorporated in 1859.14 The Ocean Parkway Methodist Episcopal (later Ridley Memorial) Church, also in Greenfield, was organized in 1865.15 Earlier Methodist churches were established at Sheepshead Bay in 1841 and Unionville (near today’s Bath Beach section) in 1844.16 And the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, on the road to Gravesend Bay, was erected in 1869.17

FIGURE 4. Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church (formerly lecture room of the Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend). No. 14 Gravesend Neck Road, southeast corner of Van Sicklen Street, Brooklyn, New York. Postcard, published by F. Johnson, ca. 1910.

A group of Gravesend Methodists who found the trip to Sheepshead Bay or Unionville inconvenient organized their own church in the center of town in 1899.18 Until they petitioned the Brooklyn Church Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to buy a building plot, they worshipped in the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road, and in a tent adjacent, on the land previously occupied by the lecture room of the Reformed Dutch Church.19 Coincidentally or not, the lecture room, superfluous now that the new Reformed Church had “several Sunday School rooms around a central assembly space,” was sold to the Methodists for a token sum of one dollar.20 Cost of the move and necessary construction was defrayed by donation, with a generous sum coming from former Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney.21 Once again, the then nearly fifty-year-old but still sturdy building was rolled along Gravesend Neck Road, this time to a spot just east of Van Sicklen Street, where it was put atop a high foundation22 (see Figure 4). Ironically, this structure, built to avoid holding Sunday school in a damp church basement, now gained a basement classroom.23

The new Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church at 14 Neck Road was dedicated on 16 September 1900.24 It was hoped the surrounding area, in transition from farmland to urban neighborhood, would provide a steady crop of members for the fledgling church.25 As it happened, most arrivals to Gravesend in the early decades of the 20th century were southern Italian immigrants who left the crowded tenements of Manhattan in search of newly-built, affordable homes. Though ostensibly Catholic, many sought Church benediction only for baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Regular, organized worship was typically ignored for a personal blend of Christian and Pagan rites.26 If the Roman Catholic Church could not hold these largely independent Christians, what chance did the Methodists stand?

The Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church never grew as anticipated. At its largest the membership topped 185.27 This coincided with the appointment of the congregation’s first settled clergyman, the Reverend Rufus Stanley Putney (1843-1920), who served between 1907 and 1910.28 But the numbers fluctuated and dipped, and services were discontinued in 1914, by when some members had joined the Ocean Parkway Methodist Episcopal Church.29

And yet the building at 14 Gravesend Neck Road endured. Sometime before 1925 it came to house the local Boy Scouts. Curiously, the Scouts figured in a vision experienced that year by Rose Greco, the wife of a Pentecostal minister: her husband, Giuseppe, “was to seek a building in…Gravesend” in which to start a church. He would know it by the troop meeting in session there. Reverend Greco found and managed to rent and later buy 14 Neck Road, and despite its distance from Coney Island named it the Coney Island Pentecostal Church.30

Where the Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church never drew members enough to survive, the Coney Island Pentecostal Church attracted the masses with visible evidence of miraculous healings: abandoned crutches adorned the sanctuary, testimonials to the restorative power of the Holy Spirit. The Italian language, too, was an important hook: Oggi e il giorno della Grazia—Today is the day of Grace—was Reverend Greco’s constant exhortation.31

FIGURE 5.  First Korean Church of Brooklyn (formerly Coney Island Pentecostal Church).  Southeast corner of Gravesend Neck Road and Van Sicklen Street.  Photo by Joseph Ditta, 2008.

FIGURE 5. First Korean Church of Brooklyn (formerly Coney Island Pentecostal Church). Southeast corner of Gravesend Neck Road and Van Sicklen Street. Photo by Joseph Ditta, 2008.

The Church quickly outgrew its small home. In 1937 it contracted architect R. T. Schaeffer to design a larger building to replace the old frame chapel and fill the entire corner lot32 (see Figure 5). For the next forty years the Coney Island Pentecostal Church worshipped in Schaeffer’s ashlar sanctuary until it, too, proved too small for the ever expanding congregation.

A far larger home became available in 1979, when the venerable Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend, its membership nearly extinct, federated with the Advent Lutheran Church at 1209 Avenue P to form the interdenominational Advent-Gravesend Church.33 The Coney Island Pentecostal Church bought the vacant building and grounds at Neck Road and East 1st Street for $325,000, and on moving to its new home renamed itself Trinity Tabernacle of Gravesend.34 Its former sanctuary at 14 Gravesend Neck Road has housed the First Korean Church of Brooklyn since the 1980s.35

Reformed Dutch to Methodist Episcopal to Italian Pentecostal to Korean Christian: in their wildest dreams of religious freedom the founders of Gravesend could never have imagined such a dizzying procession.

  1. Jerrold Seymann, Colonial Charters, Patents and Grants to the Communities Comprising the City of New York ([New York]: The Board of Statutory Consolidation of the City of New York, 1939), 495. []
  2. William H. Stillwell, History of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Gravesend, Kings County, N.Y. (Gravesend: Printed for the Consistory, 1892) [hereinafter Stillwell], 29-30. []
  3. Ibid, and Rev. A. P. Stockwell, A.M., “History of the Town of Gravesend” in The Civil, Political, Professional and Ecclesiastical History and Commercial and Industrial Record of the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, N.Y. from 1683 to 1884, edited by Henry R. Stiles (New York: Munsell, 1884) [hereinafter Stockwell), 181-182. []
  4. Frederick W. Beers, Atlas of Long Island (New York: Beers, Comstock and Cline, 1873), plate 32; Stillwell, 29-30; Stockwell, 181-182. Stockwell and Stillwell disagree on the year the lecture room was built. According to Stockwell it was completed in 1854, but Stillwell claims funds for its construction were just being raised in 1856. []
  5. Stockwell, 181-182. []
  6. Brian J. Cudahy, How We Got to Coney Island: The Development of Mass Transportation in Brooklyn and Kings County (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 73; Historical Records Survey, Works Projects Administration, Inventory of Church Archives of New York City: Reformed Church in America (New York: Historical Records Survey, 1939), 32. []
  7. “Gravesend Gossip. The Reformed Church to Move After Two Centuries,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sunday 13 November 1892, p. 16. []
  8. The 300th Anniversary of the Gravesend Reformed Church, 1655-1955 (New York: Brooklyn Eagle Press, [1955]), 25. []
  9. Ibid, 26-27. []
  10. Gertrude Ryder Bennett, Living in a Landmark (Francestown, New Hampshire: Marshall Jones Company, 1980), 25-26; and Turning Back the Clock in Gravesend: Background of the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (Francestown, New Hampshire: Marshall Jones Company, 1982), 32-33. []
  11. The 300th Anniversary of the Gravesend Reformed Church, 1655-1955 (New York: Brooklyn Eagle Press, [1955]), 30; Atlas of the 29th, 30th, 31st and 32d Wards (formerly Towns of Flatbush, New Utrecht, Gravesend & Flatlands, Kings Co., New York), Borough of Brooklyn, City of New York (New York: E. Robinson & Co., 1898), plate 23, shows a frame “stable” of approximate size and oblong shape as the lecture room behind the church, directly in the projected path of East 1st Street between Gravesend Neck Road and Avenue U. []
  12. Rev. John K. Sharp, comp., Priests and Parishes of the Diocese of Brooklyn, 1820 to 1944 (New York: Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, 1944), 188, 194, 203. []
  13. Historical Records Survey, Works Projects Administration, Inventory of the Church Archives of New York City: Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (New York: Historical Records Survey, 1940), 123. []
  14. Historical Records Survey, Works Projects Administration, Inventory of the Church Archives of New York City: Protestant Episcopal Church, Diocese of Long Island (Vol. 2), Brooklyn and Queens (New York: Historical Records Survey, 1940), 30. []
  15. Historical Records Survey, Works Projects Administration, Inventory of the Church Archives of New York City: The Methodist Church (New York: Historical Records Survey, 1940), 117. []
  16. Ibid, 101-102. []
  17. Frederick W. Beers, Atlas of Long Island (New York: Beers, Comstock and Cline, 1873), plate 31; Teunis G. Bergen, “History of the Town of New Utrecht” in The Civil, Political, Professional and Ecclesiastical History and Commercial and Industrial Record of the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, N.Y. from 1683 to 1884, edited by Henry R. Stiles (New York: Munsell, 1884), 265. []
  18. “New Gravesend Church,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Saturday 15 September 1900, p. 9. []
  19. “Brooklyn Church Society,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Wednesday 27 September 1899, p. 9; Historical Records Survey, Works Projects Administration, Inventory of the Church Archives of New York City: The Methodist Church (New York: Historical Records Survey, 1940), 134; “Methodist Ministers Meet,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Monday 1 May 1899, p. 16 and “Church Extension Work,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Friday 27 April 1900, p. 16. No. 27 Gravesend Neck Road still stands and is known variously as the Van Sicklen, Hicks-Platt, or Lady Moody House. []
  20. Lionel R. Lindsay, Gravesend Kid: A Brooklyn Boyhood (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2004), 44. Lindsay’s father, the Rev. Linden M. Lindsay, served as minister of the Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend, 1944-1954; The 300th Anniversary of the Gravesend Reformed Church, 1655-1955 (New York: Brooklyn Eagle Press, [1955]), 30-31. []
  21. “New Gravesend Church,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Saturday 15 September 1900, p. 9. []
  22. The 300th Anniversary of the Gravesend Reformed Church, 1655-1955 (New York: Brooklyn Eagle Press, [1955]), 30-31; Historical Records Survey, Works Projects Administration, Inventory of the Church Archives of New York City: The Methodist Church (New York: Historical Records Survey, 1940), 134. []
  23. “New Gravesend Church,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Saturday 15 September 1900, p. 9. []
  24. “New Church Dedicated,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Monday 17 September 1900, p. 8. []
  25. “Church Extension Work,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Friday 27 April 1900, p. 16. []
  26. On the southern Italian belief system, see Richard Gambino, Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian American (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974), chapter seven, “Religion, Magic, and the Church.” []
  27. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, 1908 (Brooklyn, New York: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1908), 341. []
  28. Historical Records Survey, Works Projects Administration, Inventory of the Church Archives of New York City: The Methodist Church (New York: Historical Records Survey, 1940), 134, gives Putney’s dates of service as 1907-09; Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, 1908-10, shows Putney’s service as 1908-10; Death record for Rufus Stanley Putney, State of Connecticut, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Town of Westport, 1920, certificate no. 110. Putney is quite possibly the minister photographed with the women and children in Figure 3. Pastors who served the church: 1900—W. Shrigley (acting); 1901—Rowland Hill; 1902—vacant; 1903—Rowland Hill (supplied); 1904—S.W. Eaton; 1905-07—G.A. Bronson; 1908-10—Rufus Stanley Putney; 1911—E.W. Shrigley; 1912-13—G.M. Powell (data culled from Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, 1900-1913). []
  29. Historical Records Survey, Works Projects Administration, Inventory of the Church Archives of New York City: The Methodist Church (New York: Historical Records Survey, 1940), 117, 134. Records from the dissolved Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church (marriages, baptisms, and members, 1899-1914) are now held by the archives of the United Methodist City Society, 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 1922, New York, NY 10115; http://www.umcitysociety.org/. []
  30. Rev. Elie DeVito, “Featured Church: Trinity Tabernacle, Brooklyn, NY,” Vista 2001: A Publication of the General Council of the Christian Church of North America (vol. 2, no. 1), 5. In 1929 it bore the inscription “Assemblea Christiana Radunatu Di Jesu” (Christian Assembly of Jesus); see Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s – 1970s, from the Collections of the New York Public Library (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1981), microfiche nos. 0235-A5, A6, and A7, all available online at NYPL Digital Gallery, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/index.cfm, digital ID no. 705841F. An inscription on the congregation’s next building (see note 34) reads “Coney Island Christian Church.” []
  31. DeVito, 20. []
  32. The New York Times, Thursday 22 April 1937, p. 43, “Building Plans Filed / Brooklyn / Gravesend Neck Road, 2-12, s e cor of Van Sicklin [sic] St, extension of 1-story brick and frame church; Coney Island Pentecostal Church, premises, owner; R. T. Schaeffer, architect; cost, $5,000.” Elie DeVito’s account in Vista 2001, 20, also implies the new building was an extension of the old chapel: “In 1937, construction began around the original frame….[T]he old boy scout building [was] transformed into a beautiful church….” If the former lecture room of the Reformed Dutch Church exists as part of the stone church currently standing at 14 Neck Road, all external, visible traces of it have vanished. []
  33. 8 January 1979. See “Advent Gravesend Church History,” http://www.advent-gravesend.org/pages/history.html, accessed Tuesday 8 August 2006. []
  34. DeVito, 20. []
  35. See http://www.fkcb.org/, accessed Tuesday 8 August 2006. []