This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
Late at night, red light splashes onto the sidewalk from a flashy neon cross affixed incongruously to the simple but elegant Gothic Revival façade of a red brick building on 11th Street between avenues A and B. “Jesus Saves,” it blares. Inside is the bustle of the Father’s Heart Ministries, where the work of the church’s succession of occupants over the past century and a half contradicts what that crass latter-day choice of illumination might otherwise portend.
On a recent Saturday morning, I passed through the low iron gate, walked through the building’s main entrance and rushed into the building to be on time to volunteer for the church’s weekly soup kitchen. The door’s location on the left side of the façade rather than in the center is the result of an alteration in 1900, one of the very few modifications to the front of the building since it was erected.
I climbed the short flight of stairs that lead to the main entrance, where regular volunteers, well-versed in the process of orienting newcomers, immediately asked me to register on one of their iPads. Then they invited me to wait in the main room. The heart of the church has been turned into a simple dining hall with foldable chairs and long tables set with plastic cutlery.
Painted a pastel blue-green, the room has high ceilings and is twice as long as it is wide. There are two small high windows and a slightly elevated stage in an arched niche with a couple of musical instruments. Above the stage are the words, “The Word of Our God Shall Stand Forever”.
There is lots of commotion. From time to time, two figures appear, giving hugs, a blessing or an instruction before disappearing again among the volunteers. These two are the church’s pastors, Chuck and Carol Vedral. With the help of members of their family and other clergy, they have been running the church since 1966.
Vedral is a local. He grew up around the corner on 10th Street and Avenue B. Having been part of the neighborhood for such a long time, he knows it and all of its struggles very well. “At 18, I was already an alcoholic and I was in a gang,” he said. “Back in the 1950s-1960s, if you didn’t belong to a gang, you were not safe. So you had to join a gang for protection because the communities were disinterring in this area.”
For Vedral, that changed in 1962, when he experienced an epiphany. He became one of the church’s first adult converts. With the community’s support, he attended Bible school, started working as a pastor and pledged to keep the church’s mission alive.
“This church has always responded to the need of the community,” he explained. “In 1977 our ministry was mostly to drug addicts. This whole community became known as Alphabet City – because of the avenues A, B, C, D – but you only came here if you were selling drugs or buying drugs or doing drugs.” He recalled an incident that enhanced the neighborhood’s infamy on January 27, 1972. Two young police officers who were fellow Marines in the Vietnam War, Rocco W. Laurie and Gregory P. Foster, were ambushed and shot dead across the street.
Vedral spoke of his efforts, aided by volunteers and other clergy, to help the community in those years, promoting family values to reduce the number of struggling single mothers. At one point, they opened a bookstore and a general contracting company to help drug addicts acquire skills.
By 1980, the congregation had grown to 180 members–mostly former drug addicts. But then the AIDS epidemic hit and killed off many of those who had contracted the disease from sharing needles, Vedral said.
“The first one, he disappeared. We didn’t know where he was. We went to his mother and we said, ‘Where is Carl?’ and she said, ‘Well, he’s in this special ward, you can’t see him. It’s isolation.’” After managing to convince the mother to provide an authorization, Vedral and some volunteers went to the hospital. “Our hearts were broken because he was blind and deaf and he had pneumonia and he was sleeping in his own waste because they didn’t want to touch him. So we said, ‘Could we take care of him?’” Not only did the hospital staff agree, they also asked the church members if they would take care of the other AIDS-infected patients.
Thus started the ministry called CARES, Christian Aid Relief Service. But nothing could stop the disease’s ravages and ultimately there was no one left to take care of. “I buried them all,” Vedral said.
While he and the other volunteers were visiting the hospital, they noticed the babies in isolation, so at Harlem Hospital, the church members asked if they could help with their care. Hospital staff, he said, “would just give the baby a bottle and walk away; not change anything, not touch them. So, they let us stay there 24 hours a day. We had a rocking chair and we had a VCR with tapes playing for children and we would sit in the rocking chair and hold them,” he recalled. “Some of them started to talk and to walk.”
According to Vedral, their good results provided an example for the hospital’s staff, who started to emulate some of the church members’ approach. At this point, Vedral said, Father’s Heart almost turned into an adoption agency, with Vedral calling upon others to welcome foster children in their homes.
A look back at the longer ago history of 545 11th Street makes clear for how long the mission of those who occupy it has evolved with the times, pace and issues of the community it serves. Built in 1867 by architects, William Field and Son, who specialized in tenements and other affordable housing, it was always meant to be a church but never a grand one. It was created to be a Methodist Episcopal Church catering to European emigrants, but has changed ethnicities over time to mirror the local demographics: from Irish to Germans, from Germans to Italians.
The New York East Conference Minutes of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which contains reports on the 11th Street church from 1890 to the early 1930s, speaks of the diversity of the local community from the start. William H. Wardell was the President Elder for the New York District and in the minutes of the Methodist Church’s East Conference for 1891, he said people who lived on the East Side of New York below 14th Street were “in the midst of the most desperate conditions, such as no other city on earth can equal.” He called the area “a Babel of indistinguishable mutterings and moans and curses, modified by every phase of religious belief and disbelief known to civilization.”
Three years later, he wrote:
In all these East Side, downtown churches, a very wise and patient and liberal administration of the work is required. The time is not distant when these densely crowded districts will demand ten times the outlay and the accommodation that we now afford them. Constitutional churches will develop in different centers, and polyglottal peoples and diverse faiths will crowd upon us in startlingly significant increase. The signs of such movements are beginning to appear at Allen Street Memorial and at Eleventh Street. God grant that our Methodism may be ready with its money and its messengers!”
And the year after that:
From almost nothing three years ago, Eleventh street has grown so that now it is a very hive of evangelistic agencies, having some eight different organizations in successful operation, eight of ten workers besides the pastor and a Sunday school of eight hundred or more. If it had suitable quarters in which to work and grow, instead of reaching about two thousand different persons, as it now does every week, the number would soon become three or four times as large. It is a practical solution of the down-town problem.
In 1901, the church had become one of the “most prosperous city churches” and reports of its successes continue in 1904, 1906 and 1915 despite financial hardship in the Methodist denomination at the time.
Early on, to answer the needs of the workers and recent emigrants the church was serving, it had to develop a wide range of services: C.W. McCormick, who was the church’s District Superintendent of 1917, wrote of good works: “The People’s Home Church, through its day nursery, kindergarten, classes for men and women, and deaconess work, in addition to its preaching services in English and in Italian is meeting a real community need.”
A 1923 book, The World Service of the Methodist Episcopal Church, has a similar description of the 11th Street church:
A Church of Many Nations – situated in a single city block in which dwell over 2,5000 men, women and children, who speak 20 different languages, is the People’s Home Church and Settlement. No other work is so intensive in its character. From the children who fill the surrounding tenements and swarm into the streets after school hours, the church takes boys and girls and builds them into Christian Citizens.
In the same period in history, a young man named William Parson Tolley, who became chancellor of Syracuse University between 1942 and 1969, worked weekends at the church while he studied on a full scholarship at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. In his memoirs, he remembers with fondness his service. “I received a rich social and academic education at Drew,” he wrote. “Yet a crucial part of that education was received not on the Drew campus but on the streets of New York City.”
He described the society of immigrants that became his community: “These were the people we served. They lived in what were called ‘dumbbell apartments,’ so called because the doorbells did not ring. Tenants kept potatoes or coal in their bathtubs, and shared one toilet per floor among several families. All of the garbage and the contents of the chamber pots were thrown to the street from the windows on the upper floor, creating an unholy mess. Firemen came daily to hose down the sidewalks and streets.”
Around 1927, the local population shifted again. More and more emigrants from Slavic countries started to attend the services. The following year, a passage of the Journal of the New York East Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church mentions that the new pastor, the Reverend Earl C. Heck, made “a very careful study of the community” from which it became evident that the population was “changing very rapidly from Jewish to Russian, Polish and Ukrainian.” The same excerpt from the journal reads, “For many years the church has carried a service in Italian, the present pastor being the Rev. Nicolo Notarpasquale. It may be possible that, in the future, work in other languages will have to be started in order to give the best service to the people of this community.”
Finally in 1941, the Methodist Episcopal Church sold the building and the one next door to the Russian Ukrainian Polish Pentecostal Church. The rest of the story is a classic tale of immigrants’ integration. As Carol Vedral explains, “It eventually became just a Russian speaking church. The Polish part of the congregation moved to New Jersey and the Ukrainian part of the congregation bought a church on 7th Street.”
“The children of the emigrant population wanted church services in English,” she went on, “So they began to invite different speakers and eventually what happens is what happens with a lot of immigrants’ churches. The older Russian-speaking congregation began to dwindle, move away or pass on and the remaining were the English speakers. And so what the original Russian owners – of course we are talking about original from 1941 not original from way back – so those folks graciously put in their notes that they would retain ownership of the church until the last Russian congregant dies and then it would pass over to the English speaking congregation. And that’s how it went from Russian-Ukrainian-Polish Pentecostal church to evangelical Christian church, which is what the English speaking young people called it to the Father’s Heart now.”
As new emigration waves arrived to the East Village – from China in particular – and as the financial crisis hit the United States, it became clear that the church had to focus on feeding and helping the poor. The congregation is now thinking of hiring a Chinese-speaking pastor to answer the new needs of the newer community. Although rents have skyrocketed with gentrification, there are still plenty of people who need help. “We prayed that it would change and get better, and it did,” Chuck Vedral said. “But even though it changed the poor people are still here, you just don’t see them. We don’t talk about them. Because the rich don’t want to feel bad so they want to make believe there is no poor here.”
For the Vedrals, there hasn’t been a leisurely Saturday since 1998. Their weekends always start early with the welcoming of volunteers like me who come to help serve the 600 to 800 all-you-can-eat breakfasts and hand out the pantry bags to the church’s guests. Chuck is very clear on this: The people lining up outside to get a warm meal are not “these people,” “the poor” or “homeless.” For a few hours, they are guests. When I ask him about the rhythm of his life now, his only answer is: “Well, somebody laid down their life for me.”
On September 14, 2010, the Father’s Heart Ministries Church was landmarked, which makes it impossible for it to be sold and repurposed. The landmark designation comes with a grant that will be used towards some much-needed renovations. Money will also be raised to increase the church’s capacities to host its guests. One of the Vedrals six children, their daughter Jacqueline Martinez, was ordained as a minister this year. She and her husband Jesus Martinez, are poised to take over her parents’ work.