On May 29, 1949, a group of people marched through Chinatown to celebrate the construction of a brand new building at 195 Worth Street, just a short walk from City Hall. A scout band played at the head of the procession and the men and women who followed carried banners that proclaimed, “We are marching to Chinatown’s True Light Lutheran Church.” It was the third US location of the first Lutheran mission, established to bring the Word of God to people of Chinese origin.
The renovation of the church, once the site of a tenement building, wasn’t quite complete, but that didn’t dampen the euphoria. The congregation had to wait another four months, until Sept. 25, for the new building’s first dedication service. The formal opening to the public took place a week after that. For the 67 years that followed, and the 13 years before that at its first location at 173 Canal Street, True Light served the Chinese Christians of Chinatown and well beyond.
As the church’s secretary for the past half a century, Carol Wong knows the demographics of its congregants well. “Some of them don’t live in Chinatown,” she said, adding that they also come from Brooklyn, New Jersey and Upstate New York. “They still come down to the church when they get a chance.”
“If such a thing can be imagined as Sino-Deco-Gothic,” David Dunlap writes in his 2004 guidebook to Manhattan churches, “195 Worth Street is it.” The architects were Missouri Synod, Ralph S. Meyers, and Bernard W. Guenther, the head of the Board of Church Architecture of the Lutheran church. The building extends along Worth Street between Mulberry and Park Row. Above its front door, under a pagoda motif, its name is emblazoned in Chinese characters.
Though the building itself and its interior spotlighting gives off a modern feel, much of the decor is traditionally Chinese-themed. The baldachin, the ceremonial canopy over the altar, is also shaped like a pagoda. Inside and out, the color red predominates, which, according to a missionary who gave a guided tour of the church in 1952, “signified happiness to Chinese people.”
The sanctuary and choir loft take up two floors. Above that is a Sunday school and a meeting room that can seat 400 people. The top two floors have a gymnasium and the basement has additional meeting space and a game room. The church office is at the east end of the building and the church’s plain red-brick-fronted school building is right next door on Worth.
The worshipful have helped rewrite the history of this boundary corner of what was Five Points and later, Mulberry Bend, once New York City’s most violent slum. The name Five Points signified the intersection of the five streets—now only three streets, Mosco, Baxter and Worth—that converged at the south end of what is now Columbus Park. The area was known throughout the 19th century for its vice and debauchery.
Around 1820, overlapping waves of freed slaves and Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants flooded into this district, together with significant number of Germans, African Americans, and Eastern European Jews settling amid the “jam-packed, filthy tenements, garbage-covered streets, prostitution, gambling, violence, drunkenness, and abject poverty,” as Tyler Anbinder explained in his book, Five Points. A tough fireman recalled in another book that “no decent person walked through it; all shunned the locality; all walked blocks out of their way rather than pass through it.”
The corner True Light now occupies was developed in 1869 with the controversial extension of Worth Street. The plan was approved early in 1857 despite opposition from property owners such as Garrit Stryker and Smith Barker. The general public also weighed in. In a letter published by the New York Herald the day after the meeting at the City Hall, a letter signed only “a tax payer” read, “Our city has already been too rapidly improved, and hence we have ample accommodation for the wants of trade and commerce. I hope the petition will be rejected, because at this time it would be unjust and impolite to adopt such a measure.”
Nonetheless, the project went forward and brought about one of the most significant changes in Five Points after the Civil War. Connecting the intersection to the hustle and bustle of Chatham Square and the Bowery, it largely eliminated the sense of dread that visitors had felt in that part of the neighborhood. As one newspaper reported, the extension “let the daylight into the slums so effectually, that as many as could of the criminal class therein resident ‘got up and dusted.’”
As Worth Street grew longer, the Chinese enclave of Five Points grew more populous, with the waves of Chinese immigrants who came to New York City to escape the foment of anti-Chinese sentiment in San Francisco. The 1880 census records 929 Chinese natives living in New York, but the New York Daily Tribune in 1880 insisted that as many as 100 Chinese had arrived in the city from California in a single day. The New York Times reported that the true total number of Chinese immigrants to New York City was closer to 2,000.
Fraternal, occupational and religious organizations sprung up to serve the growing Chinese population, which had its disputes and controversies. In the early 1890s, Five Points Catholic leaders started to proselytize in Chinatown. Among them was the Rev. Thomas Mcloughlin of the Transfiguration Church at 29 Mott Street. In 1894, he said to the New York Herald that “at the present time I have no Chinamen in my congregation. Now that the fair in the Church of the Transfiguration is over I intend to do missionary work among the Chinese residents in this locality.” He gave up a few years later, insisting that his outreach had been pointless. In 1897, he explained to Donahue’s Magazine that the Chinese immigrant “comes here for the sole object of making money” and “he has the poorest idea of the spiritual world that it is possible for a human being to have.”
That so many of the Christian missionaries were white women created another set of cultural difficulties as they tried to convert Chinese men. Helen F. Clark, who founded and directed the mission which bore her name inside the 195 Worth location, described the problem like this: “There are more women missionaries degraded by Chinese men than there are Chinese converted,” she said. “There is only one answer to all this. White women must leave the lives of Chinese alone.”
Although the worst aspects of the Five Points legacy was over, the neighborhood was far from crime-free. In 1911, the Jamaica Daily reported that an Americanized Chinese named Goon Chong, whose apartment was on the top floor of 195 Worth, was arrested for storing some 300 pounds of opium in his home with an estimated value of up to $50,000.
Twenty-five years later, several blocks away, a breakaway group of Chinese people who had been members of the Methodist Episcopal church known as the Church of All Nations, rented a third-floor loft at 174 Canal Street as the first home for True Light. At first, they operated independently but then the founders reached out to the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church to request a pastor. As the attendance increased rapidly, the church moved its location on April 1, 1936 to a brighter loft with double the floor space at 199 Canal. It remained there until the landlord refused to renew the lease.
It was then that the leadership of True Light found the dilapidated tenement building at 195 Worth Street and endeavored to figure out how to afford such a property and the ensuing renovation costs. “Space was at a premium especially in Chinatown itself, and even if space were available the treasury was practically empty,” an online history of the church explains. In desperate need of financial help, pastor Louis T. Buchheimer approached the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church, which agreed to underwrite the $65,000 purchase price. On December 23, 1946, the contract was signed. Subsequently, the Baptist Home Missions in North America, together with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod offered financial aid to help fund the estimated $200,000 in renovation costs.
While construction at Worth Street was under way, True Light received a notice from the City Marshal, urging the church to vacate 199 Canal Street on or before January 7, 1949. The church hastened to store its equipment in a basement on Bayard Street and found a temporary location for services in the basement of Mariner’s Temple, east of Chatham Square. At the public dedication on Oct. 2, 1949, the Rev. Edward Buchheimer preached, “Surely the Lord is in this place: this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
In 1976, during the congregation’s 40th anniversary commemoration, one of the church’s founding members, Dr. Arthur Liu, marveled at how the church, from its very outset, was “formidable in its potential.” This year, True Light celebrated its 80th anniversary with a special banquet for 200 guests and several fundraising events. The long-serving church secretary, Carol Wang, is proud of what True Light has achieved: “For decades, I’ve continuously seen new blood coming in,” she told me. “This is a place where everyone can come and have a good time.”