This is the story of how St. Mark’s Church evolved from a locus of respectable Episcopalian worship to a venue for expletive-ridden poetry recitals by William S. Burroughs and performances by Christian rock bands with posters of breast-bearing women.
To boil it down very simply, St. Mark’s owes its existence to none other than Peter (Petrus, if you’re a Latin enthusiast) Stuyvesant, or as he was later known, “Peg Leg” Pete (more on his absent leg in a bit). The son of a Dutch Calvinist minister, Peter was born in the Netherlands in 1592. After he joined the Dutch West India Company in his twenties, his exploits included a stint as a commercial agent in Brazil and, when he was barely 30, as acting governor over his homeland’s colonies in Aruba and Curacao.
Were he alive today, he would have done the Stuy family proud and almost could have made it onto Time’s 30 Under 30 list. Sadly, the village, school and street named after him will have to suffice.
In 1644, Peter’s leg went missing. Well, not exactly, since it was amputated for good reason; but once you become buried in the folds of history, you’re pretty much going down as the guy with the missing leg. So, how did it happen? Long story short, around 10 years earlier, the Spanish decided to capture the Dutch colony of Saint Martin. The Dutch tried to recapture it several times without success. Then in 1644, Peter decided to lead an attack against the Spanish. He was met not with surrender but a cannonball. One month later and one right leg down, Peter called off the attacks and returned to the Netherlands to heal.
While back home, two important things happened. Peter got his wooden leg and the position of Director-General of New Netherlands (in other words, a good chunk of today’s East Coast — New York included). Upon arrival in the United States on May 11, 1647 and his inauguration a little over two weeks later, Peter got cracking.
He quickly accomplished several items on his to-do list: he ordered the observance of Sunday rest, no more selling of alcohol and weapons to Native Americans and he increased import taxes. In addition to pissing off the Native Americans, Peter opened up free schools, markets and an annual cattle -fair in Bowling Green. In 1660, he built a chapel at the intersection of East 10th Street and 2nd Avenue.
In 1664, when, as head of the New Netherlands, Peter was going about his Sundays making sure everyone was well-rested, King Charles II decided to give his brother, King James II, a good chunk of land that included New Amsterdam (the southern tip of today’s Manhattan), which was part of Peter’s province. On Aug. 24, 1664, four warships sent from England arrived on the shores of New Amsterdam. At 52, Peter’s fighting days were behind him, so, on Sept. 9, he signed over New Amsterdam on his Bouwerig (Bowery) — Dutch for farm. New Amsterdam was renamed New York and the Dutch were granted a couple of rights in return, including freedom of worship and inheritance customs.
No blood lost. No more legs cannonballed.
This is where the story of St. Mark’s comes in. Well, nearly. First, though, the Stuy family tree (brace yourself): Peter marries Judith Bayard in 1645. They have Nicholas William Stuyvesant in 1648, who marries Elizabeth Van Slichtenhorst in in 1681. They have Gerardus Stuyvesant in 1691, who marries Judith Bayard (no relation to his grandmother of the same name) in 1722. They have Petrus Stuyvesant in 1727, great-grandson to Peter.
In 1793, Petrus did what any good descendant of greatness would do. Hailing from a family that has at this point converted to Episcopalianism (this was the new “in,” as most of New York’s prominent families were Episcopal by the late 18th century), Petrus donated money to Trinity Church to construct a new church over ol’ Pete’s 10th Street chapel.
As Trinity was completing the construction of St. Mark’s, a no-longer young, scrappy and hungry fellow decided to step into the picture. Alexander Hamilton, a regular worshipper at Trinity Church, helped set up St. Mark’s as an independent parish. In 1796, Trinity began discussions surrounding the potential integration of St. Mark’s as a “distinct Corporation,” which the Trinity Church’s website indicates was likely due to a “financial strain they were feeling, having just come through the American Revolution . . . and concerned with protecting their right to their endowment.”
In other words, how does Trinity allow for independent churches while also maintaining complete ownership of the property on which they’ve been built?
To the Broadway star, the solution was fairly simple: Give St. Mark’s a chunk of the church farm. In return, it would surrender all other claims to the land. Hamilton’s prowess worked and in 1799, St. Mark’s became an independent parish. Not convinced of Hamilton’s genius? See the deed of the exchange below:
The deed’s meat and potatoes are basically this: “The Rector . . . in communion of the Protestant Episcopal Church…[will] obviate and prevent any possibility of a question as to the residue of their real estate, or any claim or demand being ever made by us, or our successors . . .”
The church’s first rector was John Callahan, who was killed in a carriage accident in North Carolina only two months after his appointment on Feb. 15, 1880. His last words? “I am happy, for I die in the Lord Jesus.”
As quickly as John came and went, so did the next few rectors. St. Mark’s finally settled on the resume of William Harris, a schoolmaster, the eventual president of Columbia College, and of course, a Harvard grad. William went on to serve as rector for the next 15 years, from 1801 to 1816.
By now, New York was undergoing a massive transformation: the grid system. Led by Mayor Dewitt Clinton, the city fathers decided to cook up what they creatively called the “Comissioner’s Plan of 1811.” The goal was to “lay out streets . . . in such a manner as to unite regularity and order with the public convenience and benefit . . .”
The attempts at “regularity and order” can now be found on Google Maps; the reason why New York looks like a motherboard is thanks to these guys. As the city was getting spliced and diced, a certain little triangle was formed. Since St. Mark’s was becoming such a hotspot for churchgoers like Hamilton and George Washington, and since burials (including Peter’s) were already in the vaults below, it made sense to the commissioners to leave the church as it was.
That little triangle became Elizabeth Fish’s Garden. Why Elizabeth and more importantly, why Fish? Turns out Elizabeth Stuyvesant, Petrus’s daughter, married a fancy chap called Nicholas Fish on April 30, 1803. This guy also happened to be the Adjunct General of the State of New York. And since such people tend to get places named after them, the funky little triangle became Elizabeth Fish’s Garden. Also, fun fact for trivia night: Petrus decided to build and make a wedding gift to the couple of 21 Stuyvesant Street, also known as the Stuyvesant Fish House. The building still stands today as a New York City landmark and has a pretty mint-grey door.
Speaking of layouts, the main portion of St. Mark’s, completed on May 9, 1799, was the design of one of the city’s chief architects at the time, John McComb. He used the Georgian style for the church’s main body with its emphasis on balance and proportion. This can be seen from St. Mark’s fieldstone walls and neatly arched windows.
Then in 1828, St. Mark’s went Revivalist. Added by Martin Euclid Thompson (originally a carpenter and later founder of the National Academy of Design), the steeple carries elements of Greek Revivalist architecture, essentially an homage to Ancient Greek styles that emphasize consistency. Chunky square pillars that propped up the church’s balcony were then replaced with slender Egyptian Revivalist columns (think facades, columns and obelisks). Ten years later and still not satisfied with his additions, Thompson felt the need to fence up St. Mark’s and so he did, using cast and wrought iron.
In 1858, cast iron made its appearance once again in St. Mark’s. James Bogardus, the father of American cast iron architecture, added the portico to the church. What’s the difference between a porch and a portico? A porch is the extension of the floor at the front or back entrance of a rich person’s home. A portico is a type of porch that is propped up by columns (in this case, Thompson’s Egyptian Revivalist ones).
In the 1920s, inspiration and aspiration arrived on the front portico of St. Mark’s. Literally. Acquired by a rector named Norman William Guthrie from sculptor Solon Borglum, the sculptures of two Native American men — one called “Inspiration,” the other called “Aspiration” — stood and continue to stand on either side of the church entrance.
Since the burial of Peter and the rest of the Stuy guys (and gals) in the church’s vaults, the ground beneath St. Mark’s Church has become home to the bodies of many among the rich and famous. Some include Mayor Phillip Hone, English Governor Henry Sloughter of New York and Massachusetts, and Daniel D. Tompkins, US Vice President under James Monroe and namesake of the unnecessarily expensive bagel store.
These chaps aside, though, perhaps the most interesting person buried beneath the church is Alexander Turney Stewart. An Irish-American entrepreneur, he was ranked (posthumously) in 2007 as one of history’s wealthiest figures. He earned an income as an international businessman equivalent to $30.3 billion in 2018 dollars.
That said, it isn’t what Stewart did while alive that is the most interesting thing, but rather what happened to him after his death. In 1876, he was interred in a vault under the church. Two years later, his body disappeared. The New York World, in its November 8, 1878 issue, explains:
Francis Parker, assistant sexton of St. Mark’s Church, on going to his work In the churchyard at 8 o’clock yesterday morning saw a suspicious mound of fresh earth lying, as he supposed, around the entrance of the northern vault. A closer view enabled him to see that the Stewart family vault had been violated… Suspicious marks found a month before upon the slab which overlies the tomb, and upon surrounding objects, indicated that an attempt upon the vault by body-snatchers was in contemplation.
As the body-snatchers tossed around Stewart’s remains from one hiding place to another, a desperate 76-year old Mrs. Stewart offered up a hefty reward for the return of her husband, with no recrimination for the kidnappers. The grieving widow found herself at odds with a certain Judge Hilton, who objected to her reward scheme. Sentiment, he held, must yield to principle in such a case. To offer a reward with “no questions asked,” he said, would be like offering a premium in other such outrages, thus endangering “the sanctity of every rich man’s grave throughout the United States.”
Mrs. Stewart yielded and just like that, the antsy body-snatchers made their first move in January, one year later. In a Canadian-postmarked letter addressed to Patrick H. Jones, a New York attorney and signed by a Henry G. Romaine, the writer asked for the return of Stewart’s body in exchange for $200,000 and for Romaine to mediate the matter. The letter also promised, alongside Stewart’s body, a $100 bill “by way of retaining fee to General Jones,” if he would agree to help out. To prove that Romaine was no impostor, the letter also provided details of the body-snatching:
The next two years went as follows: Through Judge Hilton, Mrs. Stewart refused to pay the $200,000 and offered up $25,000 instead. Unhappy with the lower figure, the blackmailers asked for $100,000. Since these were snail mail days, the letters took weeks to exchange. By this point, Mrs. Stewart’s anxiety level was rising. She was going to pay whatever amount was needed to get Alex back. But her representatives asked her one more time to have little faith in them and then cha-ching! The blackmailers agreed to return the body for $20,000.
Please see below for the terms and conditions:
In the end, a young nephew of Mrs. Stewart volunteered to embark on the journey to reclaim the body. At 3 a.m. a masked man rode up to the nephew, signaled to him an agreed-upon gesture and together they veered off the main road. A few minutes later, the nephew found another carriage waiting for him in the dark.
As proof of identity, the kidnappers produced a swath of black velvet cut from the coffin lid. Then, a few passwords and the exchange of a heavy bag later, the nephew was on his way. Twenty-four hours later, Stewart’s body was returned to its resting place, which during his absence, was given a makeover, which included an elaborate security system with electric currents and pulleys. Should any body-snatcher wish to pay Alex another visit, the system will alert the tower bell, and, lo and behold, he may be greeted with angry residents and the urban equivalent of pointy pitchforks.
A happy ending, this all seems . . . until you find out that the identity of the body—pre-DNA—was never confirmed beyond the lone piece of velvet. In 1953, after the burial of the last direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, August Van Horne Stuyvesant Jr., the vaults were permanently sealed at August’s request.
From 1899 and onwards, St. Mark’s gates transformed into a revolving door that let in a bunch of eccentric rectors. In 1899, the church hired Rev. Dr. Loring W. Batton. Under his watch, St. Mark’s entered into the 20th century half asleep, and not because everyone was passed out from new year festivities. Rather, Batton decided to introduce something controversial into the holy grounds: hypnosis.
With brothels, pubs and drunks speckled across the Bowery, the area had no shortage of debauchery. As a result, the clergyman felt compelled by his holy duty to get folks off the bottle. On April 10, 1910, the Evening Tribune Times reported that “Dr Batton said that he had been experimenting with psychotherapeutic treatment for inebriates for several years and had at last evolved a method which was infallible, with a record of 50 cures.”
His pitch was straightforward: “I procure a lightly hypnotic state and force upon the patient mental suggestions against the evil. The usual course is from six to twelve lessons and the only reason for hypnosis is that in that state the mind is more subject to mandatory suggestions.”
“Mandatory suggestions.” How passive aggressive.
Taking over from Dr. Hypnosis in 1911 was the aforementioned Rev. William Norman Guthrie (yep, the “Inspiration” and “Aspiration” guy). Guthrie perhaps had, by and large, the most profound impact on St. Mark’s. A flamboyantly unorthodox Scot with a gaze of intensity and energy, he was a man of ideas. Lots of them.
Described as a “liturgical innovator,” Guthrie was constantly seeking ways to relieve his “religious boredom.” Among them were “Native American religions, American civil religion, Egyptian sun worship, Zoroastrian prayers, and Buddhist writings, as well as Jewish and Christian sources.”
Guthrie was a man of action, not only words. As the cool rector next door, he helped build a theater in St. Mark’s and began incorporating song and dance routines into his sermons. Not only did he bring in dance, he brought in some racy dancers that inevitably pissed off the Episcopal Church of the United States.
Exactly how racy can you be in an Episcopalian church in the early 20th century? Very, as the bare feet of these dancers revealed.
In addition to feet, Guthrie went further by introducing an “Indian Day” at St. Mark’s. See, Guthrie was deeply fascinated by the origins of dance and religion, once writing that Christianity had incorporated “many of the best so-called pagan elements of worship from Greco-Roman times” and that “any effort to revive . . . the Christian religion [must include] these precious pagan elements.”
Understandably, any old traditionalistic rector hearing this would have had a heart attack on the spot. Sweet Jesus. But Guthrie did not care, hence “Indian Day.” The day, which was first celebrated in 1915, included prayers and readings of Native American myths, holy songs and performances of various traditions. Eventually, he acquired the “Inspiration” and “Aspiration” that continue to flank the church’s entrance to today.
Critics watched in horror as Guthrie turned St. Mark’s on its steeply head. Many demanded an end to all “American aboriginal” and “non-Christian” practices. An angry-looking Bishop William Manning even threatened to suspend official visits to St. Mark’s until Guthrie stopped all performances (think 21st century dad coming home to his son throwing a massive party with goats, leftist fortune-tellers and lots of exposed feet).
But Guthrie did not stop. In 1923, he proudly launched the Body and Soul Clinic alongside Dr. Edward S. Cowles, a psychiatrist. Touted as a space for all types of healing through spiritual guidance and meditation, the clinic, which was held three times a week, welcomed thousands. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle detailed the treatments on July 31, 1932:
Horrified at the unorthodox practices carried in St. Mark’s at this point, Bishop Manning demanded the clinic be shut down. Guthrie and Cowles fired back by claiming that the bishop’s demands were anti-Semetic and that “Bishop Manning doesn’t want Jews.” Funnily enough, there was indeed a rising number of Jewish patients who visited the free clinic. After all, it was run by perhaps the most liberal Christian minister in town.
Eventually, rising opposition from the Episcopal Church, budgetary issues and internal skirmishes among the parishes made Guthrie shut the clinic down 1932.
At some point, Guthrie wrote, “To do anything in St. Mark’s meant to become an ecclesiastical outlaw . . . I couldn’t be elected to [a] rat-hole anywhere else.” What can you say? The man tried.
Guthrie’s legacy did not end with the Body and Soul Clinic. In 1959, a young Michael Allen became the rector of St. Mark’s Church. He remained in this position until 1970. Allen, who believed that artists “were among the few . . . doing theology,” administered a federal grant that helped launch The Poetry Project and Theater Genesis in St. Mark’s.
The Poetry Project, founded by Allen Ginsberg in 1966, serves as a platform for the artistically talented and curious. A major component was its mass readings that still happen regularly, particularly its New Year’s Day Marathon Reading. Partially conducted to raise money for the group’s initiatives and also for the performance, the performers have included Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, John Ashbery, Patti Smith and Yoko Ono.
Once, Burroughs recited his “Words of Advice for Young People” in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s. Some tips included: “Beware or whores who say they don’t want money … If you’re doing business with a religious son of a bitch, get it in writing. His word isn’t worth shit . . . Avoid fuck-ups. Fools, I call them . . .”
In 1964, Ralph Cook founded the now-defunct Theater Genesis, an off-off-Broadway theater, in the halls of St. Mark’s. Cook, born in California in 1928, served as an officer’s driver in Hawaii during World War II before moving to New York where he took a job as a waiter in a nightclub, and worked with a busboy who had written a few plays, which Cook asked to read.
Later, while recovering from a mental breakdown in a hospital, Cook stumbled into St. Mark’s, and smack-dab into Rev. Michael Allen as he was giving a sermon. Enthralled by Allen’s community-focused vision, Cook soon became his pal. In 1963, Cook asked Allen if St. Mark’s could become home to a theater company. And the outcome was Theater Genesis.
Cook, like Guthrie 53 years earlier, was a visionary, too. Perhaps it was all that holy water they were flicking around. Cook once said, “We couldn’t care less about Broadway. We are aware that it exists somewhere uptown, no more.” Theater Genesis staged many experimental, politically and sexually riveting plays, including the early works of Sam Shepard, which actors performed on the second floor of St. Mark’s parish hall.
Over the years, budgetary issues and internal divides between directors, production teams and St. Mark’s leadership caused the company to fizzle out. The space eventually got filled up in 1992 by Ontological Theater, another off-off-Broadway company founded by the avant-garde playwright, Richard Foreman. When Foreman’s company left the theater in 2010, remaining producers renamed it the Incubator Arts Project. In June 2014, the off-off-Broadway company officially went off St. Mark’s when low funding caused its last curtain-call.
So, poetry? Check. Plays? Check. Christian rock bands? About to be checked.
Since St. Mark’s took quite a departure from Peter Stuyvesant’s visions, there really was no turning back. In 1969, it attracted the attention of Mind Garage, the first ever nationally recognized Christian rock band. On April 13, guitarists and bassists clad in white Church gowns rocked out on national television as part of their Electric Liturgy concert. It was practically a Christian Live Aid, except much smaller and without any history-making call-and-responses.
Of course, like any concert, it needed publicity. Mind Garage distributed pamphlets of their shows (which they eventually performed in churches all across the country). The pamphlets were yellow, artsy and breast-exposing. It took 50 years, but bare skin was back at St. Marks. What a feet.
Needless to say, some churches were upset by the new skin reveal, so Mind Garage tweaked its pamphlets and distributed them again, this time more considerately.
As we enter a new decade, so too does St. Mark’s. Since its first construction as a chapel by Peter Stuyvesant in 1660, the church has undergone tremendous changes over the past 360 years. Today, a stroll across Elizabeth Fish’s Garden may grant you a sight of pets being blessed, same-sex marriages being officiated and dancers flaunting elaborate Mexican traditional costumes as they celebrate the Day of the Dead.
At one point, Patti Smith, the renowned American singer and poet who often performs at St. Mark’s, said, “I think I am in a constant state of adjustment.” Her words may have been a testament to her own artistry but they also nod towards St. Mark’s’ own history, one deeply rooted in the grounds of East 10th Street and 2nd Avenue.