St. Augustine's has been "our" church for many years. The church life includes Sunday school, confirmation and of course, raising money. Sunday services are unique combining traditional Episcopal traditions and liturgical music with the gospel choir and praise dancers. Meals at St. Augustine's are affairs that require fasting before and after. St. Augustine's has a very unusual place in the history of New York City.
Following is a description of St. Augustine's today (written by Marie) which provides a backdrop to the New York Times article from Sunday, April 19, reprinted below, with links to a slide show.
St. Augustine’s is located in the ethnically diverse lower east side of Manhattan. Today, we are the largest African American congregation of any denomination on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This year marks the 180th year of Episcopal Ministry in this now historic landmark building.
Our contributions to the community and to the Diocese of New York are many. St. Augustine’s has consistently opened our arms wide enough to celebrate our cultural and racial history, including our gospel choir and the St. Augustine’s praise dancers. We have sung mass and our acolytes are trained to support the traditions of the Episcopal Church.
Who are we? We are an African-American congregation. We worship in the shadow of a slave gallery, existing since the current building was constructed in 1828, a year after the State of New York outlawed slavery on July 4, 1828. We have an historic commitment to restore the slave galleries in order to preserve them, but also to make them accessible to visitors. We are listed in the International Sites of Conscience and this work is carried out through the St. Augustine’s Project
We are diverse: approximately 20% Hispanic and some two percent of our members are white. Our members are teachers, government workers, librarians and sanitation workers in the City of New York. A few of us are writers, or lawyers, or work in the criminal justice system. Many of us are retired and we are members that come from three and four generation families who have lived and grown up in the lower east side community. Today the youngest members of our families must often travel distances from Queens, New Jersey and the far neighborhoods of Brooklyn to St. Augustine’s because they can no longer afford housing in the neighborhood.
Our deeds speak to the character of our Christian ministry:
• We had one of the first ministries to persons living with HIV and AIDS, opening our doors for a needle exchange when it was illegal. We supported our Rector, Rev. Dr. Errol Harvey, who was prepared to go the jail to maintain the service.
• The second collection in every Sunday service is given to feed the homeless and the hungry.
• We have served as a beacon for union organizing, support for our extended family who are incarcerated; we have been home for displaced African communities living in New York City.
• We host youth groups from Colorado and Maryland; we host international visitors who are participating in programs with the Volunteers for Peace.
• Every high school graduate who goes on to college receives a $1,000 scholarship. From time to time, the men of St. Augustine’s send our college students a “stipend” – sometimes $50.00 or $20.00 – whatever can be afforded.
• Our Seniors organize a Christmas celebration for the mothers and children who live at Helen’s House, a shelter for victims of abuse and domestic violence.
And from the New York Times, April 19, 2009. . .
"FROM two tiny rooms high up and far back in St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, with its neo-Georgian archways, straight-backed pews and simple, graceful detail, the legacy of slavery in Manhattan looks down.
The stone church, on Henry Street near Montgomery Street on the Lower East Side, was built for a patrician white congregation. But although it was completed in 1828, a year after slavery was legally abolished in New York State, behind the balcony and on either side of the organ are two cramped rooms, built so that black churchgoers could worship there without being seen by white parishioners.
“These spaces were never talked about,” said the deacon, the Rev. Edgar Hopper, an agile, bald gentleman of 79. “People knew there were instances of them being referred to as slave galleries.”
For decades, these galleries languished in a state of disrepair and were hardly discussed. Children often scrambled up the narrow staircases to play on the bleacherlike seats.
But after a decade-long restoration project led by Mr. Hopper, work on one gallery was completed late last month, and the space will open for tours at the end of this month.
The project began when the Rev. Errol Harvey, Mr. Hopper’s supervisor, noticed that census data showed a diminishing
African-American population in the gentrifying Lower East Side. Mr. Harvey suggested looking into the silent heritage of St. Augustine’s, which today serves a primarily black congregation, and the task fell to Mr. Hopper.
Not everyone applauded his efforts.
“Many were uncomfortable with the restoration,” he said. “Slavery is still a sensitive subject, and not just the guilt associated with owning slaves. There is also a lot of denial associated with being descended from slaves.”
To research the subject, Mr. Hopper searched vaults at the diocese, reading archives and vestry minutes from the early 1800s in search of the names of those who may have worshiped in those rooms. Their numbers included Henry and Phoebe Nichols, a couple baptized there in 1829.
With help from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a quarter of a million dollars was raised for the project.
The other day, Mr. Hopper led a visitor up a steep, twisting staircase to the space. It is painted beige and lighted with a single bulb. Six crude steps face an opening high above the sanctuary. Because of the angle, worshipers here could not be seen by those below.
Still visible on one wall are faint pencil scrawls made by children. Until the 1930s, the gallery was used as a Sunday school for African-Americans.
Mr. Hopper sat down on a step. “In the summer,” he said, “it’s stifling here."