The congregation now known as Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church began on Nov. 6, 1808, on the north side of Cedar Street between Nassau and William Streets in lower Manhattan. (We called ourselves The Presbyterian Church in Cedar Street at the time.) Over the next six decades, we would move three times, eventually settling in at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street in 1875.
The original congregation of 26 members included Oliver Wolcott, Jr., a former Secretary of the Treasury, and Betsey Jackson, a household slave. Also among our early members were Richard Varick (1753–1831), private secretary to General George Washington and later the mayor of New York City; and Joanna Bethune (1770–1860), remembered as “the mother of the American Sunday School” for her work founding the first Sabbath schools for disadvantaged children.
Our first pastor, John B. Romeyn, was just 28 years old when we called him to the Cedar Street church from Albany. There have been 16 senior pastors since then, all of them (like Romeyn) renowned preachers in their time. In 1867, a young Irish pastor named John Hall so impressed the elders of the church during a speaking tour of the U.S. that they issued a unanimous call and installed him that same year. The New York Times wrote that Hall’s “powerful preaching and wise churchmanship made the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church one of the great religious powers in the city.”
Our first century was remarkably successful. By the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for the church to have to turn away as many as 1,000 would-be worshippers on a given Sunday. But just as important as the service taking place inside was the ministry we were doing outside.
In 1815, members of the congregation established the city’s first free schools, later expanded into the New York Public School System. A Woman’s Employment Society in the 1860s organized a sewing business that generated income for poor and immigrant women. Donations from the congregation helped 19th century Presbyterian missionaries to found hospitals, chapels and schools in the Far East, Latin America and the Middle East.
Over our 200-year history this church was instrumental in the founding of Princeton Theological Seminary, the American Bible Society, New York Presbyterian Hospital and numerous mission boards. We’re also the church that created Dial-a-Prayer.
This handsome, Victorian Gothic church, constructed of New Jersey red sandstone, has presided over Fifth Avenue and 55th Street since 1875. It predates many of our historic neighbors, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral (1878), the Park Avenue Armory (1880) and the Plaza Hotel (1907).
This was an undeveloped site in a residential neighborhood when the congregation purchased it in 1873. When it came to choosing an architect, the renowned George B. Post (who designed both the New York Stock Exchange and the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue) was a contender. But the project was awarded to a little known, 37-year-old German émigré named Carl Pfeiffer.
Pfeiffer’s engineering skills are evident in the technological innovations he introduced. Wooden louvers installed beneath the pews allowed warm air to rise into the Sanctuary on winter mornings from steam pipes in the basement. On warm days, enormous blocks of ice were delivered to the basement, where fans blew cooling air upward. The Sanctuary did not have modern air conditioning until 2003.
The interior of the Sanctuary follows strict, Reformed Protestant precepts, with an emphasis on the spoken word. The pulpit is the focal point of the space, with the choir loft and organ above and communion table below. Unlike most Gothic churches, the Sanctuary contains no right angles. The floor slopes, the pews fan outward, and the balcony surrounds all that is below, bringing the entire congregation within clear sight and hearing range of the preaching and music ministry. There are also no Biblical figures or saints, reflecting an iconoclastic austerity prevalent among 19th century Presbyterians.
With a steeple rising 286 feet high, our church was the tallest building in Manhattan when it was dedicated in 1875. The clock tower still employs the original clockworks, which are wound once a week by hand. There are no bells or chimes up there; when the church was built, St. Luke’s Hospital was housed in what is now the Hotel Peninsula, and there was a concern that church bells might disturb the patients.
In 1935, Time magazine declared that “this grand house of God is often called the Cathedral of Presbyterianism.” This magnificent space hosted the 1910 wedding of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (an event attended by his father and some 500 of his Rough Riders), the 1965 recording of A Concert of Sacred Music by Duke Ellington and his orchestra, and dance legend Frankie Manning's “rollicking three-hour memorial service” (The New York Times) in 2009.
"In New York, Boston and other cities, homelessness is at record levels, a consequence of a faltering economy that has crumbled even further after the Sept. 11 attacks." —The New York Times, Dec. 18, 2001
By the late 1990s, more than a decade after Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church opened its men’s shelter, it was clear that the needs of the homeless in New York City were as urgent as ever. In 1998, FAPC’s befriending ministry began—a ministry that included comfort and assistance to the men and women who slept overnight on the steps and surrounding sidewalks of the church.
That’s when things got interesting.
In September 1998, officials from the mayor’s office, Department of Homeless Services, the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District and the NYPD convened a meeting with representatives of FAPC and St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The city wanted overnight privileges to the homeless discontinued. The churches refused.
In December 2001, when the police began forcibly removing people from our sidewalks and steps, the church obtained a restraining order and, soon after, a preliminary injunction from a federal judge. Judge Lawrence McKenna validated FAPC’s rights under the First Amendment to provide for the homeless guests we welcomed on our steps—but not on the sidewalks. The sidewalks, even that portion within the church’s property line, would remain under the city’s jurisdiction.
The late Margaret Shafer led the church’s Outreach Ministries until her retirement in 2004. In her declaration to the U.S. District Court (Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church v. the City of New York, Dec. 19, 2001), Shafer wrote:
"For our Church, our concern for the homeless is an inextricable part of our actual worship of God. We believe that God views our acts of kindness, compassion, love and concern for our neighbors as acts done toward God, and that in ministering to the homeless we are giving the love of God, to God incarnate in the homeless persons (whether they realize it or not), in the watchful presence of God Almighty. There is perhaps no higher act of worship for a Christian."
Jaime Staehle Director of Christian Education
I grew up in Seattle, so my standards for coffee, rain and beautiful scenery are high. I received my bachelor of arts in communication from Washington State University. My passion for education and learning led me to obtain certificates in Biblical studies from Capernwray Bible School in the U.K., and in theology and youth ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary. I am also a Certified Christian Educator within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and serve on the leadership council of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators. I love learning about the story of God and the Church, and seeing how other people experience this story in their own lives as they learn and grow in faith. I have served congregations in Washington state and New Jersey. I live in New Jersey with my husband, Will; our two children and our cat, Marvin.
Dr. Eugenia Oi Yan Yau Director of Music for Family Ministries
I have been involved in children’s music my whole life. In Hong Kong (where I am from), I was the assistant director of the TaiPo Children’s Choir and later the principal music director of the ShaTin Children’s Choir. These experiences ignited my passion for teaching across cultures. In addition to my baccalaureate and master’s degrees, I earned a doctorate in vocal performance from the University of Texas at Austin and Kodály music education certification from New York University. I am a professor of music at Borough of Manhattan Community College, the composer of a bilingual musical (Fish Jumping over the Dragon Gate) and an avid lover of all things New York, especially window shopping at Chelsea Market with my husband, Jose.
Osanna Urbay Nursery Coordinator
An artist at heart, I enjoy bringing my creative skills to our Nursery. I have always worked in the arts, where I often get to play with beautiful objects rather than young tots. I currently work at the Montclair Art Museum. I grew up at FAPC, emigrating from Cuba with my family when I was 16 months old—about the average age of the demographic in the Nursery. Over the years, I’ve been a Deacon, an Elder and served on several committees, but none of these experiences offered me the opportunity to use Play-Doh, color and eat Goldfish to my heart’s content. I am fortunate to work with a team of experienced and talented caregivers. Our goals for our youngest members are to provide a safe environment; to let them know they are loved; and to prepare them for Sunday School with the big kids. This is a big stepping stone!
Dr. Ryan Jackson William S. Perper Director of Music & Fine Arts Ministries
Acclaimed organist and choral director Ryan Jackson was appointed William S. Perper Director of Music and Fine Arts Ministries at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in 2012, following an international search. Ryan is the founding director of the professional FAPC Chamber Choir, as well as the Joyful Noise Choir, a teaching ensemble open to all members of the church community. In 2013, Ryan established FAPC’s annual concert series, which features a diverse program of four choral concerts and three organ recitals each season.
Prior to his appointment at FAPC, Ryan served in the music programs at Christ Church United Methodist on Park Avenue; the University Church at Yale; Christ Church Episcopal in New Haven; and Metropolitan United Church in Toronto. In addition to his work at FAPC, Ryan maintains an active recital schedule throughout the United States and his native Canada where his performances have been praised for their “mature musicality, technical poise, and registrational sensitivity” (RCCO Bulletin).
The winner of numerous prestigious competitions, including the Royal Canadian College of Organists’ National Organ Playing Competition, he has studied with several of the most prominent organists of the day, including Patricia Wright, Thomas Murray, and Paul Jacobs. Ryan is a graduate of the University of Toronto (Mus.Bac.Perf.), Yale University (M.M.), and The Juilliard School (D.M.A.).
Patrick Kreeger Associate Organist
Patrick Kreeger joined Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church as associate organist in July 2015. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Patrick gave his Carnegie Hall debut at age 17, and enjoys a versatile career as a pianist, organist, and choral conductor. Patrick completed his undergraduate studies at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, studying with Alan Morrison, and later attended Yale University, where he earned the Robert Baker Scholarship and completed his master’s degree under Martin Jean. He is currently enrolled at The Juilliard School, studying with Paul Jacobs as a C.V. Starr Doctoral Fellow.
Patrick has performed at prestigious venues worldwide, including Benaroya Hall in Seattle; Meymandi Symphony Hall in Raleigh, North Carolina; Verizon Hall in Philadelphia; St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City; Cook Hall in St. John’s, Newfoundland; Peterborough Cathedral in Peterborough, England; the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France; and other venues in the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Denmark, Bulgaria, and Israel.
Prior to joining FAPC, Patrick served as the director of music and organist at Cheshire United Methodist Church in Cheshire, Connecticut. He also served for four years as director of music and organist at Leverington Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
Séamus Campbell Director of Outreach Ministries
I was born across the river and raised a Roman Catholic in northern New Jersey. As a teen, I was influenced by radical priests like Fr. James Groppi, the Berrigans, Malcolm Boyd and others who spoke truth to power. I entered the Order of the Most Holy Trinity in 1977, where I remained until 1981. The Order was the first to combine a life of mission with the monastic life. I was ordained a priest of the Old Catholic Church in 1987 and lived for 22 years in Boston, where I studied at the Episcopal Divinity School and served as a chaplain and parish priest. As a pastor with Ecclesia Ministries, I now lead a “congregation without walls” that gathers in Madison Square Park. I share my life with my partner, Jeffrey, and my three cats.
The Rev. Helen Jackson Parish Visitor
As FAPC’s Parish Visitor, I work with the Rev. Kate Dunn making pastoral care visits to our homebound and hospitalized members. I am a graduate of Duke University, Yale Divinity School and the Blanton-Peale Institute, and an ordained minister since 1977. Most of my ministry has been as a pastoral psychotherapist, formerly at the Riverside Church Pastoral Counseling Center and the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute, and now in private practice. I have also served as the pastor of two parishes and continue to preach three Sundays a month at Presbyterian churches throughout New York City.
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church maintains an extensive archival collection of sermons, weekly bulletins, newsletters, historical photos and documents, and digital files that date from the start of our congregation in 1808 until the present day.
Our Archives volunteers can search for baptism, birth, death and membership records from 1808 until the present. Baptism, birth and death records pertain to church members only.
We can search marriage records from 1868 until the present. Marriage records may pertain to both members and non-members, when marriages of non-members were performed at the church.
The Archives maintains an extensive collection of calendars and church bulletins; the VOICE, the house organ of the church that has been published since December 1942; photographs and historical records of church organizations; data on our assistant, associate and senior pastors, and on our members of the staff (music directors and organists, outreach directors, educators and others); sermons, in both print and electronic formats; pew records; and various other materials concerning the history of the church.
The Archives are available for historical research by appointment. Please contact Dale Hansen, archivist, at [email protected].
Research fees are $40 per hour, with a minimum fee of $10. As appropriate, postal and reproduction fees may be added to these fees. Fees are payable by check or money order prior to release of information.
Research fees are for staff time and apply whether or not the requested information is found. The staff will answer all requests as time permits. Please allow up to four weeks for a response.