New Exhibit Celebrates Remarkable Women from Fifth Avenue History

A social reformer. An advocate for people living on the streets. A prominent philanthropist. A household slave. 

These are among the women who stand out most prominently in the 210-year-history of this congregration. This fall, they are getting their due.

Isabella Graham
Fifteen Remarkable Women
, a historical exhibit sponsored by the Arts & Our Faith Committee, debuts in the Chesnut Gallery on Sept. 2. The exhibit draws its inspiration from a feature titled “Overlooked” that launched in the New York Times in March. “Since 1851, [our] obituaries have been dominated by white men,” the Times wrote. “Now, we’re adding the stories of other remarkable people,” beginning with 15 women.

A search of the church archives, a review of the various histories that have been written about the church, and conversations with long-time members and staff yielded a diverse list of women. Some are most remembered for their contributions to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church; others were active in the church and led notable careers outside of it. 

Margaret ShaferThe 15 women span nearly the full history of the congregation, from our founding in 1808 to the early 21st century. They include:

  • Margaret Shafer, the former Outreach director who was the public face of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church when the church sued the City of New York for the right to minister to homeless persons on our steps and sidewalks in 2001.
  • Anna Harkness, the early 20th-century philanthropist (founder of the Commonwealth Fund) who provided three-quarters of the funding for design and construction of the Curry Church House and Kirkland Chapel.
  • Wan Ngo Lim, the daughter of a physician from China, who became the chief of pediatrics at the Hospital for Special Surgery, served on the faculty of the Weill Cornell Medical College and cared for the elderly as a Deacon of the church. 

Anna HarknessFifteen contemporary women, all current or former members or pastors of the church, have compiled the stories of these remarkable women from our history. The contributing writers include:

  • The Rev. Dr. Charlene Han Powell, the first woman of color to serve on our clergy staff, writing on Betsey Jackson, the African-American slave who was among our founding members.
  • Nancy Gibbs, the former editor of Time magazine, writing on her mother, Janet Gibbs, who served as Clerk of Session for 10 years during a turbulent period in the church's history.
  • Judy Moseley, a former corporate researcher and competitive intelligence analyst who now volunteers in the FAPC Archives, writing on Elfrieda Kraege, arguably Fifth Avenue’s most passionate and prolific historian.
  • Jeanne Pape, a docent with the New-York Historical Society with a deep knowledge of the church's history, writing on Isabella Graham and Joanna Bethune, the mother-daughter pair who devoted their lives to serving impoverished women and children in early 19th-century New York (and created the first Sunday School).

“Having been attached to this blessed church for almost 70 years, I’m honored to have known 10 of these remarkable women, who set the standards for so many on leading a Christian life,” Jeanne says. “This exhibit not only shares their stories, but also their wisdom and guidance for a new generation.”

Fifteen Remarkable Women will be on view through Thanksgiving.

Tags: history,arts and our faith,archives

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Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church