Dual Congregations at Village Presbyterian
The article on the Village Presbyterian Church, (Feb. 2015) as interesting as it might have been, has two inexcusable flaws. First, an error of fact: The church is not between 5th & 6th avenues, as you might already have heard. It is between 6th & 7th avenues. Second, and even more important, a sin of omission. There is not a mention of the period during which it served both Jewish and Presbyterian congregations—the former for Saturday shabbat services, and the latter on Sundays. The reason for the contentious break-up should have been stated as part of the building’s history and was not, either because the writer did not know of it, or more likely, because it was an unpleasant, highly charged matter.
I suggest that you or the writer look up the details for accuracy and supply the missing fragment of history in a future issue.
—Mimi Sheraton Falcone
It is hard to conceive of a history of the Village Presbyterian Church that omits the period when the space was shared with the Brotherhood Synagogue. That successful arrangement continued for several years until a new pastor took over at the church. There were difficulties—and as a result, the synagogue moved to the former Friends Meeting House (at Gramercy Park South) it occupies to this day.
The excellent article in the February WestView News entitled “From Communion to Condo, Part I: Churches Are Born Again as Residences,” by Phil Desiere, leaves out an important part of the story of the Village Presbyterian Church. For quite a while it served as a Presbyterian church and a Jewish synagogue, combined. A plaque affixed to the cast iron fence at the front told the story. According to this plaque, the Greek Revival architecture was chosen for its nonspecific religious connotations. I was under the impression, from reading the plaque, that this edifice had been built specifically for the two congregations, although Mr. Desiere’s article would not make it appear so, and perhaps my impression was incorrect. I don’t know how long the Village Synagogue, as I believe it was called, participated in this bold experiment of two different faiths sharing the same building.
The synagogue held services on Fridays, and put up appropriate symbols for these services. The church met on Sundays, with its appropriate symbols in place. I believe Rabbi Irving J. Block, an advocate of interfaith dialogue, may have been involved. The church services sometimes included dance performances and other innovative features. The plaque proudly stated that here was an example of two faiths in harmony.
During the years I lived on the same block in what was called simply The Evangeline, “a residence hall for young business ladies” (now Markle Evangeline), I often passed this church/synagogue, and sometimes attended church services there. I lived at the Evangeline from 1967 to early 1976, shortly after, as the article states, the church had been sold.
After a while of sharing the building, according to what I understood at the time, the church and synagogue members had started squabbling. The different congregants became uncomfortable with each other, and it was said there was no longer a feeling of mutual respect for each other’s faith.
I think the synagogue congregation eventually departed, and for a short time a new minister was there for the church. Then, as we know, the building was sold and converted to condos.
People may also remember that, before the church was sold, there was a small independent theater in this same building, accessible from a side entrance on the right. There, one evening, a friend and I saw two short African plays in English. One of them, unforgettably, was Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, by Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona and John Kani, and it featured Messrs. Ntshona and Kani in this two-character play. It was in 1974.
That evening we had dined in an elegant Chinese restaurant to the left of the Evangeline, where we both lived. Then we went to the theater, just left of the restaurant. I couldn’t get over the fact that we had not gone far down the block or even crossed the street, and yet we had had a complete night on the town exactly as if we had hustled and bustled up to the theater district. Each of these places had its own atmosphere, ambience; it was like a different world. That’s one of the wonders of living in New York. It had all happened on West 13th Street.
It is indeed gratifying to read that my column has prompted three readers to take a walk down memory lane, helping to add to our understanding and appreciation of the neighborhood we call home, Greenwich Village. And they cared enough to write and bring my research shortcomings to my attention. Thank you.