Project Canterbury

The Story of St. Mary's

The Society of the Free Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City 1868-1931

Edited by Newbury Frost Read

New York: Published for the Board of Trustees, 1931.

ANY history of St. Mary's must inevitably begin with Fr. Brown. The two are synonymous. Mention either in any company, and the other is sure to be referred to. A curious feature of this affinity is that it appears to be capable of outlasting the passing of the years; it has become a tradition, and is as firmly fixed in the minds of the younger generation, to whom Fr. Brown can only be a name, as it is in those of the fast dwindling band who knew him personally.

Thomas McKee Brown, the son of James and Margaret O'Farel Brown, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Monday, the eighth of February, 1841. He was graduated from Trinity College in 1864, and from the General Theological Seminary in 1865. He was ordained to the Diaconate on the second July, 1865, by the Right Reverend Horatio Potter, in the Church of St. John the Evangelist, New York City; and to the Priesthood by the same Bishop on the twenty-fifth February, 1866, in St. John's Church, Brooklyn, New York.

Not quite a year later, on the seventh February, 1867, in Trinity Chapel, New York, Fr. Brown married Miss Mary E. Scott, daughter of William Scott, of New York. The wedding ceremony was performed by the Right Reverend Horatio Potter, assisted by the Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix, Rector of Trinity Church.

For four years Fr. Brown was a curate: of the Church of the Annunciation, New York City for one year; of St. John's Church, Brooklyn, New York, for one year; and of Christ's Church, New York City for two years. He was Rector of Trinity Church, East New York for one year; and on the eighth December, 1870, five years after he graduated from the Seminary, became Rector of the Church he had founded, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 228 West 45th Street, New York City.

Fr. Brown remained Rector of St. Mary's from the eighth December, 1870, until his death on the nineteenth December, 1898; having had a rectorate of twenty-eight years and eleven days. ***

He had lived for fifty-seven years, ten months, and eleven days. For almost half of that time he had been the leader, burden-bearer, hardest-worker, and bravest warrior in the storm-swept Church he had [15/16] founded. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Long Island, on Thursday, the twenty-second December, 1898.

The members of this generation, unless they are unusually familiar with the history of the thirty years from 1870 to 1900, can have no adequate comprehension of the labors and trials and difficulties which this heroic Priest and Leader endured and overcame; but to those of his own time it was no wonder that Fr. Brown, in spite of his commanding stature and magnificent physique, succumbed before he was fifty-eight years old. He literally gave his life for St. Mary's and the Catholic Cause.

It is not within the scope of this brief history to discuss the latter, and no attempt will be made even to touch upon the growth of Catholic practises in this country except as they concern the progress of St. Mary's. In another place something will be said of the influences which seem to have directed Fr. Brown's career, but here we must confine ourselves to the early days of the great Parish founded by this remarkable young man of twenty-six.

Most appropriately, the only official record of the very beginning of St. Mary's which appears to have survived is that written by Fr. Brown, the original of which was placed in the cornerstone of the old Church on 45th Street.

New York City.

"The result of several conversations between Mr. Henry Kingsland Leonard and the Rev. Thomas McKee Brown, concerning the establishment of a Free Church in this City of New York, to be worked upon a thoroughly Catholic basis, was the receiving advice from the Bishop, who pointed out the locality where such a church would be most likely needed.

"Upon a clear, cold and windy afternoon of November, 1867, the two gentlemen above named started upon a tour of inspection, to find out a suitable position. They noted a number of vacant lots, among which were the present ones. The owner, Mr. John Jacob Astor, Jr., upon learning the object, at once presented the three lots, stipulating, [16/17] that the Church should be free, and positively orthodox in management and working.

"Upon this very liberal gift being made known, a number of Gentlemen associated themselves together, meeting frequently at the house of Mr. William Scott, No. 110 East 23rd Street, accepted the gift, and met formally to Break the Ground upon the afternoon of April 6th, 1868.

"The religious Ceremonies were performed by the Rev. Ferdinand Cartwright Ewer, S.T.D., Rector of Christ Church, New York. The ground was then broken by the Rev. Thos. McKee Brown, each person also turning up a little earth, as follows: The Rev. F. C. Ewer, S.T.D., the Rev. Wm. D. Walker, the Rev. Frank Harrison, Mr. William Scott, Mr. Henry K. Leonard, Mr. Bowie Dash, Mr. E. E. F. Williamson, Mr. Wm. T. Hallett, Mr. Theo. C. Mitchell, Mr. Chas. B. Coffin, Mr. Freeborn Coggeshall, Mr. Richd. M. Richardson, Mr. Fred'k. Hubbard, Mr. Wm. P. Morgan, Mr. Wm. P. Wadsworth, Mr. Duncan, Mrs. James Webb, and Mrs. Mary E. Brown, Mrs. Eliza M. Scott, Miss Eliza H. Scott, Mrs. Louisa Dash, Mrs. Arabella Dash, Mrs. Harrison, Miss Lottie Beare, Mrs. Mary Wadsworth.

"Incident upon the best ordered occasions & ceremonies are accidents and omissions: Master Andrew H. Mickle, a young gentleman interested with all the intensity and eagerness of youth, though among the number of those present, was passed over, without having a chance to use the little spade. As a reparation for such an oversight, Master Mickle, broke the ground for the School House, in company with Mr. Leonard and the Rev. Mr. Brown on Wednesday, May 13th, 1868, P. M.

"The services of Mr. William T. Hallett, were procured as Architect; of Mr. James Webb as Builder; of Mr. Downey, as Carpenter; and of Mr. James Taylor, as Stone Cutter.

"The designs are worthy of the Architect, well pleasing to the Trustees of the Church, and when executed will be an ornament to the city, and we all pray, a useful means and blessing to the neighborhood--and honor to the Name and Glory of Almighty God.

"The Rev. Flavel Scott Mines, is to be the Associated Priest in Charge, with the Revd. Mr. Brown, who enter upon the work, not only with the intention of preaching the comfortable Gospel of Christ, and of ministering the Holy Sacraments to His people, but also, of restoring to its proper place and importance the Worship of God--the rendering Adoration to Him as a Congregational and ceremonial act--, (made beautiful, majestic and impressive by all the outward adornments, which are called the Beauty of Holiness, springing from the heart-love, within); but, which in later times have been forgotten.

"The font, which is to be placed in this Church, is the gift of the Vestry of the Church of Holy Innocents, New York.

[18] "There is to be a ward of The Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament established in this Parish of which Confraternity the Priest in Charge and several of the Laymen, are already associated.

"The Corner Stone is the gift of Mr. Edward T. Webb, son of the builder, & overseeing the workmen.

"And this work is begun, upon the scale laid down, in humble trust The Blessing of God Almighty, The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost, will be upon his believing and faithful Children."

This brief account of a most important and significant event is worth careful attention. It will be seen that in those first days it was evidently customary to hyphenate the name of the Church. It is also well worthy remark, as refuting a fable about St. Mary's that comes to life periodically, that the project was known to and was in somewise under the direction of the Bishop of the Diocese from its very inception. The first paragraph, in fact, cannot be too carefully read or too well remembered. It shows to advantage, short as it is, three of Fr. Brown's great qualifications for his work: his modesty; his tact; and his directness. He puts Mr. Leonard ahead of himself, although there can be no reasonable doubt that the project was his; he seeks the advice of the Bishop before he begins, and emphasises that it is to be' a Free Church; and he uses the straightforward statement that the Church is "to be worked upon a thoroughly Catholic basis". The third word in this quotation explains much of Fr. Brown's success: work.

The reference to "Master Andrew H. Mickle" is characteristic alike of his fondness for children and his courtesy and consideration toward them as well as to all others with whom he came in contact. The "Mr. Downey" referred to was John Downey, who was later to be the builder of the present St. Mary's. He was a staunch and faithful Presbyterian, and the close and cordial relations which existed for so many years speak well for the catholicity of the two men.

It will be noted that Father Brown does not use that then objectionable word, but speaks of himself as "the Revd. Mr. Brown". In matters indifferent he did not raise issues; but his exposition of the purposes for which the church was erected, and his commendation of it to God Almighty, proclaim the depth of his belief and loyalty.

In addition to the all-too-brief account of the founding of St. Mary's, there were put in a lead box in the Corner Stone the following articles: "New York Times, September 23rd, 1868.

[19] "Philadelphia Church Chronicle, September 23rd, 1868.

"Copy of the Constitution and Canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Diocese of New York, for the year 1864.

"Copy of the Bible printed in Cambridge, England.

"Copy of the Book of Common Prayer, published by the New York Bible & Common Prayer Society in the year 1867, with hymns annexed bound in. .

"Copy of a form of Prayer for the laying of a Corner Stone.

"Copy of small book entitled, 'Mary the Virgin', by Rev. Dr. Seabury, of the Church of the Annunciation.

"Copy of a Manual of The Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, printed in 1868.

"Copy of The Canons of the First Four Councils, published in London, 1867.

"Copy of the Book of Hours, published in New York in 1866.

"Photograph of St. John and St. Mary.

"Three United States notes--one 50 cents, one 10 cents, one 5 cents.

"The following coins: A Quarter Dollar, a Dime, a Nickel, a silver Three Cent piece, a nickel Three Cent piece, a Two Cent piece and a Cent.

"A Gilt Crucifix."

The description of the notes and coins placed in the Corner Stone helps to remind us that, although St. Mary's is young in comparison to most of the Churches of the Old World and even to some in this country, there have been many changes since it came into being.

The lots on which the Church was to be erected, and which were presented to the new parish--which at the time had no official existence--were Nos. 226, 228 and 230 West 45th Street.

Along with the erection of the building, work was pushed on the legal organization of the Church, and the Certificate of Incorporation was applied for on the 22nd October, 1868, and was filed on the 5th December in the same year. No explanation is needed for introducing here a copy of this important document.

"Certificate of Incorporation.

"We, Thomas McKee Brown, Flavel Scott Mines, William Scott, Henry K. Leonard, Bowie Dash, William H. Scott, James Geddes Day [19/20] and William P. Lee, being of full age, citizens of the United States, and residents of the State of New York, do hereby associate ourselves for the purpose of founding and continuing a Free Church, under the provision of the Act of the Legislature of the State of New York, entitled 'An Act for the Incorporation of Societies to establish Free Churches', passed April 13th, 1854, and the amendments thereof, and we do hereby certify as follows, viz.:

"First. That the name or title by which such Society shall be known in the law is 'The Society of the Free Church of St. Mary the Virgin'. "Second. That the purpose of its organization is to found and continue a Free Church in the City of New York.

"Third. That the following are the names of seven Trustees to manage the same, viz.: Thomas McKee Brown, Flavel Scott Mines, William Scott, Henry K. Leonard, Bowie Dash, William P. Lee and James Geddes Day.

"In Testimony Whereof, we have hereunto set our hands at the City of New York, this twenty-second day of October, Anno Domini, one thousand eight hundred and sixty eight.

Thos. McKee Brown, Flavel Scott Mines, Wm. Scott, H. K. Leonard, Bowie Dash, Wm. H. Scott, James Geddes Day, Wm. P. Lee.

"State of New York
City and County of New York

On the twenty second day of October A.D. one thousand eight hundred and sixty eight before me personally came William Scott, Henry K. Leonard and Bowie Dash and on the twenty seventh day of October A.D. one thousand eight hundred and sixty eight before me personally came Thomas McKee Brown and William H. Scott, and on the twenty ninth day of October A.D. one thousand eight hundred and sixty eight before me personally came Flavel Scott Mines and William P. Lee, and on the fifth day of November A.D. one thousand eight hundred and sixty eight before me personally came James Geddes Day to me severally personally known to be the individuals described in, and who executed the foregoing Certificate of Incorporation and severally acknowledge that they executed the same for the use and purpose therein mentioned.

Notary Public, N. Y. County.

[21] "I hereby give my consent and approbation to the filing of the within Certificate of Incorporation of the Society of the Free Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the offices of the Secretary of State and of the Clerk of the City and County of New York.

"Dated N. Y. Dec. 3rd 1868.

(L.S.) J. SUTHERLAND, Justice of the Supreme Court."

As soon as this necessary legal step had been completed, John Jacob Astor, Jr., and Charlotte Augusta, his wife, gave a deed of the property to the Church.

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