Friday, August 12, 2011

St. Paul's Church (Bronx): S. Columbus Ave

I didn't really know what to expect other than an old church and surrounding graveyard, but with the weather as pleasant as it was yesterday, I figured that it would be a good day to take the #5 subway to the end of the line and embark on the 15 minute walk to St. Paul's Church.  I was the only visitor there during my 2 hour visit, but the 2 lady docents were as accommodating and helpful as could be.  I believe they have school programs and special organ performances (the organ in the church is one of the oldest still functioning in the country -- see left) from time to time, but individual visitors like me seem unfortunately scarce.

The church has a quaint, very modest design, with high-walled pews (see right) owned by individual families (closeness to the altar meant higher costs; and it was noted that the Roosevelt family pew was in the far back corner with an intruding post--those Dutch were known even then for their frugality).  Most of the original windows were also in place, although there was one stained glass window by the famous John LaFarge from the Romanesque period of the church (see below left). 

The most interesting part of the church tour was the special walk behind the organ up the wooden steps of the tower to the belfry.  It was a narrow entrance (larger folks won't be getting by), followed by a steep climb in the dark, but it was well worth the spectacular breezy views from the top and the chance to ring the famous 250 year old bell (which I did!). 

In 1758, the Church of England minister at St. Paul’, Reverend Standard (who is buried behind the church) gifted it to his parish upon his retirement.  The bell (see right) was made at the same London Whitechapel Foundry as the "Liberty Bell," and thankfully it was saved from being melted down for ammunition during the American Revolution because a parishioner hid it in his barn as the battling approached Eastchester.

After the tour, I took 10-15 minutes to look through the museum, which was the old carriage house for the church.  Presently, they have an exhibit of various Revolutionary battles fought in the area.  The dioramas are very detailed and the uniforms and artillery take one back to how brutal and difficult the battles must have been (perhaps they were more vivid for me than most, as I had recently seen the documentary "Gettysburg"). 

They also show a short video of the history of the church, from the first 10 local farming families who built this church (and the prior one that was torn down for firewood during the Revolutionary War, when the Hessians used the church as a military hospital (see rudimentary "medical" tools at left)), and later when the church became a gathering place for residents from far and wide and services lasted all day (with a break for a picnic lunch in the family cemetary plots -- see cordoned off areas, below right).

There is also an exhibit about Ann Hutchinson (after whom the river is named), who moved down to this area after she was banished from Boston for her religious beliefs, only to be killed by Native Americans who believed she and her family were taking their lands.  Parts of the Ann Hutchinson story were familiar to me, but one that I had at least temporarily forgotten was how Ann's 10-year-old daughter, Susanna, was taken by the Native Americans and raised for 4 years before being forcibly returned to white society.

I ended the visit with a walk through the cemetery (see left).  They provided me with a hand drawn map of notable plots and headstones that made the walk interesting.  I was surprised to see a freed slave buried in the same cemetery as the white residents, as well as a marker for the Hessians who were buried in a mass grave here.  I am not easily spooked (besides it was a gorgeous day), but some might find that the old and sporadically overgrown parts of the cemetery are a little creepy.

In any event, I would highly recommend a visit to this historic place.  It is a hidden historical treasure that deserves support.

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