Vol. 16, No. 16

July  31 - Aug. 27, 2003


At 150, Church Takes Long Look Back and Thinks Ahead


When St. James Episcopal Church was first built on Kingsbridge Road, the Bronx was a radically different place. The handsome stone building stood on a hill with newly planted elm trees scattered across the lawn, where horse buggies - not the No. 4 train - frequently passed by. Over 150 years later, St. James still remains - a classic stonewall church that is now hidden among the fully-grown elm trees. 
St. James, constructed during the Civil War, marked its 150th anniversary this year with a series of colorful festivities to commemorate the church. On July 12, members of the church gathered on the front lawn in period costumes from the 19th century. Reverend Tobias Haller was dressed in a long black cloak with a black derby, and laughed about his worries of it being too hot for such attire on the Saturday afternoon. "But today turned out to be perfect," he said. 

Haller came to the parish in 1999 after studying at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. He's championed the preservation of the church's heritage - through the anniversary festival, and more fundamentally, raising funds to replace the roof. Currently, he is fundraising for renovations to the church's interior.

The interior, even in its current state, is spectacular. Six original Tiffany windows grace the church's walls under the tall and stately roof. 

"Have you seen the Tiffany windows?" asked Marilyn Cotton, a St. James congregant for over 60 years. "You must, they're beautiful." 

When she first started coming to St. James, its members were a different mix. When it was first founded, the church was made up of Polish, Germans, Belgians and other European Protestants. 

It was a group of well-known businessmen from Wall Street, many who had country homes in the Bronx, who founded St. James in 1853. The church's first edifice was a humble one - a simple, old schoolhouse moved between Fordham and Kingsbridge roads. But as the congregation grew in numbers, a larger church was needed. Construction on the current St. James began during the Civil War and ended in 1864.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the congregation continued to swell, and included many historical figures. The third priest, Charles Comfort Tiffany, was the son of Charles Tiffany who founded the famous Tiffany and Company jewelers. The church not only benefited from Tiffany's sermons, but the stain glass windows he had installed. 

There were also various war heroes who were active in St. James. And Dr. George Cammann, a regular of St. James who worked in Greenwich Village and moved up to the Bronx, invented the modern stethoscope. 

Geraldine Hamilton, baptized at St. James in 1918, remembered how beautiful her church's neighborhood was when she was younger. "It was very country-like, almost a different world," said Hamilton, now 92 years old. "It was a lot slower." 

Today, the church's 350 active members are a rainbow. West Indians, Africans, Asians and Latinos make up the majority of the members. There are attendees who live as close as the Grand Concourse, and as far away as Staten Island.

Florence Morgan and her husband, St. James visitors since 1962, remember when they were the only African-American members of the church. "It wasn't difficult," said Morgan about their integration into the church family. "Everyone was nice and friendly. It was never a problem." 

For Haller, the church's ethnic mosaic is part of its strength. "It's a great parish," he said. "It's wonderfully diverse, and it's a welcoming parish. There are always new members coming in, because people like the diversity and the affirmation."

St. James' commitment to multiculturalism and social justice has been a key component of the church's philosophy. Basil Law, the priest of St. James from 1959 to 1990, was an original leader in the Northwest Bronx Clergy and Community Coalition. The Coalition focused on the threat of building abandonment and serious quality of life issues in the area beginning in the 1970s. The organization's headquarters is nearby and continues to 
organize around critical housing, education and public safety issues today.

While Law's legacy is significant, the church's congregation has responded positively to Haller. Arthur Longsworth, Sr., a member of the fundraising group, is impressed by his work. "We've come a long way under Father Haller," he said. "The church has improved a lot in attendance, the Sunday school and the fundraising." 

Over 40 years later, Morgan is still a dedicated member. "I take part in anything that is dear to the church," said Morgan, who was president of the Vestry's foundation for six years. "It is my home away from home, and it's where I find security, peace and contentment."

Haller has big hopes for his St. James. He wants to do more outreach to the Latino community and provide additional educational programs.

"This church isn't just a passive imitation that stands apart from the world," Haller said. "It is engaged with the life around us."

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