Mission & History
St. James' Church is a community that actively shares the love of Jesus Christ with each other, our city, and the world.
Founded in 1810 as a summer chapel in the countryside north of what was then considered to be New York City, St. James' Church has always stood as a house of prayer for Christians living on and around Lenox Hill, in the part of Manhattan we now call the Upper East Side. As the city grew up around it, St. James' grew and changed to meet the needs of its neighbors. The current building was built in 1884-5, and dramatically reconfigured in 1924 by Ralph Adams Cram. Completely renovated in the early 2000s, St. James' is prepared for another 200 years of gathering the community for worship and prayer in order to faithfully fulfill its mission of sharing the love of Jesus Christ with each other, our city, and the world.
From White Clapboard to Gothic Revival
1810 - 1869
St. James Church began as a summer chapel for New York City residents who had country homes above the banks of the East River. The first church was built in 1809-10 on Hamilton Square, at what is now East 69th Street and Lexington Avenue, and was consecrated by Benjamin Moore, Bishop of New York, on May 17, 1810. This simple building, with clapboard siding, grey shingles and quaint belfry served the congregation until 1869.
The second church was built in 1869 on East 72nd Street. Designed by James Renwick in the Victorian Gothic style, it was understood to be a temporary home as the church continued to grow with the neighborhood around it. Renwick had achieved fame as the architect of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as well as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grace Church on Broadway, both in New York City.
1884 - 1924
Work began on the present church in 1884. Designed by Robert H. Robertson, it opened in 1885, though it never received the tall tower that Robertson had planned. Built in the Romanesque style, it was deliberately disoriented, facing west, with the apse on the avenue end so that no new construction would block sunlight from reaching the chancel windows.
1924 - Present Day
In 1924, the great Gothic Revival architect Ralph Adams Cram was hired to enlarge and transform Richardson’s Romanesque building into the neo-Gothic building enjoyed today. Cram also designed the Great Reredos, one of the finest painted and gilded wooden altar pieces created in the 20th century. Most of the stained glass windows were removed and replaced by windows executed by studios under Cram’s direction, though three windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany Studio were preserved. In 1950, the tower was topped with the present "tin can" steeple designed by Richard A. Kimball.
- In 1977, the parish sponsored Carol Anderson for ordination at St. James’ Church as the first woman priest in the Diocese of New York.
- Under the leadership of Hays Rockwell (1976 - 1990), the parish invited neighboring churches and synagogues to form the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, a drop-in center providing immediate and long-term assistance to the homeless, and which also coordinated efforts so that meals might be offered every day of the week for homeless persons on the Upper East Side through these houses of worship.
During Rockwell’s tenure, the parish also developed particularly close friendships with Bishops Desmond Tutu of
South Africaand Gordon McMullan of Northern Ireland. St. James’ would become one of the first churches to divest from investments in apartheid South Africa.
- In 1996 St. James’ called as rector the Rev. Brenda G. Husson, the first woman chosen to lead a parish of such size and prominence in the diocese.
- Beginning in 2001, the church and parish house were completely rebuilt, from the inside out, according to plans drawn up by the architect Lee Harris Pomeroy. The floor of the sanctuary was demolished and rebuilt with new steel structure and stone. Having outgrown classroom and meeting space, the undercroft beneath the sanctuary was transformed into additional Sunday school rooms.
The parish house was completely rebuilt between 2002-2004, providing additional classrooms and meeting spaces, as well as a new atrium in the previously unused exterior space between the parish house and sanctuary. At that time the entrance to the parish house was also reconfigured so that the entire complex would be accessible to parishioners of all ages, whether in strollers or wheelchairs.
- St. James’ was one of two Episcopal churches invited to participate in the Lilly Endowment’s nation-wide Transition into Ministry program for the mentoring of new clergy. The position of ‘Lilly Fellow’ was created in 2003 as a clerical residency, in which new priests are given active leadership, training and mentoring in all aspects of parish life.
- In 2005 a new Columbarium was constructed in the bell tower. Tiffany windows, hidden and in some cases reconfigured during Cram’s renovation, were restored.
- A new era in direct, hand-on mission began when St. James' received a large private grant to establish the Partners in Mission program. The PIM grant currently supports ongoing partnerships with the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi in Africa, three Episcopal parishes in Haiti, as well as regular work with the Osborne Association's outreach to children with incarcerated parents in New York.
In 2008-2009, the parish installed the St. James’ Bicentennial Organ, built by Schoenstein & Co. Organbuilders (op. 156 & 157) in San Francisco
Faithful Past, Unlimited Future
St. James’ celebrated its bicentennial year in 2010 with a guest preacher series, an organ dedication concert, a panel on global reconciliation with Bishops Desmond Tutu, Gordon McMullan and Hays Rockwell, a new history book, a children’s ABC book, exhibits, a CD recorded by the choir, a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a youth mission trip to Malawi, and an entire week devoted to mission with and for its neighbors in New York.
The parish welcomed Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, for a festive service marking the culmination of the bicentennial year on November 14, 2010.