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Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue Celebrates 200 Years

By Neva Rae Fox

Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue launched its bicentennial celebration October 12, and a retrospective exhibit will continue for a year.

Founded in what is now Greenwich Village, Saint Thomas is known for its solemn liturgies and its emphasis on the arts — architecture, painting, sculpture, glass, metalwork, textiles, and music. Today’s building at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street is the fourth Saint Thomas Church, and it was completed in 1913.

“Over its 200-year history, this parish has come to be recognized as a major civic and cultural institution of New York City, beyond its role as a house of worship, hosting significant weddings, funerals, and special services,” said the Rev. Canon Carl F. Turner, the 13th rector. “From its unique choir school — the only one remaining in the United States — to its outreach to the poor and the marginalized, it remains a gift to the people of New York.”

The parish’s outreach is intertwined with its history, stretching back to the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, when a free chapel served immigrant populations. A deaconess oversaw a program that taught working skills to women, while also maintaining a nursery.

Other significant outreach in the church’s history includes the Ladies’ Employment Society (1872), formed by the wife of the rector, and the Industrial School (1876) to teach employable skills.

Ecumenical Outreach Partnership — a collaborative ministry with Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral — now serves the homeless and the poor in Manhattan.

The four-day weekend began October 12 with a procession and solemn Eucharist to commemorate the parish’s founding. The Rt. Rev. Bishop Mary Glasspool, Assistant Bishop of New York, preached.

On the evening of October 13, Saint Thomas at 200: A Musical Legacy will explore the wealth of music written for Saint Thomas and its world-famous Choir of Men and Boys. Saint Thomas Choir School was founded in 1919.

October 14 features a fundraiser and the awarding of the inaugural Vestry Medal of Honor, established to recognize outstanding service to Saint Thomas. The first recipient, G. William Haas, has served in many church leadership roles: warden, vestry member, and member of the investment, finance, audit, annual appeal, search, and building committees.

Highlights on October 15 include two choral services, a recital on the historic Taylor & Boody organ, and a sermon by the Rev. Andrew Mead, rector emeritus. A Solemn Evensong and Te Deum will include a sermon by the Rev. Canon Paul Wright, subdean of the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace.

In addition to these events, a professionally curated exhibition traces the history of Saint Thomas, featuring documents and photographs that follow the parish as it moved from downtown to midtown: two structures at Broadway and Houston Street and two at today’s location.

The display highlights architecture, décor, music, liturgy, and service, some with eye-catching silver liturgical vessels and embroidered silk and gold vestments.

The exhibition is co-curated by Francis X. Blouin, the parish archivist and a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, and Inge Reist, director emerita of the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Art Reference Library and the Frick Collection.


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