The basement of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Harlem is nothing like the worship space above it. The white, underground room smells of linoleum and popcorn from Friday night movie screenings. Upstairs, on Sunday mornings, hymns echo off a vaulted ceiling while the sunshine through stained-glass windows shoots multi-colored light beams onto the floor.
Both spaces represent how St. Mary’s has served its neighbors during 200 years in the same location on West 126th Street near Amsterdam Avenue in the Manhattanville neighborhood.
But with declining attendance and aging worshippers, churches throughout the neighborhood face a crisis. Some congregations have shut down. Others have sold their properties to real estate developers with the promise of gaining worship space in new residential apartment buildings. Even at St. Mary’s, Sunday services are shared with St. Martin’s & St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, whose own building in Central Harlem has fallen into disrepair.
“Everyone has to have a place to call home,” the Rev. Mary Foulke, the rector of St. Mary’s, said in an interview following a recent Sunday service. The Washington, D.C., native has led the congregation since 2014 and is a vocal advocate for the community.
Judi Johnson has attended services at the church since the late 1950s. Freddi Brown-Carter, who joined the congregation 10 years ago, said she considers herself a relative newcomer.
Brown-Carter volunteers to stock the community fridge. “Work here is like planting the seeds of trees you’ll never see,” she said. Brown-Carter is proud to be a part of the church’s two century-old legacy.
The founders of St. Mary’s first met at a schoolhouse on Dec. 18, 1823, in what was then the village of Manhattanville, to create a church for the people there. After deciding on a name and choosing their leadership, Jacob Schieffelin, one of the two wardens selected, donated the plot of land that would soon become St. Mary’s. As Harlem’s demographics continue to shift, St. Mary’s still stands on those few acres of what was once Upper Manhattan farmland. Schieffelin’s seventh great grandson is still involved in the church, according to its website.
The keys dangling from his hip betray Kym Roberts’ deep involvement with St. Mary’s. “Mr. Kym,” as he is known, opens and closes the doors each day, cleans the gutters, answers the phone and welcomes worshippers from morning until night. They call him the heart of the church. “I practically grew up going to church,” he said.
Roberts is concerned about the closing of other congregations. “It’s not good,” he said. “We’re doing our best to survive.”
The key to the survival of St. Mary’s is its service to the neighborhood, said William Roberts, who helps to organize movie nights and outreach to the homeless community. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” he said. “It matters if you’re human and you’re in need and that’s it.”
Longevity requires adaptation. In addition to movie nights, the church runs a food pantry and thrift shop, offers tai chi classes, dance space and free medical clinics. St. Mary’s also provides a place for persons experiencing homelessness to receive mail.
At a recent Sunday service, the 20 or so worshippers wore masks, the seats socially distanced. Live music was accompanied by a slick bilingual slide presentation. Virtual lectors read the Gospel of Matthew from their little Zoom squares.
The bowed heads were mostly gray-haired. Congregant Charon Hartley and her 22-year-old son, two of the youngest people attending, said they represent the new generations of St. Mary’s worshippers.
Hartley wants her children to understand what it feels like to be a part of a church community. “It’s this feeling like I want to sing to the world, I want to help everybody,” she said. Hartley said she was overjoyed when her daughter called home from college and said “she found a home in a church.”
In a black and white picture on the rectory’s mantle, St. Mary’s is almost unrecognizable from its original building. “The first church was made of wood, the second was brick, and now we have our current building,” Foulke said. “But regardless of the materials, the church is really the people who gather here.”