Right in the middle of New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood is an active remnant of the neighborhood’s immigrant past. The Church of St. Paul’s is the the oldest continually operating German-speaking church in New York City, and continues to be the only Lutheran church where services are held entirely in German. St. Paul’s will also fittingly be one of the venues for the 2014 Chelsea Music Festival, which begins tonight celebrating German and Brazilian music.
Founded by Ken-David Masur, son of conductor Kurt Masur, and his wife Melinda Masur, the Chelsea Music Festival has been called by The New York Times as a “gem of a series.” Unique venues for the festival have included the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, the Park Avenue Armory, the Starrett-Lehigh Building (for tonight’s opening event), and the General Theological Seminary.
The current Church of St. Paul’s at 315 W. 22nd Street dates to 1897, though the church had other locations prior dating back to 1841. The neo-Gothic church was designed by German architect Francis A. Minuth and built in just seven months, with all of its costs paid for on the day of inauguration on February 13th, 1898.
Architecturally, the church is an exercise in the contrast between opulent detail and restraint. The wooden pews balance out the incredible pipe organ painted in reds, golds and greens. The geometric ceiling in a soothing gray and white juxtapose the stained glass windows that surround the sanctuary.
Speaking with the current pastor, Wilfried Wassermann, the story of the church has very much mirrored the waves of German immigration to the United States. According to the church’s website, “world events affected the history of the parish in a very direct manner.” In addition to the initial wave of immigration in the 1800s, hyperinflation in the 1920s encouraged over 115,000 Germans to emigrate to the United States. German internment and other limitations on German-Americans curtailed church activities during World War II but another large wave of German immigration of more than 600,000 came in the boom of the 1950s.
Since the 1960s, the makeup of the church congregation has been shifting from immigrants to German expatriates working in New York City on a temporary to long-term basis. In 1978, St. Paul’s merged with the Evangelical Church in Germany and opened their service to all Germans living in New York.
Now in its currently building for over 100 years, and as a congregation for 150, St. Paul’s Church has stood witness to the changing demographics of the Chelsea neighborhood from immigrant industrial zone to its role as a center of the early movie industry to the bustling place it is today.
See the church during the Chelsea Music Festival, which begins tonight and runs all next week.