“Playing With Fire”
by Rev. Andrew Stehlik
1 Kings 17:1+1; 18:1-2+17-24+26-40...Download
When the first Rutgers congregation dedicated its first sanctuary on the corner of Henry and Rutgers Streets in Lower Manhattan on May 13, 1798, that congregation and sanctuary were the third unit of the Collegiate Presbyterian Church of New York City. It was north and east of the previous two units: the Church on Wall Street, now First Presbyterian (founded in 1716) and the New Church, now Brick Presbyterian (founded in 1765) at Beekman and Ann Streets. It was built on a plot of ground donated by Colonel Henry Rutgers, and paid for by contributions from the members. The three units shared the services of a three-person ministerial team, of which the Reverend Dr. John Rodgers was senior pastor.
In 1809, each of these three units was separately incorporated, and the Reverend Dr. Philip Milledolar was assigned as pastor to the Rutgers Street Church. By 1830, during the pastorates of two successors, Rutgers had become the largest Presbyterian church in the denomination, with 1157 members. The old frame church was replaced in 1843 with a large stone structure (still standing and in use as the Roman Catholic Church of St. Teresa of Avila). Because of the dynamic growth of the city and the profound demographic changes thereby brought about, the congregation decided in 1863 to move “uptown,” taking over the Lenox Chapel at 29th and Madison, where a small, pastorless Presbyterian congregation was in residence. That group eventually became members of Rutgers, under the inspiring leadership of the Reverend Dr. John M. Krebs, who had been called to Rutgers in 1830 and spent his entire career there (1830-1867). Although the membership was now less than half of its all-time high (many additional Presbyterian churches having been opened in the city), the congregation, in 1873, demolished the Lenox Chapel and built an elaborate, expensive church on the spot.
Again, population changes, and the post-Civil War prosperity which transformed the church neighborhood into a largely business district, eroded the membership to an alarmingly low level. By 1884 the congregation was considering dissolution and the sale of the property. The church was closed for nine months. But a devoted core of officers and members invited the Reverend Dr. Robert Russell Booth (then at liberty and a charismatic presence) to head the church, which reopened at the end of January 1885. But the location of the church remained a hindrance to real growth, and in 1887 the congregation accepted the invitation of the Presbytery’s Church Extension Committee to move to a newly opening section of the city at 73rd and Broadway. Through proceeds from the sale of the Madison Avenue property, a chapel was built in 1888 (approximately on the site of the present sanctuary), and a large church in the Romanesque style on the corner was dedicated in 1890.
At the new location and under the new leadership, the church flourished, as the Upper West Side underwent a building boom and acquired a considerable social cachet. By the time Rutgers celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 1898, it had 386 members, many of whom were prominent in civic circles. With the arrival of the Reverend Dr. Daniel Russell in 1915 (he remained as pastor for 27 years) another period of growth and change began. In 1925, when the membership was 445, the existing plant was demolished and the present aggregation of sanctuary, church house and bank building was erected. By 1942, the congregation welcomed a merger with the Harlem/New York Church, which brought the Reverend Dr. Ralph W. Key as co-pastor.
The years of World War II and its aftermath brought significant changes to the Upper West Side, with an influx of refugees and non-English-speaking peoples. Social cachet moved to the East Side, and although a core of Rutgers congregants remained loyal, their residences became widely scattered in the city, and their numbers slowly declined. This decline was masked for a time during the pastorate of the Reverend George Nicholson (1957-1963) whose brilliant preaching filled the sanctuary Sunday after Sunday. But the majority of those listeners were non-members who disappeared when he resigned. The long pastorate of the Reverend Dr. Cyril Jenkins (1964-1983) was marked by several interesting innovations designed to align the church more closely with its community, but there were no great gains in membership, which in 1983 stood at 161.
Dr. Jenkin’s retirement was followed by a time of great change. There were three installed pastors, three interim pastors, a failed merger with the West Park Church, a reconfiguration of the interior of the Church House, and a redecoration of the church sanctuary. The Reverend Dr. Byron E. Shafer was installed in 1996 and has retired after a significant pastorate of ten years. By God’s grace, the heart of Rutgers beats steady and strong. Under the leadership of the Reverend David Prince as Interim Pastor, the congregation is explored new ways to spread the good news of God’s love in New York’s Upper West Side and beyond and conducted a successful Mission Review and Pastoral Search.
In September 2009, Rutgers called the Reverend Dr. Ondrej (Andrew) Stehlik as its 22nd Installed Pastor. Dr. Stehlik began his first Sunday as Pastor on the First Sunday in Advent, coinciding with the beginning of the lectionary year. Dr. Stehlik has quickly made his mark in Rutgers history with his innovative approach to worship and his festive neckties.