Ascension’s history is one of remarkable transformations. From an austere beginning as a bastion of the evangelical movement it has become a church of extraordinary beauty with exceptional music and liturgy. From a church with rented pews and a mostly affluent, homogeneous congregation, it has evolved into a parish of diverse people whose economic circumstances vary widely.
Ascension was founded in 1827, when New York was a city of only about two hundred thousand people. The Reverend Manton Eastburn, assistant at Christ Church, Anthony and Worth Streets, was a champion of the evangelical movement. A group of like-minded people went to the twenty-six-year-old, English-born clergyman and asked him to form a parish “to proclaim…living, personal evangelical faith.” He accepted their invitation, and a certificate of incorporation was signed on October 1, 1827.
The first church, a small white Greek Revival building on Canal Street, was consecrated in 1829 and, after a decade of growth for the parish, was destroyed by fire. Little time was spent in lamentation. Within a month, the Vestry selected the present site on Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street for a new church, to be designed by Richard Upjohn. The new Gothic Revival building was consecrated on November 5, 1841, the first church on Fifth Avenue. The site was considerably north of the city’s population center, when Fifth Avenue was only an unpaved trackway, terminating in a board fence at Twenty-third Street.
After serving for fifteen years as rector, Manton Eastburn was chosen to become the Assistant Bishop of Massachusetts. (The Church of the Ascension has had only 12 rectors in its 187 years, four of whom became bishops.)
From its earliest days, the church has been the setting for many notable events, including the marriage of President John Tyler and Julia Gardiner in 1844. Many such prominent New Yorkers as August Belmont, William B. Astor, Frederick de Peyster and William C. Rhinelander have been parishioners.
Remarkable demonstrations of social concern appeared early in the church. Between 1843 and 1859 the sum of $225,000 was donated for purposes outside the parish, when the regular budget in any given year was no more than $10,000, the bulk of which came from pew rents. During this period, for example, Aspinwall Hall was given to the Virginia Theological Seminary; over $3,000 was contributed to relieve famine distress in Ireland; funds to build Ascension Hall were given to Kenyon College in Ohio; a fund was raised to help struggling churches in places as far afield as Liberia and Frankfort, Kentucky; and in New York, the Church of the Ascension was instrumental in establishing and maintaining the Five Points Day School, which sought to feed, clothe, and educate the children of one of the city’s worst neighborhoods of crime, poverty, and degradation.
In 1888 the women of the parish set up the St. Agnes Nursery, the first day nursery in New York City. Here the babies and young children of working mothers found shelter and protection. Like many vital and financially viable parishes, Ascension established several missions and chapels in New York, maintaining them for as long as they filled a need.
The fourth rector, the Reverend E. Winchester Donald, was a friend of many of the artists dwelling in the church’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. He was convinced that beauty, which elevates the human spirit, is an appropriate setting for worship. A generous gift from the Misses Julia and Serena Rhinelander made it possible for John La Farge, Stanford White, and David Maitland Armstrong to transform the chancel from a bleak, bare space into a composition of the highest order. Surmounted by La Farge’s great mural, The Ascension of Our Lord, the chancel is today one of the most beautiful spaces in New York.
When the Reverend Percy Stickney Grant was called as rector in 1893, he said he would accept only on the condition that Ascension be made a parish of free pews. This was a radical step for an Episcopal parish to take at that time, giving up the fancied security of pew rents and depending on voluntary giving, but the Vestry acceded to his demand.
An equally radical departure was suggested by the sixth rector, the Reverend Donald B. Aldrich, when he proposed to the Vestry that the church be kept open at all hours of the day and night. On November 9, 1929, barely a week after the stock market crash, the central doors were opened, not to be locked again until October 1966, when a more lawless social climate made limited hours necessary. (The church is at present open weekdays from noon to 1 p.m. for prayer and meditation and at 6 p.m. for Eucharist, as well as open for its other services.) Ascension was the first church in New York City to keep its doors open at all hours, and during the Depression homeless men slept in the pews.
The tenth rector, the Reverend Donald R. Goodness, retired in 1997, after serving in this parish for twenty-five years. During the quarter century he spent with Ascension, Father Goodness embraced a number of changes, both at Ascension and in the Episcopal Church at large. It was during Donald Goodness’s rectorship that the celebration of the Eucharist became the main service each Sunday instead of once a month. His tenure saw the introduction of eucharistic vestments and a more ceremonial liturgical approach in general. When the 1979 prayer book was introduced, he embraced its multiple rites and the church continues today to celebrate the Eucharist using all six forms found in the Book of Common Prayer.
The eleventh rector of Ascension, the Reverend Andrew W. Foster III, came to serve the parish in 1999, after serving as rector of St. Paul’s Church on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, and earlier as the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Michigan and then as chaplain at Kenyon College. Father Andrew instituted some updates to the liturgy in keeping with common practice throughout the Episcopal Church. During this time the church completed a multi-year restoration of the historic sanctuary and on May 1, 2011, the installation of the Manton Memorial Organ, the only French-built instrument in New York. Using expert specialists in historic preservation, the beautiful interior was thoroughly restored with new lighting, sound systems and a harmonious decorative paint scheme designed to enhance its artistic treasures of stained glass windows, the McKim, Mead and White chancel, and the famous John LaFarge painting “The Ascension of Our Lord.”
The Rev. Elizabeth G. Maxwell was installed as the twelfth rector on May 13, 2015. Mother Liz has lived and worked in Manhattan for 25 years, first as Associate Rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea, including Program Director of the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, and then as Interim Pastor of St. Michael’s Church on the Upper West Side. She is a graduate of Duke University and Princeton Theological Seminary, and was ordained in the Diocese of Newark in 1983, serving there before coming to the Diocese of New York.
Notwithstanding its many changes since 1827, the Church of the Ascension remains a place of vibrant worship, beautiful music, active service, and quiet contemplation, its members striving to seek and serve Christ in all persons. The congregation, clergy and staff of Ascension invite you to join us for worship and fellowship any Sunday morning in New York City, now as then at Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in historic Greenwich Village.