Where We Worship: The Church of St. Barnabas, Irvington
by Barrett Seaman –
The old joke is that Episcopalians have their own Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not eat thine entrée with a salad fork.
Once the church of choice for the country’s cultural and political elite, the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, has long been tagged as an enclave for wealthy white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants—or WASPs.
In its early days, dating back to the mid-19th century, the Church of St. Barnabas in Irvington fit that profile locally. When longtime parishioner General Philip Schuyler died in 1906, J. P. Morgan came by private rail car to attend his funeral. Jay Gould, who owned nearby Lyndhurst Mansion, worshipped at St. Barnabas and donated land for its expansion. The church’s founder, the Reverend John McVickar, after whom the Irvington Historical Society’s headquarters is named, was a frequent dinner companion of the writer Washington Irving.
While not nearly as insular and exclusive as that today, St. Barnabas—and for that matter the Episcopal Church as a whole—has begun to tiptoe into the larger universe around it. Among the 430 members of the congregation are blacks, Hispanics, people of Jewish descent and ex-Catholics. Less than half of those who worship there were raised in the Episcopal Church. “We view ourselves as faithful and accepting of a wide variety of theological beliefs,” states the church’s recently released Parish Profile, a document created as part of a lengthy process to find a new rector to replace the Rev. Nora Smith. She was the church’s first female rector who moved to a new ministry last year after serving seven years. Before her arrival, the much-beloved Charles Colwell served as rector for 36 years.
While not “evangelical” in the sense of actively proclaiming “the good news of Jesus Christ” on local street corners, parishioners at St. Barnabas are increasingly engaged in reaching outside their gray stone Gothic Revival confines on North Broadway. They do so mostly through individual participation in outside charities but collectively through a couple of thrift sales that have earned regional renown, both for providing clothing and household goods to those who can’t afford to buy retail and by donating the considerable proceeds to local charities.
Changing parish priests, or rectors, in the Episcopal Church involves a lengthy transition period during which a Search Committee runs focus groups and conducts surveys of its members in an effort to tease out attitudes, expectations, strengths and weaknesses. The resulting Parish Profile, a kind of self analysis-cum-advertisement for a new rector, is then circulated by the national church, inviting Episcopal priests from across the nation and sometimes from abroad to apply for the job, or in the parlance of the church, “answer the call.”
That is where St. Barnabas finds itself now, in the midst of a process that began last year; the Search Committee recently narrowed its field of prospective candidates, to a short list of ten and is currently interviewing them. Meanwhile, services are led by an interim pastor, appointed by the Diocese of New York which oversees parishes in the New York metropolitan area (except Long Island). Serving as interim at St. Barnabas for the past year has been the Rev. Allison Moore, Ph.D., a priest from New Jersey who, in addition to leading a parish in Ft. Lee for 18 years, has served two other times as an interim. Her charge, as she sees it, is to “help the parish see who they are” during the transition.
Physically and fiscally, St. Barnabas is healthy. A pair of capital campaigns during the past 15 years has allowed the church to maintain and upgrade its historically significant buildings, which include the 160-year-old church itself, a parish hall and adjoining two-story school building, as well as a 12-room rectory, where the rector and family reside. The campaigns also created a Permanent Property Trust and other capital accounts that totaled $1.7 million at the end of 2017—a comfortable endowment for a church that size.
Beyond participating in the weekly 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Sunday services, St. Barnabas parishioners are involved in a variety of internal and external “ministries.” More than 90% of them are engaged in programs like Midnight Run that delivers food and clothing to the homeless in New York City, the Yonkers Food Pantry, REPAIR (Rivertowns Episcopal Parishes Action and Inclusion on Race), a Hudson Valley racial consciousness-raising effort anchored at St. Barnabas, and Rhythms of Grace, a monthly service that allows young people on the autism spectrum to participate in a relaxed and loosely structured spiritual environment.
The church’s greatest exposure is through its two annual sales. Nearly everyone in the church (along with dozens of local residents who are not members) participate in one way or another in the herculean task of collecting, sorting and selling donated clothing for a sale each fall and one for just about everything else (except electronics) in the spring. In recent years, combined annual proceeds have exceeded $100,000, 80 percent of which is passed on to local charities. This spring’s Thrift Sale was held May 11-12, when hundreds of shoppers, many from low-income communities up and down the Hudson, poured in in search of furniture, equipment, toys and clothing they might otherwise not be able to afford.
Overall, average Sunday attendance has declined modestly in recent years—in part because many families go away on summer weekends, but for other reasons that are not so easy to identify. But through this and the previous period of transition, the core congregation has learned that there is a spiritual and personal bond that binds them in a community of trust. If there is an illness or death within the church family, help in terms of meals and transportation is there. When one parishioner faced possible deportation, fellow congregants prepared documents and provided support at hearings.
“Lots of people are involved in good works,” observed Rev. Moore, “—less so the church as an institution.” Other parishes she has observed not only contribute time and money to soup kitchens, HIV support groups and day care centers, they also operate them from within. “The question for the congregation and for the new rector,” she said, is ‘Do we want to engage more in the world?’”
That question occupies the church’s lay leadership as well. “We are already a parish that is identified with a lot of community outreach,” said Burnett “Jody” Hansen, currently one of two wardens who chair the 14-member vestry that manages St. Barnabas’s worldly affairs. “But our parishioners are asking questions like: ‘How can we increase our outreach? How can we make a bigger difference in our community?’” Some time in the coming months, a new rector for an old church will join that challenge.
Editor’s Note: the writer is a longtime parishioner and former warden of St. Barnabas.