The Little Church Around the Corner
My grand aunt Mary Ravanna Kelly and her husband George Theodore Braakman (who was from Asthonia, USSR) were married here in April 1931. I have wondered why they were married there. I was hoping it might tell me what religion George practiced. But now that Ive read the description of the churchs history I really think it was a romantic choice. Mary was a pianist and loved opera along with George. They were educated and well read and lived in culturally rich Manhattan. I would love to see this church remain for others to enjoy its rich history.
Its history is worth saving--both architecture and cultural. (May 2008)
This is one of the most beautiful and restful venues in New York. The church building is a quirky, rambling structure that imitates a 14th century English country church. The garden is a blaze of color in the spring, and is entered through an eye-catching roofed pavilion called a lych-gate, also a feature of English country churches. The author P.G. Wodehouse, who was married here in 1914, described the church and its grounds as a bit of heaven dumped in the middle of New York.
The history of the place also is compelling. The nickname, "The Little Church Around the Corner" comes from an incident in 1870. An actor named George Holland had died and another, Joseph Jefferson, tried to arrange a funeral. Since actors were shunned by polite society in those days, the rector of a nearby church (long since demolished) rebuffed Jefferson, saying, "I believe theres a little church around the corner that does that sort of thing." Jefferson replied, "If this be so, then God bless the Little Church Around the Corner!" The rector of Transfiguration, Dr. George Hendric Houghton, readily agreed to conduct the funeral, the story soon became national news (Mark Twain was among those writing in praise of Dr. Houghton) and many actors adopted the church as their own. The eminent Shakespearean player Edwin Booth was among them, and he is honored by a window in the transept. A window on the south wall illustrates the story of Holland and Jefferson, including numerous allusions to the latters stage persona as Rip Van Winkle.
The Episcopal Actors Guild, founded at the church in 1923, is headquartered in a small theater on the second floor. A fraternal and charitable organization open to members of all faiths, its current president is Sam Waterston.
The interior is richly decorated with paintings, stained glass, statuary and polychrome. The north wall of the nave is noteworthy as Americas answer to Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey. It displays memorial plaques and windows honoring famed people of theater (such as Rex Harrison, Will Rogers and P.G. Wodehouse) who worshipped here. After showing severe decay in 1999, the wall was reconstructed in 2001-02. It also houses the 14th century St. Faith window, believed to be the oldest stained glass in an American church.
Dr. Houghton founded the parish in 1848, and embraced people of all classes and races. Oral histories indicate that he harbored runaway slaves for the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War draft riot of 1863, he sheltered blacks and confronted a mob that sought to attack them.
Prominent parishioners included Mrs. Franklin Delano (nee Laura Astor), great aunt of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She funded construction of the lych-gate and donated a set of 18th century Italian paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross. The church was named a National Historic Landmark in 1973. The parish has an outstanding music program, and offers free weekday concerts. Its choir of men and boys is the oldest of this type in New York, founded in 1881, and the only one that is not affiliated with a school. The Transfiguration choirboys have appeared in concerts and in recordings with the New York Philharmonic, singing for illustrious conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. They recently joined conductor Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra in opening the new music hall at Bard College.
The sheer beauty of the building and its garden are just as important as the history of the place. It is truly unique and incredibly charming, one of those hidden treasures of New York that first-time passers-by find utterly captivating and surprising. I certainly did. From the church complex, you can see the Empire State Building looming just five blocks away, creating a striking juxtaposition of the modern and the medieval. This is also one of a shrinking number of churches that actually are open daily (in this churchs case, 8-6).
As a building over 150 years old, the church has mounting needs for repairs. The north wall of the nave was crumbling, and cost over $500,000 to restore. The charming lych-gate outside also is in precarious shape. The roof leaks. The list goes on and on. Meanwhile, the congregation is small (around 100 on a typical Sunday) and not wealthy. There is a real threat that the bills for necessary repairs cant be met.
The Church of Transfiguration is a beautiful church, and a unique community. It completely transcends religion. The focus on music and creativity in tangible-- I should know, I grew up singing in the girls choir there. Transfiguration is more commonly known as "The Little Church Around the Corner," or just "Little Church." The story is, in 1870, stage actor Joseph Jefferson (famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle) was trying to bury his friend, actor George Holland. Jefferson tried the priest of another, larger church nearby, and was turned away, as acting was a frowned-upon profession at the time. The priest said to Jefferson:
"There is a little church around the corner where it might be done."
"Then I say to you sir, God bless the little church around the corner."
It looks like a piece of history. It’s sunken behind a garden, with a path leading through it, well away from the sidewalk. The brown stones and rusted green turrets make it impossible to miss walking down an otherwise unremarkable Manhattan sidewalk. But the interior is what’s really incredible. It’s an old Episcopal church, more glittering and more rustic than the rest. It’s pure beauty that anyone can appreciate, focused into a small, intimate space, unlike the big cathedrals.
I miss Easter Mass there with my mom. We don’t go to church often, but when we do, we go to Little Church. I see the girls I sang with as a kid, and I’m always in awe of how beautiful the space is, how remarkable the music is, and how strong the community is. It’s something I want to go back to , when this is all over.
(added April 2020)