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St. Philip’s Church, Harlem, marks 200th anniversary


On Christmas Eve 1947 Veronica Henry walked into St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on West 134th Street in Harlem for the first time for midnight mass.

Originally from the West Indies and new to New York, Henry was looking for a church home when a friend brought her to St. Philip’s, she said. Sixty-one years later, Henry, a regular longtime member, was among more than 300 gathered October 4 to celebrate the Feast of St. Philip, deacon and evangelist, St. Philip’s Church’s Bicentennial Homecoming Sunday, and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s visitation.

Before the service Jefferts Schori joined St. Philip’s clergy, parish organizations, choir and parishioners, led by African drums, on the parish’s annual neighborhood procession -- walking east on West 134th Street, North on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, West on 135th Street and South on Frederick Douglass Boulevard back to 134th Street -- stopping at prayer stations along the way and blessing local businesses, including the International House of Pancakes, the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Police Department’s 32nd Precinct, the Mary McLeod Bethune School (Public School 92), and finally, St. Philip’s Church.

At the start of her sermon, Jefferts Schori asked: “What does homecoming mean for you?”

“This community is very clearly a center of connection and healing, dignity and grace, for those who have gathered here for a very long time. Part of its gift is the continuing reminder that here, at least, we are all at home, even if life out there is not always so welcoming. St. Philip’s can be a haven of peace and joy even if there is no other haven in someone’s life, whether in the domestic sphere or the workaday world,” she said.

“The origins and history of St. Philip’s tell a great deal about the unflagging labor to create a spiritual home for those whom the larger society has too often rejected – and conflict is often a part of the journey.”

In 1809, after more than a century of worship under the supervision of Trinity Church on Wall Street, African American parishioners formed the Free African Church of St. Philip, laying the foundation of what became, in 1818, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the first African-American Episcopal parish in New York City.

The Rev. M. Moran Weston, a civil rights activist, led the church from 1951 to 1982, during a time when membership was more than 4,000 people.

“St. Philip’s was the first megachurch,” said the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge, in a telephone interview, adding that she is working with the parish to build it up again.

St. Philip’s became a Harlem institution: Thurgood Marshall, the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, was a longtime member and vestryman.

Veronica Henry still lives in the neighborhood, 12 blocks from St. Philip’s, she said.

But many of St. Philip’s remaining longtime members have moved out of Harlem to the suburbs and New Jersey, Rubinson said.

Randolph Walker, 59, a member since his baptism in 1950 who still lives in the neighborhood, said he’d like to see a homecoming crowd gather at St. Philip’s every Sunday.

“About 200 more peopel [on Sunday] would be good,” he said. “And I’d like to see more young people get involved.”

Deshay Thomas, 19, a member of St. Philip’s bell choir, said she would also like to see St. Philip’s congregation grow and for the church to attract more young people.

She likes St. Philip’s, she said, because “everyone is friendly and we’re like a close family.”


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