The following has been extracted from Chapter One of J. Robert Wright's Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (2001).
It has been nearly 200 years since the infant congregation of Saint Thomas first met to worship in a simple room at the corner of Broome Street and Broadway on Sunday, October 12, 1823. The roaring, polyglot metropolis that is New York City today must disappear from our minds if we are to visualize the city in which Saint Thomas Church had its beginning. We must picture a smaller, much simpler city, a city in which the German tongue was as likely to be heard along with English on the streets as are Spanish and Chinese today; a city of 150,000, not the city of more than 8 million at the center of a metropolis of 20 million.
While the walls of the first building for Saint Thomas Church were rising at the corner of Broadway and Houston, Governor DeWitt Clinton led a parade down Broadway to celebrate the opening of the Erie Canal, that “wedding of waters” which united Lake Erie with the Atlantic Ocean. The canal brought to New York the wealth and population for which it has subsequently been known so well throughout the world. It was this same prosperity that made possible, in time, the present Church of Saint Thomas.
The city had not then extended past the lower section of Manhattan Island, and one could conveniently walk to almost any point within it. Columbia College, the alma mater of Cornelius Roosevelt Duffie, stood on the site of the King’s Farm at the foot of what is now Park Place. Greenwich Village was still, true to its name, a village north of the city. The rural hamlet of Chelsea, where the General Theological Seminary had just been situated, ran down to the wooded banks of the Hudson River.
There were some 101 churches in New York City at this time, seventeen of them said to be Protestant Episcopal, and most of these were located in the heavily populated wards of the city within a one-mile radius of City Hall. The Episcopal Church was already strongly established, the New York diocese having been founded in 1785. Before the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church had, of course, enjoyed the dubious distinction of being viewed as “established” in its technical relations to the church and state in England. The revolution had dealt it a heavy blow, although recovery was well on the way by the time Saint Thomas was founded.
The clergy of the city in 1823 constituted a notable group. First by far was the man with spiritual leadership and diocesan jurisdiction over the whole state of New York, the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hobart. Bishop Hobart is remembered as dynamic, quick-tempered, fearless, impulsive, and full of missionary zeal, but with sufficient greatness to recognize and repent of his own hastiness. He was in many ways the outstanding figure in the entire Episcopal Church at the time, and he remains the most famous of the Episcopalian Bishops of New York. His magnetic personality did much to determine the churchmanship of the diocese. A staunch High Churchman himself, most of the diocese under him either acquired or maintained a decidedly High Church stamp. Benjamin T. Onderdonk, who would become Hobart’s successor as bishop in 1830, was a less striking figure but nonetheless a hardworking priest who absorbed the best that Hobart had to offer. So it was into a diocese so heavily influenced by Hobart that Saint Thomas had its beginnings.