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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 397-398
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Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue
Wright, J. Robert. Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue.(Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2001. Pp. xiv, 313. $65.00.) [End Page 397]
Jan Morris, the British travel writer, wrote in Manhattan '45 that the most fashionable place to view the Easter Parade was outside St. Thomas Church. She was unaware that the Easter Parade may actually have originated on that spot in the 1880's when parishioners brought flowers from the church to the patients in nearby St. Luke's hospital. Father J. Robert Wright, professor of church history at General Theological Seminary and a canon of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, has written a meticulously documented history of the church, which originated in 1823 in a simple room in lower Manhattan. In 1868 it moved uptown to its present location at 5th Avenue and 53rd Street, only two blocks north of St. Patrick's Cathedral, which had made the same move uptown ten years earlier.
The present (fourth) St. Thomas Church, consecrated in 1916, is a Gothic masterpiece, the result of the combined talents of Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. Cram, a devout Anglo-Catholic, designed an authentically Gothic structure, built entirely of masonry, but steel beams had to be added later. In the nineteenth century St. Thomas was a center of the High Church Anglicanism championed in New York by Bishop John Henry Hobart, and Cram would be delighted to see that this heritage has been recovered and emphasized in his church since the 1970's by the last two rectors.
At times the author seems a bit embarrassed by the wealth of the church, which increased its endowment even during the Great Depression and retained pew rents until 1961. However, for almost a century, St. Thomas maintained a free chapel in New York City and in some years donated as much as eighty percent of its income to charity and the missions. In the 1920's the New York Times described St. Thomas Church as "one of the largest, wealthiest and most benevolent Episcopal congregations in America." In 1996 it possessed an endowment of "well over one hundred million dollars."
Readers will be grateful to Father Wright for giving so much attention to the architectural details, especially the magnificent reredos, and to the rich musical tradition of the church, which maintains the last residential choir school in America. The book itself is a sumptuous production, beautifully designed, lavishly illustrated, and worthy of its subject.
Thomas J. Shelley