Wendell: Living History at Woodhaven’s Friendly Church

This past weekend, the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society was honored and blessed to give a presentation on the 145-year history of Emanuel United Church of Christ to its members as well as some of our usual group of local history fans.

In preparation for this, Emanuel opened up their archives to us, allowing us to look at some old documentation, including church books, booklets from special events and old photographs. It gave us just enough information for us to start filling in some interesting blanks.

Emanuel originated in Brooklyn as a small storefront mission opened in 1877 to serve the German speaking populace who had moved from Manhattan.

One year after arriving in Brooklyn, Emanuel moved to a more permanent home on Graham Avenue in Williamsburg. It was at that location that Emanuel would grow, lasting nearly half a century at that location.

Through our research we were able to deter- mine that, remarkably, this building still stands, occupied these many years by the Our Lady of the Snow Society, an organization founded in the late 1800s to support Italian immigrants in New York City.

The front page of The Leader-Observer in 1923 described Emanuel’s last mass at Graham Avenue, telling how the church elders slowly filed down

the steps for the last time before handing over the keys to the new owners, a local synagogue.

It was a great feeling to travel to Williams- burg to see this piece of Woodhaven history and see how little this building had changed over the past century.

Once the population began moving from Brooklyn out east, Emanuel started a small mission in Richmond Hill (on 107th Street) to serve that population. That mission eventually purchased a small plot of land at the corner of Woodhaven Boulevard and 89th Avenue to erect a portable building, which previously sat next to Christ Congregational on 91st Street.

For about a decade, there were two Emanuel Churches, one in Brook- lyn and one here in Woodhaven, before they sold the Graham Avenue location and merged with the mission here in Wood- haven. With the money they received from the sale of the church they were able to build a new church on 89th Avenue, opening in 1924.

The Leader-Observer described the new church as having “red stipled faced brick with terra cotta trimming. There will be a ninety foot tower with a handsomely pillared front. The entire exterior is to be of Gothic design having but a slightly modernized touch which will only enhance the beauty of the effect. The interior is to be finished in oak and will have a seating capacity of over four hundred.”

The new church was built by Fraser & Bereau, the company that also built St. Matthew’s on 96th Street and our Woodhaven library on Forest Parkway. Henry Bereau of that company was a longtime resident of Woodhaven.

But the new church only lasted 16 years as it fell victim to the widening of Woodhaven Boulevard from 1 to 10 lanes. Woodhaven lost well over 100 houses due to that, including Emanuel and the original American Legion building.

And that led to the construction of the ‘new’ church, which has sat on the corner of 91st Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard for the last 83 years. It is a beautiful building with lots of local history and we thank the people at Emanuel for opening up their vaults to us.

And as a special bonus, on Sunday we were joined by Walter Steffens, who was the first baby baptized in the new church. It was a wonderful morning, the folks at Emanuel are always so welcom- ing to our community and we are blessed to have them.

The Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society loved bringing Emanuel’s history to life and we will repeat the presentation via Zoom on Tuesday, August 2nd. If you are interested in attending this free presentation, please email us at [email protected]

The first and last thing you see in Woodhaven

There will be a homecoming this Sunday at Emanuel United Church of Christ as Father Elias Mallon returns to Woodhaven to speak at the 10 a.m. service.
Father Mallon grew up in Woodhaven and went to St. Elizabeth’s and then Archbishop Molloy High School. He was ordained in 1971 and has spent his life involved with the study of Roman Catholic-Christian-Muslim dialogue and peace building in the Middle East since 1985.
He has published many articles and two books on Islam, including the award-winning “Islam: What Catholics Need to Know.” His travels on the subject have taken him around the world.
He’s excited to be coming back to his childhood home, and although Emanuel will be somewhat new to him, Father Mallon has vivid memories of the area around the church.
“Some of my unhappiest times were spent near Emanuel Church,” he said, laughing. “St. Anthony’s was across the street and that’s where the ballfields were. And I hated playing baseball. I was so bad, teams used to fight to put me on the other team!”
But he does share one fond memory of St. Anthony’s.
“In the winter, they used to hose it down and turn it into a skating rink,” he recalled. “I liked that a lot!”
Sitting at the corner of 91st Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard, Emanuel United Church of Christ has the unique distinction of being either the first or last thing people see when entering or leaving Woodhaven.
Over the years, Emanuel has been an integral part of the fabric of Woodhaven, opening its doors to welcome many community groups. Through their generosity, Emanuel has become known as “the friendly church.”
Emanuel has been part of Woodhaven for so long that it’s surprising when you dig into their history and find out it started out in Manhattan before branching out to Brooklyn in 1877 to serve a population that was rapidly expanding east.
During World War I, many of the congregation’s elders began leaving Brooklyn for the wide open spaces of Queens and Long Island. Emanuel soon followed, merging with a separate mission from Richmond Hill and purchasing a plot at 89th Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard.
The 89th Avenue church building opened in 1924, and it lasted a little over a decade.
A year after its 60th Anniversary, in 1938, the City of New York took over the property and tore down the church as part of a project to widen Woodhaven Boulevard. For those familiar with the area, the old church sat at 89th Avenue at what is now the middle of Woodhaven Boulevard.
The congregation received $136,000 from the city, bought a nearby plot of land on 91st Avenue, and built the beautiful church that has welcomed travelers to Woodhaven ever since.
It is a true community church, serving as the focal point for Anniversary Day Parades, Boy Scout meetings, and as a place where community issues are hashed out during meetings of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association.
More recently, Emanuel opened its doors as a COVID vaccination center so that locals and seniors could be protected against the deadly virus.
Emanuel has also hosted meetings and events of the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society for the last 29 years. And we have some good stuff planned in the coming months, so if you’re not on our mailing list, contact us at [email protected] and get added.
Whenever the community has needed help, the folks at Emanuel have always generously opened their doors. They serve as a mirror for our community, reflecting the best that Woodhaven has to offer, where caring for your neighbors and caring for the community is more important than caring for oneself.
It is that strength that has kept Emanuel alive and well into their 144th year, and we thank them for all that they have done for our community.

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