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]

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