An epidemic gave rise to a beloved Village church

Disease can shape a city—and that’s what drove the huge population boom in the country resort of Greenwich Village in the first half of the 19th century.

In the 1700s, Greenwich was a bucolic suburb dotted with estates. by the 1790s and early 1800s, this part of Manhattan, with its cool breezes and healthy air, was overrun with residents fleeing lethal outbreaks of yellow fever in the downtown city center.

“Those marvelously healthy qualities as to location and air, that fine, sandy soil, made it a haven, indeed, to people who were afraid of sickness,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

How fast did Greenwich grow? “From daybreak to night one line of carts, merchandise, and effects were seen moving toward Greenwich Village and the upper parts of the city. . . . persons with anxiety strongly marked on their countenances, and with hurried gait, were hustling through the streets.”

With so many new homes going up, churches needed to be built as well. So Trinity Church decided to build a parish on Hudson Street.

In 1820, with an assist from Clement Clarke Moore (a theology professor not yet famous for his Christmas poem whose Chelsea estate was just north of Greenwich Village), a new church was born: Saint Luke in the Fields.

The evocative name was a reference to Greenwich Village as a countryside enclave. And Saint Luke? He’s the physician evangelist, patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

His name is a nod to “Greenwich’s role as a haven for the multitudes fleeing disease in the city,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

The fields aren’t totally gone—St. Luke’s has one of the prettiest secret gardens of any church in New York City.

[Top photo: MCNY; 1895; 93.1.1.17296; Second and Third Images: NYPL]

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6 Responses to “An epidemic gave rise to a beloved Village church”

  1. thaddeus buttmunch Says:

    I’m a physician. I’ll have to look up why there was SO much Yellow Fever that far North (and, then it disappeared.) DDT DID reduce mosquito populations in the Mid-twentieth century, but so did literal swamp draining. Don’t remember when the vaccine came into use, but the Aedes Aegypti mosquito is not common in America.

  2. Walk About New York Says:

    Our Greenwich Village Walking Tour [http://walkaboutny.com/the-tours/greenwich-village-art-and-history-walking-tour/] includes the Church of St. Luke in the Fields and its secret garden. Take the Tour; Know More!

  3. Zoé Says:

    I didn’t know that Clement Clarke Moore was a theology prof – or even a New Yorker. (Or I knew & forgot. An increasing possibility as I age). Your link should be fun to read.

    The reference to “sandy” makes me wonder if the health issues had to do w/ the landfill downtown. (Aside from overcrowding). Although I thought wetlands were filled in within the island also (aside from the fill around piers downtown).

    A caravansary of people moving farther north is a striking image!

  4. JT Nichols Says:

    I think they had a tennis court at St. Luke’s surrounded by a high wall that totally blocked all the city noise! Another gem in NYC, like Chelsea Place, up 7th (or maybe 8th, late 70s), between 17th & 18th, a great little unknown night club..

  5. David H Lippman Says:

    That’s the reasons for the names “Commerce Street” and “Bank Street.” The businesses fled to the former and the banks to the latter.

  6. A yellow fever outbreak made Greenwich Village | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] and St. Luke’s, still on Hudson Street, also went up at about this time. St. Luke’s was not by accident named for Saint Luke—the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. (Above left, in […]

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