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the Unitarian Church of Staten Island The Rev. Darrell Berger, Minister
312 Fillmore Street
Staten Island, NY 10301
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The History of Our Church

Robert Gould Shaw, son of Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis Shaw, founding members of the Unitarian Church of the Redeemer

During the mid-nineteenth century, the population of Staten Island numbered just over 15,000, with many newcomers from New England settling on the North Shore in Stapleton and New Brighton. On October 24, 1852, two congregations of liberal Christians, the New Brighton group known as the Congregational Church of the Evangelists and the United Independent Church of Stapleton, incorporated in what then became the Church of the Redeemer.

Established in the Unitarian denomination, in 1853, the Church of the Redeemer opened its first building near what is now Victory Boulevard and Cebra Avenue. It called the Reverend John Parkman, a Unitarian minister originally from New Hampshire, to lead the conjoined congregations, which he had served separately prior to their merger.

Distinguished Founding Families

Francis George Shaw, Bostonian businessman turned philosopher and philanthropist, settled on Staten Island in West New Brighton with his wife Sarah Sturgis. Socially conscious and deeply devoted to intellectual and spiritual pursuits, the Shaws became founding members of the new Unitarian church.

The best known of their children, Robert Gould Shaw and Anna and Josephine Shaw, were deeply influenced by their parents’ commitment to social justice. Robert, who famously led the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts Regiment composed of freed slaves in the fateful Civil War attack on Battery Wagner, Morris Island, SC, was immortalized, along with his regiment, in the film Glory.

 

Anna Shaw Curtis

Anna Shaw Curtis

 

Anna was married at the Unitarian Church of the Redeemer to George William Curtis in 1856.  Curtis, another New England transplant to Staten Island was an author, an editor of the short-lived but highly esteemed Putnam’s Magazine, and a columnist for Harper’s Magazine. He was an abolitionist and a supporter of civil rights for African Americans and Native Americans.  He also advocated women’s suffrage, civil service reform, and public education. 

The Curtis and Shaw families, rooted as they were in the liberal soil of New England, counted among their close associates Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau.

 

George William Curtis

George William Curtis, husband of Anna Shaw Curtis

 

Josephine married Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., in 1863 in the same little church where her sister was married. Lowell graduated from Harvard in 1854 at the head of his class but when the Civil war began he demanded a commission as his patriotic duty. Josephine joined him in Virginia to help care for the sick and wounded. He was fatally wounded in the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864 and was promoted brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers. He died on the next day at Middletown, Virginia, at the age of 29.  Josephine and her young daughter Carlotta, born one month after his death, returned to Staten Island to live with her parents. 

The Shaw sisters and their mother spearheaded local efforts to help the war effort.  The Underground Railroad was in use during this time to help runaway slaves, and it is believed that the Curtises and the Shaws were very involved in this effort. George Curtis was targeted by Southern sympathizers and, during the draft riots in NYC during 1863, Anna and her three children left Staten Island temporarily for the safety of her grandparents’ home in Roxbury Massachusetts.

Josephine Shaw Lowell: A Life in Service to Others

Josephine, a 21-year-old widow and mother, after a respectable period of mourning for both her husband and her brother, embarked upon a life of effort to help others. One of her first missions took her to Virginia with the Freedman’s Association to help establish schools for African Americans in the South. This was just the beginning of her commitment to be a force for change in society for justice, freedom, and upholding moral values. In 1874 she moved from her parents’ house on Staten Island to Manhattan.

 

Josephine Shaw Lowell

Josephine Shaw Lowell

 

Josephine was a life-long Unitarian. She preferred its liberal faith and sincere beliefs in humanism. She hated all forms of bigotry, and worked to overcome them. She became a career woman in the growing field of organized philanthropy and government service. In 1876 she was appointed by Governor Tilden of New York State to be the first woman commissioner of the New York State Board of Charities. She served in this position until 1889, using her post to speak out, lobby, legislate, and advocate for people who were unable to do so themselves.

Her list of affiliations and accomplishments is lengthy: improved care for the insane; benefits for dependent children and widows; improved reformatories; police matrons for women prisoners; the emancipation of labor; advocacy of settlement houses; civil service reform; consumer's rights; and anti-imperialism. There is a permanent memorial to Josephine Shaw Lowell in Bryant Park in Manhattan.

In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883 she writes, "Common charity, that is, feeding and clothing people, I am beginning to look upon as wicked! Not in its intention, of course, but in its carelessness and its results, which certainly are to destroy people’s character and make them poorer and poorer. If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice." 

From Auspicious Beginnings to Years of Hardship

The early enthusiasm for the new church was not sustained due in part to its inaccessibility for many New Brighton congregants. Not only was it some distance from their homes but also its situation on a slope below a passage known as “Mud Lane” suggests a sea of mud that greeted churchgoers in damp and rainy weather. Attendance dwindled. Members were moving away or dying. Reverend Parkman submitted his resignation in December 1858 and in 1863, a mere ten years following its establishment, the Unitarian Church of the Redeemer closed its doors and sold the building to Trinity Lutheran Church.

Despite the setback, a dedicated core group of members kept the spirit of the church alive during the difficult years of the Civil War. Although there was no church home and no regular worship services, the New Brighton women kept the Sunday school in operation at the Union Sabbath School on First Street near Jersey Street.  And so the church lived on in its Sunday school teachers and its children.

In 1868, a second church opened at the present site, at the corner of Fillmore Street and Clinton Avenue on land donated by George Jewitt, a prominent member of the community and a founding member of the church. In a peculiar design, which was to be its downfall, the steeply pitched roof descended sharply from ridgepole to the first story.  Satirically known as “St. Roofus”, the church was cold and drafty. The decade of the 1870s would prove again to be a period of decline with older members dying and their offspring moving away, leaving the church in heavy debt.  

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The Stalwart Women of the Church

These, too, were years in which there was no permanent minister.  Once again the women and the Sunday school proved to be the linchpin of the church community. The Shaw sisters assumed important leadership positions in the church. When Josephine returned from her work in Virginia with the Freedmen’s Association setting up schools for freed slaves, she became one of the first women elected to the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Church of the Redeemer. She was instrumental in convincing the Reverend W. R. G. Mellen to leave Chicago for a ministerial position on Staten Island in 1871.  He was only able to stay for a period of three years due to dwindling church funds and rising debt.

Despite these financial difficulties, the women of the church were able to raise money to purchase an organ by “giving a theatrical exhibition at the Town Hall.”  The five stalwart women of the church were Mrs. Sarah Holman Hicks, Mrs. Anna Shaw Curtis, Mrs. Josephine Lowell, Mrs. Charles C. Goodhue and Mrs. L.W. Johnson.

In 1881 the congregation voted to close the church, due to its perilous condition. Between 1881 and 1893 the church Sunday school persevered in the home of Sarah H. Hicks, up the street from the collapsing building.  After sustaining severe damage in the blizzard of 1888, due to the stress of the massive roof upon the supporting structure, the building was demolished.  Some of the original features were salvaged, including the beautiful rose window, and used in the construction of the third and current building, designed by Frank Quimby in the Arts and Crafts style.  It was dedicated on March 31, 1895.

Anna Curtis was president of the Board of Trustees for the Unitarian Church of the Redeemer, (later re-named the Unitarian Church of Staten Island) for sixteen years 1903-1919. She remained active in the church as a Board member until 1923. During her tenure she spearheaded many important projects, including the building of the parish hall and the parsonage. It is a testament to her efforts that both buildings are still in use today.

Since its founding by abolitionists almost a hundred and fifty years ago, our church has had a proud and liberal heritage. Our leadership and members have included civil rights activists, champions of women's suffrage and women's liberation; antiwar and antinuclear activists. In 2005, our membership voted unanimously to become a Welcoming Congregation, opening our hearts to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities.

This Church history was adapted from the writings of UCSI Minister Emeritus Benjamin Bortin; Bradford Green, UCSI historian; and Susan McAnanama, long-time member of the congregation.

 

Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain

Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain

 

At the western gateway to Bryant Park, behind the magnificent Beaux-Arts New York Public Library building, is the pink granite Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain, designed by Charles Adams Platt and dedicated in 1912. This was the city’s first public memorial dedicated to a woman.

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