The Church of the Holy Nativity was founded November 25, 1900 just north of what is now Mosholu Parkway. Six years later, the church was relocated to Bainbridge Avenue, where it still presides today. Take a moment to learn more about the history of our church and how we have grown through the years by clicking on the links below.
The Church of the Holy Nativity banner was designed by Cecilia Lowe and hand sewn by Ruthie Leach.
The name of the Church, and the date of its founding, surrounds symbolic representation of the Bethlehem Manger and our Lord who gives Himself to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
The First Sunday of Advent, November 25, 1900, was an historic time for the Norwood community in The Borough of The Bronx. At 8:00 p.m. in the evening, several prominent Norwood families gathered in a small, wooden stable, located at 3044 Decatur Avenue, just north of what is now Mosholu Parkway, on the 13.5 acre estate of William Watson Niles, Jr. In this stable, recently converted into a makeshift chapel, these families of Norwood gathered to worship and organize a new mission. This was not only the first mission of The Diocese of New York established in Norwood, it was also the neighborhood's first and only religious institution. A few of the chapel's families actually lived in Manhattan, but had country homes in Norwood, and were amongst the earliest congregants.
Because they first met during the Advent season, that season of the Church Year comprised of the four Sundays before Christmas, and having had their first meetings in a stable, the chapel's founding families chose “The Church of The Holy Nativity” as their chapel's name and feast of title.
From the outside, the building was no different in appearance from the other stables in what was then a semi-rural area, although the roof of the congregation's meeting space had a small wooden cross to designate its distinction as a place of worship. Inside, the main room was small and rectangular with a seating capacity of about 100 people, but that was more than enough space to accommodate the small congregation. The walls were covered with burlap and the windows were hand painted with a variety of colors to imitate stained glass. A room upstairs was used for parish meetings and also contained a circulating library. Gas heaters, provided by the generosity of Grace Church, Manhattan, made the space comfortable for winter weather services and meetings.
The Chapel's first marriage was performed on June 2nd, 1901 ; the first service of Confirmation took place July 5, 1901, and on November 16, 1901, the chapel's held its first service of The Burial of the Dead. Sunday worship consisted of Sunday School, beginning at 9:30 a.m., Morning Prayer and Sermon, 11:00 a.m., Evening Prayer and Sermon at 8:00 p.m. Typical of its day, the service of Holy Communion was celebrated on alternate Sundays, on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of each month.
The chapel's founding, and the subsequent founding of additional missions, chapels and churches, in The Borough of The Bronx was realized by more than the dedicated efforts of a faithful few. It was also part of a larger strategy of The Church Extension Society, developed by an Archdeacon of The Episcopal Diocese of New York. A report issued by the Archdeaconry in 1900 was both prophetic and profound:
“The call for the work of Church Extension is imperative and constantly increasing. The growth of the city, especially in The Borough of The Bronx, beyond the Harlem River, is beyond all precedent and the stimulus to develop in the upper portions of the city is shown by the fact (stated in an official Municipal Report) that in the Borough of the Bronx plans were filed last year for 2,500 new buildings, at an estimated cost of $20,000,000 compared with 1,400 in 1895 at a cost $8,000,000.”
In the early decades of the 20 th century, The Borough of The Bronx dramatically increased in population, in one year by as much as 100,000 persons. This rate of nearly 2,000 persons in one week (!) demonstrates the rapid, indeed burgeoning growth of The Borough of The Bronx. The construction of subway transportation and elevated trains, as well as the extension and improvement of road and highways, helped to boost and engender this growth in The Borough of The Bronx, in general, and Norwood, in particular.
By 1904, the chapel's congregation realized that although their mission was small, it was steadily growing and the stable no longer provided adequate space. Members of the vestry searched the immediate area for a site for a new church building. During the year1905, services were held in O'Hara's Hall on 200th Street between Webster and Decatur Avenues to accommodate the growing congregation. In this period of rapid growth, the chapel experienced the typical growing pains of congregational difficulties, not the least of which was the frequent turnover in their ministerial leadership. Despite the turmoil of such frequent ministerial changes, in the fall of 1905, a site for a new church building was purchased. It was on the corner of Woodlawn Road and Bainbridge Avenue . It consisted of a street frontage of 138 feet and the depth of the lot was 100 feet. It was comprised of six city lots and was situated on the top of a small incline that offered excellent views of Mosholu Parkway and The New York Botanical Garden. The Right Reverend David H. Greer, Suffragan Bishop of New York, purchased the site for $10,000 in October 1905; he personally gave $5,000 towards the building fund. The Reverend William R. Huntington, Rector of Grace Church in Manhattan gave $1,000. Reverend Hopkins, the chapel's minister as this time, raised $2,000 from 31 churchmen in Manhattan, and the congregation of The Chapel of The Holy Nativity contributed $2,000. The initial mortgage was $5,000.
Construction began July, 1906. The architect's plans called for a church, parish house and a rectory, designed in the Tudor Style. The architectural firm of Hoppin, Koen and Huntington prepared the plans. The total cost of all three buildings was to be $75,000. The parish house, the first building constructed, was used as the place of worship until the new (adjoining) church was built.
1906 was a fortuitous year for The Chapel of the Holy Nativity, not only in the construction of the new church, but in the arrival of a new minister, The Reverend Herbert Muller Hopkins, a former assistant minister at Grace Church, Manhattan. He was 36 years old, a scholarly man, and had earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in classical philology and archaeology. Besides being from a prominent Bronx family, Hopkins also was from a family of well known Episcopal clergymen. And like the chapel's first minister, Father Smith, Hopkins also was a gifted writer and was the author of several books, including, The Fighting Bishop and a book of poems.
With the arrival of Reverend Hopkins at The Chapel of The Holy Nativity, the chapel's congregation and vestry achieved their highest expectations; Hopkins was the right minister at the right parish, at the right time. His annual salary of $1,200 was largely paid by Bishop David H. Greer and The Reverend William Huntington, Rector of Grace Church in New York City .
Bishop Greer, assisted by Reverend Huntington, helped lay the cornerstone of the parish house on Thursday, October 18th, 1906, at 4 p.m. Five hundred people gathered for the ceremony. Three months later the parish house was complete. With furnishings, it cost $14,000. It was a large building measuring 30 feet wide and 80 feet long and had a seating capacity of 225 persons.
The first service was held in the parish house on January 20th, 1907. On Easter Sunday, March 21st, William W. Niles, Jr., whose estate had made a large contribution towards the building fund, donated a six by eight foot stained glass window, entitled “Virgin and Child.” It was placed over the altar. The window was given as a memorial to Niles ' father, William Watson Niles, Esq.
Under Reverend Hopkins dynamic leadership, The Chapel of The Holy Nativity grew dramatically. Within one year, the number of the chapel's record of Baptized Persons had grown to 302. The chapel welcomed 58 new parishioners from other churches in this same period. The east side of the church's property on Bainbridge Avenue was opened, curbed, graded, flagged and provided with gas lamps. A flight of granite steps leading up to the church entrance from the lower street level below was begun, but owing to a lack $7,000 the work was not completed until 1907. In that same year the rectory was completed without entailing a mortgage. A photograph and description of the building was featured in an issue of The Churchman, dated August 28, 1908 .
The chapel congregation continued its growth in strength and numbers, and finally, title to the church property that had formerly been in the name of The Right Reverend David H. Greer, The Suffragan Bishop of New York, was transferred to The Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of The Church of the Holy Nativity. The mission congregation, begun in a humble stable over a decade ago, had finally become a free church, and a parish church of The Diocese of New York . Now free of all debt and financial entailments, the church buildings were consecrated on December 16, 1912 .
But for all the progress the church achieved, the church soon faced a major loss. On January 14, 1910, The Reverend Herbert M. Hopkins died suddenly of typhoid fever. A very popular and dynamic minister, Hopkins ' loss was mourned for years not only at Holy Nativity, but in the Bronx church community at large, and in the Norwood community, especially, as well. Hopkins was only 40 years old. He would be the first of two of the church's extraordinary ministers to die while in office. In 1913, in memory of the Reverend Herbert M. Hopkins, the church installed a pipe organ.
The neighborhood around the church continued its growth in numbers and prosperity. In late 1913, Montefiore Hospital moved to the Norwood section of The Bronx. The New York Times reported, “On Sunday November 30, 1913, the largest Jewish hospital in the world will be dedicated at 2:30 o'clock this afternoon at the annual meeting of The Montefiore Home, a hospital for chronic invalids and a country sanitarium at its new building in the still open country at Gun Hill Road on 210 Street.” Other religious institutions had moved unto the area, as well. In 1908, The Roman Catholic Church of St. Brendan was founded and in 1927, the Roman Catholic Shrine Church of St. Ann . Several synagogues were organized, as well.
After the tragic death of Herbert M. Hopkins in 1910, The 35 year-old Reverend Horace E. Clute, a former assistant minister at Grace Church in New York City, became the second Rector of The Church of The Holy Nativity. He presided over the now slower, but continuing and steady growth of the church. Under his inspiring guidance, The F.S.R. Brotherhood was founded. It was an organization of young men, 17 years or more of age, participating in spiritual, athletic and social events. Clute resigned in 1916 to become Rector at Zion Church, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York . The Reverend Charles Frederick Kennedy, who had been an assistant minister at St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan, replaced Reverend Clute. Kennedy unselfishly dedicated himself to the church and its growth. The congregation seems to have adored him. In the history of the church, no minister served longer than Kennedy, he having served as Rector for 20 years. He was a highly personable and persuasive person, who possessed remarkable managerial skills that enabled him to plan and execute the proper strategy for the growth of the church. He was also possessed of a keen financial savvy that was important in this time of growth and expansion in numbers and church programs.
With the end of World War I, growth was especially seen in the church school, which became so large it overflowed into the rectory, which was used to help provide additional classroom space. It soon became evident that not only a new rectory was needed, but a larger church building was needed, as well, In the spring of 1922, Reverend Kennedy wrote a long detailed letter to The Right Reverend William Thomas Manning, The Bishop of New York, and expressed the need for a new and larger church. Reverend Kennedy received, in response the following letter dated April 20, 1922 .
“My dear Mr. Kennedy:
I want to express my heartiest approval of your purpose to build as soon as possible a suitable Church building for your vigorous and growing congregation. The Church of The Holy Nativity has proved its right to larger opportunity by what it has already accomplished under your leadership. It is situated in a region that is full of promise and in which large growth and development seem to be assured. The building of your (new) Church is now a necessity and its erection will give great impetus to the life and work of your congregation.
I warmly commend your appeal for this purpose and hope that the people of your congregation and your neighborhood will give you their united support in this undertaking, as I am sure they will do.
From a small fund just now at my disposal, I take pleasure in sending you the enclosed cheque for $500 towards your building funds.
The Right Reverend William T. Manning
The church continued to grow. In fact, from 1919 to 1929, attendance at worship services almost doubled, from an annual attendance of 4,945 in 1919, to 8,789 in 1929. Not surprisingly , the church's facilities were becoming more and more crowded, even cramped, as the years ticked by.
Now time was on the side of the church and it couldn't have been a better time. Post World War I was a prosperous period in America , and property values increased dramatically. The church's property on 204th Street soared in value. And it was the prescient financial judgment of Reverend Kennedy that saved the church from burdensome debt. In the late fall of 1927, Reverend Kennedy was approached with an offer to purchase the land the church owned along 204th street. He wrote the following letter:
“To The Bishop and Standing Committee of The Diocese of New York
I am authorized and requested by the Vestry of The Church of The Holy Nativity to respectfully petition your Board to grant the sale of a certain parcel of our grounds as herein stated and appended.
We have grown from a small Mission to one of the strongest churches in the Bronx – numbering four hundred and fifty communicants and a Sunday school of over two hundred and fifty pupils. Our church will seat two hundred and fifty. Our work, as is known to the Bishop, has been hampered and restricted by a lack of facilities.
We own a tract of land, which has recently been changed to that of a business zone. Stores already constructed are contiguous to our line. We do not have the funds to construct above this vacant land – nor is it desirable, due to close contact of store buildings.
We can sell this surplus land for a price that would enable us to build a church upon the ground remaining in our possession, free and clear of debt, namely, a plot 90 x 100 ft. We are advised, by a friendly architect, that a building 40 x 90 ft. would give us a building seating three hundred and fifty on this plot - satisfactory in line and position. There would be a city lot on the side giving light and air. To the rear the ground is open and on the south a one family private dwelling. We had also, on an adjacent plot, a space of 40 x 100 ft., upon which we would place our present church, which is 30 x 89 ft. and was originally built for a Parish House. Directly across the street we have secured an option on a small one family dwelling that could be used for a Rectory.
Our lawyers – the firm of Niles & Johnson, 27 Wall St., will forward to you within a few days a more formal petition, comprising the facts which are required by your Committee, and also the details necessary in the application to the Supreme Court. Mr. Niles is a member of this Vestry. We will bring to your hand a map of our grounds. I enclose a rough preliminary sketch. We have a contract of sale signed conditionally upon the sanction of your Committee and the Supreme Court.
With Greeting of the Season, I am,
Charles F. Kennedy
P.S. As revealed in the accompanying tentative contact, we are offered $150,000. This is a price reached after long negotiations and is regarded by real estate experts as a most flattering offer.”
The sale of the property was approved. And in accordance with the sagacious advise from Reverend Kennedy, the new church was built free of debt. The architectural style was called, “low Gothic”. The exterior material would be cut limestone blocks. The entrance of the church was reoriented, so that instead of facing 205th street , the front now faced Bainbridge Avenue . The building had some interesting features. In the basement, beneath the church's nave, was a large hall for additional religious and social gatherings. Adjacent to the hall were several bathrooms and a large kitchen. There also was a two-lane bowling alley, the area between the kitchen and the auditorium serving as the “approach” for the alleys, or when not in use, could serve as additional open space.
On June 2, 1920 , the last service was held in the old church. While the former church was being torn down and the present one constructed, church services were held in the Mosholu Theater.
The post World War I boom era came crashed, as we all know, in October, 1929. Fortunes were lost, businesses collapsed and unemployed soared. Nevertheless, on November 17th, 1929 , the cornerstone of The Church of The Holy Nativity was laid by The Right Reverend William T. Manning, Bishop of New York and Reverend Charles F. Kennedy, Rector.
The first service in the all-but-completed new building was conducted in the basement auditorium on April 6, 1930 . The congregation numbered 400. Two weeks later, the church was finished and opened for regular services on Easter Sunday, April 20, 1930 .
On Sunday November 23, 1930 , The Right Reverend William Thomas Manning, The Bishop of New York, consecrated The Church of The Holy Nativity.
At this service, The Right Reverend William Thomas Manning, The Bishop of New York dedicated five stain-glass windows of a series, executed by the J&R Lamb Studios of New York. These windows represented biblical scenes, two were clerestory windows: The Good Samaritan, in memory of Joseph and Sarah Greer and Robert Hugh Neely; and The Boy Christ in the Temple , dedicated to John H. Henrietta C. Green. The others were Nave windows and represented : The First Flowers, in honor of Henry Lucy: Christ in the Home of Martha and Mary, in memory of Hattie Turtill; and The Baptism by St. John, a memorial to William F. Schmid.
Other memorials dedicated included: Books of Common Prayer and Hymnals for use at the Altar in remembrance of Mr. And Mrs. August Hartung and Mabel J. Curry; The Altar Cloths were the gift of Miss Edna Hill and Mrs. Grace Schilling; The Altar Service Book was given by Mr. And Mrs. Pierie G. Chalois; The Altar Cross by George McVicker; and The Right Reverend William Thomas Manning, Bishop of New York presented the parish with a set of candlesticks, his personal gift.
The other windows in the church were memorials given in honor or memory of George Williams, Ann Erskine, Charles and Rebecca Winter, Henry Lucy and George McVicker.
As the Reverend Charles F. Kennedy had so rightly stated in his letter of December 27, 1927, the church was expanding. From 1929 to 1939, in the heart of the Depression, the number of parishioners attending services increased over 90% from 8,789 to 15,786.
However, the church suffered a great loss, when The Reverend Charles F. Kennedy died on July 30, 1936 , after a prolonged illness due to stomach cancer. For those parishioners, who had come to the church after his arrival in 1916, his passing was like a death in the family. An Altar chair was given in memory of Reverend Charles F. Kennedy and is placed on the left side of The Altar in what is now The Bethlehem Chapel. The Baptismal font now permanently situated in the Narthex, was given in Reverend Kennedy's memory, as well.
Until the church could obtain the services of a new minister, The Reverend Harry Pearson of The Seaman's Church Institute presided at worship services. On December 1, 1936 , 28-year old Reverend Lawrence B. Larsen was called from The Chapel of the Redeemer in Yonkers , and assumed the duties of Rector of the church. His assistant was The Reverend Maxwell Parker. Because of the generous and sympathetic cooperation of the parishioners, additional memorials valued at more than $7,500 were added to the church throughout the decade of the 1930s. Among them was a complete set of seasonal hangings for the Church Chancel, a stained glass window and a litany desk.
However, the major contribution to the church during Mr. Larsen's time was the realization of The Bethlehem Chapel, created from a room adjacent to the nave of the church, which previously had served as a space for “overflow”, when the nave could not accommodate everyone. The beautiful wood carving in the chapel was the artistic work of Alois Lang of Oberammergau , Germany . In keeping with the thematic name of the church the chapel appropriately was named The Bethlehem Chapel. The chapel's furnishings were provided through the contributions of many parishioners. In this way, they erected a lasting commemoration of their dear and departed friends and relatives. The names of those in whose memory the chapel was erected and furnished are listed in The Book of Remembrance.
On December 19, 1937, The Right Reverend Charles K Gilbert, The Suffragan Bishop of New York, assisted by Reverend Lawrence B. Larsen, consecrated the chapel.
In the spring in 1940, the church celebrated its 40th anniversary. Outstanding amongst a series of presentations and celebrations held throughout the year, was the performance on March 28 and 29th of “The Pirates of Penzance” by choir and church members.
In less than two years, however, for the second time in a century, the world was again plunged into another world war. Most of the able-bodied men and women of the congregation, who were called upon, served their country with both honor and distinction as officers and enlisted personnel in all brances of the armed services.
With the end of The Second World War, the idea of creating a memorial fund to honor all the men and women who had served in World War II was put forth by Reverend Larsen. He wanted a huge stained-glass window that would be placed on the east wall above the entrance doors.
The idea for what became “The Victory Window” received unanimous approval from the vestry and congregation. The fun raising began. Earnest W. Lakeman of Yonkers , New York , designed the window. It measures 13 feet and 7 inches wide and its center peak reaches 15 feet and 8 inches in height. The cost of this very large window (in 1940 dollars) was $6,000. On April 7, 1946 , only seven months after the end of World War II, The Victory Window was dedicated.
Having steered the church successfully and spiritually through the difficult war years, Reverend Larsen accepted a call to be the Rector of Christ Church in Pelham Manor , N.Y. , where he stayed for 20 years. He was succeeded at The Church of The Holy Nativity by The Reverend Charles Jonathan Buck, then thirty-eight years old. With youthful good humor, the children of the parish often referred to Reverend Buck as “Pass the Buck.”