By Grace Came the Incarnation: A Social History of the Church of the Incarnation, Murray Hill, New York, 1852-2002

Article excerpt

SHERYL A. KUJAWA-HOLBROOK. By Grace Came the Incarnation: A Social History of the Church of the Incarnation, Murray Hill, New York, 1852-2002. New York, New York: Church of the Incarnation, 2004. Pp. xv + 345, bibliography, appendices. $20.00.

When the vestry of New York City's Church of the Incarnation commissioned Dr. Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook to write a history to commemorate its 150th anniversary, they expected a pamphlet. Instead Kujawa-Holbrook, an ordained Episcopal priest who holds a chair in Feminist Pastoral Theology and Church History at the Episcopal Divinity School, gave them an entire book. By Grace Came the Incarnation is a well-researched and documented, yet thoroughly readable, parish history. Kujawa-Holbrook writes evenhandedly, avoiding a celebratory tone, but still one marvels at the survival, despite so many struggles, of this, the only mainline Protestant church remaining in its Murray Hill neighborhood.

Kujawa-Holbrook attributes the congregation's survival to its ability to adapt to a changing urban environment. Early on, the Church of the Incarnation spawned a mission chapel that thrived so well that for many years it eclipsed the parent church. Spurred by Social Gospel values, the congregation supported a host of programs and institutions that served the wider community: a convalescent home, a dental clinic, church camps, and the Bethlehem Day Nursery. The latter was organized in 1882, only the second such establishment in New York City, and it operated for over ninety years. (It is not clear how the congregation found the resources to support these ministries as its own membership declined.) Then, facing a financial crisis in 1941, the vestry decided to close the church, but a determined group of parishioners opposed them, saved the church from being sold, and called a new rector, the young John Atherton Bell. Much of this story is familiar: the center-city parish weakened by the exodus to the suburbs, the death of wealthy first- and second-generation donors, and the conversion of a residential neighborhood to businesses. The parish persisted with a tiny congregation of mostly adult, single members. …