Magazine article The Christian Century

New York's Elite Churches Struggle with Recession

Magazine article The Christian Century

New York's Elite Churches Struggle with Recession

Article excerpt

More than a century ago, when Fifth Avenue was lined with mansions, its houses of worship were built, supported and populated by Vanderbilts, Astors and Belmonts.

It was, in the words of the late Kate Simon in her 1978 book, Fifth Avenue: A Very Social History, "a village of the greatest wealth and financial power in the world, the might reflected ... by the companion churches."

While Fifth Avenue morphed into New York's toniest shopping district--home to Hermes, Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany's--the landmark sanctuaries endured, and they're now coping with the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The problem is that the A-list families that once packed the pews and padded the budgets are long gone.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, which "served for the weddings and funerals of the truly chosen and drew comment from the less select," according to Simon, has cut expenditures by $1 million in the past year, rector Andrew Mead said. There was no orchestra at the Christmas Eve service and restoration of the stained glass windows has been suspended.

"But we're all still here; we haven't laid anybody off," Mead said. "My goal is to bring us through this crisis whole."

Like many of the formerly socially prominent Fifth Avenue churches, St. Thomas has a sizable endowment (about $90 million). But Mead warned that "we draw down on our invested funds too heavily and over the long run, that's not sustainable."

Making matters worse, those endowments have been hit hard by the stock market's decline from prerecession highs. With a sense of seemingly unlimited funds, endowments can also produce a feeling of complacency. "It [can be] all passive and there's little ownership of the mission and ministry of the church," Mead said.

Noting that "the Gilded Age is long gone," Mead said he is nonetheless determined to maintain the church's renowned choir school and music programs. Today's "active, enthusiastic" and diverse congregation, including 300,000 annual visitors, focuses on community needs by maintaining a soup kitchen and other outreach programs.

Across the street, iconic St. Patrick's Cathedral hosts about 3 million visitors annually but has few regular parishioners, according to Robert Ritchie. That unusual profile has helped buffer St. Patrick's from the ravages of the economic downturn, he said. …

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