St. Ann’s is a Brooklyn institution that goes back to the eighteenth century, one which has continued to evolve and exhibit relevance to successive generations, to each new version of Brooklyn. Today’s St. Ann’s on Montague Street in the Heights continues to serve parishioners, and stands as one of the finest masterpieces of the Gothic Revival style in America, with its historic stained glass windows by William Jay Bolton, the first made in America. St. Ann’s Warehouse, the performance organization that grew out of the church’s restoration funding efforts in the 1980s and is now located in an old spice milling factory on Water Street in Dumbo, has become one of the most important and compelling live performance destinations in New York City.
St. Ann’s began over two-hundred years ago just a few blocks from today’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, on the west side of Washington Street between Prospect and Sands. The “Ann” is in fact Ann Sands, who, with her husband, Joshua Sands, was the founding church’s most liberal donor. As the first–and for nearly forty years the only–Episcopal church in Brooklyn, St. Ann’s was the spiritual home of many of the city’s founding families. The organization was instrumental in bringing fundamental childrens’ services to Brooklyn, including education and orphan care.
Whitman was sent to Sunday school at St. Ann’s because it offered a free supplement to the free education offered at the district school the other days of the week (his family tended toward Quakerism, but for all intents and purposes they were non-denominational). Whitman was instructed in scripture and catechism, but clearly–radically–formed his own views about what constituted the soul. Whitman reports that as a boy he was electrified by hearing a sermon by Elias Hicks of the Quaker Church on Joralemon Street, a sermon so fixated on faith in the human spirit that even his fellow Quakers denounced him as a heretic. But Whitman departed even from those he followed.
Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul
Whitman’s faith was deep, and deeply experiential. He believed not in outside agents or in behavioral laws; neither did he put stock in abstractions or esoterica. Whitman rejected the widely accepted impression of spiritual and corporeal duality:
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.
St. Ann’s was in the direct path of the Brooklyn Bridge terminus, and was demolished in 1880. Whitman himself lamented the loss of the edifice:
I see to-day in a New York paper an account of the tearing down of old St. Ann’s Church, Sands and Washington streets, Brooklyn, to make room for the East River Bridge landing and roadway. Away off, nearly 1000 miles distant, it roused the queerest reminiscences, which I feel to put down here. St. Ann’s was twined with many memories of youth to me. I think the church was built about 1824, the tune when I (a little child of six years) was first taken to live in Brooklyn, and I remember it so well then and for long years afterwards. It was a stately building with its broad grounds and grass, and the aristocratic congregation, and the good clergyman, Mr. Mcllvaine (afterwards bishop of Ohio), and the long edifice for Sunday-school (I had a pupil’s desk there), and the fine gardens and many big willow and elm trees in the neighborhood.
From St. Ann’s started, over 50 years ago, a strange and solemn military funeral, — of the officers and sailors killed by the explosion of the steamer Fulton at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I remember well the impressive services and the dead-march of the band (moving me even then to tears), and the led horses and officers’ trappings in the procession, and the black-draped flags, ‘and the old sailors, and the salutes over the grave in the ancient cemetery in Fulton Street just below Tillary (now all built over by solid blocks of houses and busy stores). I was at school at the time of the explosion and heard the rumble which jarred half the city.
Nor was St. Ann’s (Episcopal) the only church bequeathing Old Brooklyn reminiscences. Just opposite, within a stone’s throw, on Sands Street, with a high range of steps, stood the main Methodist church, always drawing full congregations (always active, singing and praying in earnest), and the scene of the powerful revivals of those days (often continued for a week night and day without intermission). This latter was the favorite scene of the labors of John N. Maffit, the famous preacher of his denomination. It was a famous church for pretty girls.
The history of those two churches would be a history of Brooklyn and of a main part of its families for the earlier half of the nineteenth century.
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