St. Peter’s Church Chelsea’s real claim to the public’s heart is its close association with Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known to modern readers as “The Night Before Christmas.”
NEW YORK — What was stirring were not creatures.
It was worse. Much worse. The soft patting sounds that the Rev. Stephen Harding and I heard inside St. Peter’s Church Chelsea — the “Christmas Church” that owes its existence to Clement Clarke Moore — came from rainwater. It percolated through the tin-and-timber roof and the lath-and-plaster Gothic ceiling vaults, dripping down to the balcony floor.
St. Peter’s needs a lot of help; about $15 million worth, Harding estimates.
In that respect, it is like many mainstream houses of worship used by congregations that are now only a fraction of their original size.
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Few of those, however, are as closely tied to their neighborhoods as St. Peter’s is to Chelsea. Even today, its illuminated tower clock is as prominent in the streetscape as a harvest moon, glimpsed through treetops over the row houses nestled around it.
Consecrated in 1838, St. Peter’s is one of the oldest Gothic Revival churches in New York. Today, it is home to an Episcopal body founded in 1831, which Harding serves as interim pastor, and to the Chelsea Community Church, a nondenominational body founded in 1975.
But its real claim to the public’s heart is its close association with Moore, author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known to modern readers as “The Night Before Christmas.” He sold the land from his family’s Chelsea estate to the embryonic parish for $1. He is believed to have designed a Greek Revival structure, now the rectory, that served as a chapel from 1832 to 1838. He was a church warden. He played the Henry Erben organ. And he is memorialized in the baptistery.
Chelsea — and the church — fell on hard times in the 20th century. The building was closed from 1941 to 1942 because it was unsafe. By 1990, it had once again reached a perilous state, as the lime-and-sand mortar washed out from the masonry walls. The tower began to split.
William Stivale, a leading building conservator, devised repairs that involved strapping high-tension steel cables around the tower, stitching stones together with stainless-steel rods and repointing the structure with new mortar.
Since then, little else has been done. Neither St. Peter’s nor the Community Church is in a position to raise $15 million from within their congregations.
But Harding has reason for cheer this Christmas season.
Robert Bennett, a founding executive of Liberty Media, and his wife, Deborah, a lawyer, have given $1 million to the church’s capital campaign and pledged $500,000 as a one-to-one challenge grant. Other donors have met the pledge up to $300,000, Harding said.
Though the Bennetts now live in Parker, Colo., they lived in Chelsea in the 1980s. “We liked St. Peter’s because of its charm and historical significance,” Robert Bennett recalled, in an email. “We were warmly welcomed by the congregation of the Chelsea Community Church.”
They were married there in 1985.
Last December, on a visit to New York, they attended a carol service in the church. “We saw that the building had deteriorated significantly over the years,” Robert Bennett wrote, “and decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of our marriage there with a leadership gift.”
Their gift has allowed work to begin on the crucial jobs of installing new zinc-coated aluminum roofing and repairing the sill plates.
Of the gashes among the curved ribs of the ceiling, Stivale said: “That is a great concern, but to fix it now just wouldn’t make sense if you don’t stop the water from coming in or the roof trusses from moving.”
When Harding dares to dream of a watertight church, he can hear the Erben and Frank Roosevelt organs playing sonorously again. He can see the “Valiant Woman” stained-glass window by Tiffany sparkling anew, without an alarming bulge in it.
He can even picture a rood screen tracing a delicate Gothic line between the pews and the altar. St. Peter’s oak screen, installed in 1913, was sold years ago to a church in California, Harding said.
“I’d love to get it back,” he said. “I’m told we could re-create it with 3-D printing.”
But that’s for another Christmas.