Like most Manhattan neighborhoods, Chelsea changes constantly. One of the mainstays of the neighborhood, however, has always been St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, which has been in its current building at 346 W. 20th St. since 1838.
The church, one of two Episcopal churches in the neighborhood (Holy Apostles on 9th Avenue and 28th Street is the other one), is also a link to the founder of Chelsea. Clement Clark Moore, whose “Chelsea” estate gave the neighborhood its name and who is best known for writing “The Night Before Christmas,” was one of several founders of the church in the early 1830s.
According to the church’s website, “Moore, who also donated much of the construction costs, became an early warden, vestryman and musician at St. Peter’s.”
As old as the church’s Gothic Revival building itself is, it isn’t the oldest feature on the grounds. The wrought iron fence and gates in front of the building date to 1790, according to the church. They were originally part of St. Paul’s Chapel, near the World Trade Center, and were given to the church by Trinity Church Parish in 1846.
The church has five Tiffany glass windows and seven J&R Lamb Studios windows. In addition, it contains an interesting three-panel mural painted in the aftermath of World War II, “Our Lord Blessing a Soldier and a Sailor,” by local resident and wartime Col. Ted Witonski.
Another interesting feature of the church is the 100-foot-tall clock and bell tower, which was one of the tallest structures in Manhattan when the church was consecrated in 1838. The clock was installed in 1888, and it kept time continuously until 1949, when one of its hands broke loose.
In addition to religious services, St. Peter’s hosts a variety of groups, from a local Girl Scout troupe to the Pictorial Photographers of America to Chelsea for Peace. It also sponsors a food pantry that provides bags of groceries to approximately 1,800 people each month. The church’s Music in Chelsea concert series, featuring classical music, jazz, folk and more, raises money the food pantry.
Since 1975, the church has also hosted the Chelsea Community Church, which its website describes as an “inclusive, independent, lay-led and non-denomination Christian community.” This writer and his wife have gone every year, with a succession of cats, to the church’s Blessing of the Animals service, held every October. The church meets every Sunday at noon, after St. Peter’s holds its service.
Since 1991, the Parish House for St. Peter’s, next to the main church building, has hosted the Atlantic Theater Company. Since that time, according to the theater company’s website, it has hosted more than 125 plays at the location, known as the Linda Gross Theater. In 2012. Atlantic completed an $8.6 million renovation of the space.