Born out of the ashes of the Civil War, the Church of the Heavenly Rest has been a vital voice in the New York conversation since 1868, from its original Midtown site to its current landmark building on the Upper East Side facing Central Park.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Shaw Howland — rector of New York City’s Church of the Holy Apostles — and his associate, the Rev. Thomas K. Conrad, led the first services at the Rutgers Female Institute on 42nd St. and 5th Avenue. On May 18, 1868, the church was formally established as the Church of the Heavenly Rest. Construction commenced on a church building at 551 Fifth Avenue, in what was then a residential area, just north of 45th St. and close to bustling Grand Central Terminal. Described in King’s Handbook of New York City (1892) as “one of the fashionable shrines of the city,” CHR also won a reputation for benevolence. Under its second rector, the Rev. David Parker Morgan (rector 1887-1907), the church founded a chapel in the tenements of East Midtown to minister to working-class families. During the desolate winters of 1915 and 1916 it was known nationwide for providing meals, shelter, and job referrals to the needy.
In the early 1900s, however, as Grand Central Terminal expanded and office buildings and retailers (Cartier, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman) overtook Midtown, the church found itself with a shrinking congregation in what was no longer a residential neighborhood. Under the leadership of the Rev. Herbert Shipman (rector 1907-1921) and his successor the Rev. Dr. Henry Darlington (rector 1921-1950), the church set its sights on the increasingly fashionable Upper East Side, where many of its parishioners already lived. In October 1924 Darlington negotiated a merger with the nearby Church of the Beloved Disciple, at 65 East 89th Street (now the Roman Catholic Church of St Thomas More), and the next month, in November 1924, he sealed a deal to purchase a site on Fifth Avenue at East 90th Street from the widow of industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who lived in her mansion across 90th Street (now the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum).
The two congregations shared worship space on 89th Street until the new site was completed on Easter Day, March 31, 1929 — only a few months before a massive stock market crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression. Heavenly Rest under Dr. Darlington’s leadership was a nationally known church celebrating five services every Sunday; Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was among its congregation. Darlington’s sermons became renowned for their controversial take on political and social questions of the turbulent Depression-era 1930s and wartime ‘40s. Under subsequent rectors, the musical and cultural life of the church blossomed, even in an era (the 1960s and ‘70s) of growing skepticism about religion in society. Responding to social change, the church developed many of its social activism, community outreach, and ministry programs, which continue to this day. Tragedy struck on the night of August 7, 1993, as fire broke out in the chancel of the church. The blaze destroyed the organ console, choir stalls, and other woodwork, but thanks to heroic fire crews, the stained-glass windows survived intact. It took a year of dogged restoration to repair the church interior and the organ. two half-melted stone arches in the chancel still await restoration.
Only the tenth rector in Heavenly Rest’s long history, the Rev. Matthew F. Heyd arrived in June 2013, having previously served as a priest at Trinity Church down on Wall Street.
Our Landmark Building The architectural gem that houses Heavenly Rest is perhaps our most glorious asset. An estimated 15,000 annual visitors (besides those who come for worship or school business) may enter Heavenly Rest to pray, meditate, or simply admire our architecture. Our doors stand open to the public every day from 10am to 6pm. The towering design of the limestone-clad church is Gothic in inspiration, but a strikingly modern interpretation: Its pointed arches echo the vertical energy of skyscraper Manhattan, distinctively informed with a streamlined Art Deco aesthetic. Inside, the two styles combine to create a powerful, reverent interior space in which — thanks to modern engineering — every part of the church is visible to all who enter the church. The focus of the interior is the altar, with a simple yet soaring carved reredos featuring a massive empty cross surmounted by the risen Christ. This serene, austere setting is sparingly adorned with meaningful symbols, from the metal grapevines of the glass narthex doors (symbolizing Christ as the true vine) to the Baptistery’s enameled mosaics of flowing waters (symbolizing the renewal of life through the power of God’s Holy Spirit). In the chancel, the choir stalls’ polychrome carvings of Tudor roses and Scottish thistles symbolize the roots of the Episcopal Church in America, while the vaulted ceiling is painted with stars to represent Heaven.
Thanks to our low-rise neighbors, sunlight still illuminates our glorious stained-glass windows, created in an Art & Crafts style by the famous English glassworks Whitefriars Ltd. Those on the north and south sides of the nave present the principal events of the Christian year; a rose window glows above the reredos, while a tall arched West Window pours in jewel-toned light over the church entrance. Next to the nave, the Chapel of the Beloved Disciple displays important memorial tablets moved from that congregation’s earlier building. Its Spanish-inspired decoration lends a sense of coziness, and color, to this smaller worship space. Stenciled ceiling beams and walls (note the fleurs-de-lis, a symbol of Mary and the Holy Trinity) are complemented by a stone reredos faced with enameled mosaics bearing the image of Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John, the Beloved Disciple.