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. Described in King’s Handbook of New York City (1892) as “one of the fashionable shrines of the city,” Heavenly Rest 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 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 like Cartier and Saks Fifth Avenue overtook Midtown, the church found itself 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 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 in November 1924, he purchased a site on Fifth Avenue at East 90th Street from the widow of industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who lived in her mansion across the street (now the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum).
The new site was completed on Easter Day, March 31, 1929 — only a few months before the nation was plunged into the Great Depression. Under Dr. Darlington’s leadership, Heavenly Rest was celebrated five services every Sunday, and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was among its congregation. 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.