Appropriate for a church in Times Square, Saint Luke’s began its life dramatically—with the police called! The church had its origins as a German Reformed mission led by William Drees. In 1850 Pastor Drees had a disagreement with the church council who then fired him. Refusing to accept this, he arrived to conduct the Sunday service only to find someone else preaching. Drees demanded that the preacher vacate the pulpit and, in the ensuing commotion, the police forcefully expelled him. His supporters, in turn, left and with him formed Saint Luke’s. In 1852 Pastor Drees severed his association with the Reformed Church; the following year Saint Luke’s became Lutheran.
The tiny congregation, composed primarily of farmers, artisans, and small businessmen, struggled during their early years. Pastor Drees lived on the meager collections (the first offering garnered 11 cents) and on the generosity of individual members. But when German immigration resumed after the Civil War, the congregation grew tremendously. At their height in the last decades of the 19th century, they counted some 3,000 members and worshiped in a former Presbyterian church on 42nd St. that could seat 1,500 people.
In the opening years of the 20th century, West 42nd Street changed rapidly. Theaters, entertainment venues, and bars moved in, and the congregation realized that it would have to move to prosper. They could have followed the example of many other churches and relocated to more residential sections of the city, but they chose to stay in the Times Square area. Second generation congregants were moving from Hell’s Kitchen in large numbers, and church leaders hoped that locating the new building near the Times Square transit hub would enable the far-flung members to remain connected to the congregation.
After years of trying to sell the 42nd Street building and find an appropriate property, in 1923 the congregation moved to its current location on West 46th Street. There they erected a building that reflected a dual emphasis on worship and community. The church included a beautiful worship space appropriate for a now much-smaller congregation, and an extensive parish house with meeting rooms and recreational spaces that would ultimately be used extensively for its broadening mission.
When Saint Luke’s moved to 46th Street it was a German-speaking congregation still fighting about the use of English in its worship. Its mission was focused primarily on the needs of its far-flung members and of the broader Lutheran community.
But over the course of 100 years, Saint Luke’s transformed into to a diverse congregation—at one point 28 nationalities were represented in its Sunday School—addressing the complex spiritual, material, and social needs of its equally diverse neighborhood. The West 46th Street congregation was never large and, indeed their numbers decreased as Hell’s Kitchen declined, but the small core tackled the problems of the day with an energy that belied its size.
World War II
During World War II Saint Luke’s was the site of the Lutheran Service Center for the East Coast. Here, from 1942 to 1945, some 5,500 military personnel were offered a warm welcome regardless of color or creed. Saint Luke’s was not just a space for relaxation. The congregation tried to recreate the normal church life the men and women had just left, with worship, activities, and meals designed specifically for service members.
Beginning in the postwar years, Saint Luke’s reached out to Hell’s Kitchen not only for souls but also to address the social and material problems of the neighborhood. By the mid-20th century most members lived outside the neighborhood. Yet the congregation was passionate about helping the Hell’s Kitchen community.
Acting on Pastor Albert Neibacher’s exhortation that “if the church is to be a vital organism for Christ, she must be ready at all times to serve the needs of the whole man,” the congregation attacked problems as they arose and so became a pioneer in modern urban ministry. During the housing crisis of the late-1940s—and for the rest of the century—the congregation advocated for affordable housing and neighborhood preservation. Concerned with rising juvenile crime in the 1950s, they opened their facilities to afterschool programs, scouting, and boys/girls clubs. As the neighborhood became the home of Hispanic immigrants, it hosted a program that provided immigration counseling as well as ESL and GED courses. When neighborhood flight in the 1960s and 1970s left many elderly poor living lonely lives in SROs, Saint Luke’s opened the first senior center in the area. The congregation set up a clothing bank, and in 1977 inaugurated a soup kitchen that remains central to the church’s mission to this day. The church also reached out to neighborhood businesses as well. During the last decades of the 20th century, it worked to revitalize Restaurant Row and fight the scourge of drugs and prostitution on the block.
Divine worship, music, quality preaching, learning, and fellowship have also been features of the congregation. In particular, the first decades of the 21st century have been marked by a focus on the experience of the church family, with increased social activities, including caroling and off-site retreats. Given our position in the Theater District, and with many church members coming from the performing arts community, Saint Luke’s also established Off-Broadway theater programming in its former parish hall which continues to this day.
Today, the definition of Saint Luke’s neighborhood has changed as the internet enables the congregation to connect with people around the country with its live-streamed service. But grounded in deep faith, their mission remains as Pastor Neibacher articulated some 70 years ago: “to be ready at all times to serve the needs of the whole individual.”