Saint Luke’s began as a neighborhood congregation serving the German immigrant community on the West Side, most of whom lived near the church. It was not only a worship space—the center of pastoral ministry—but also a community center where new immigrants could socialize while receiving help with employment, education, and general integration into their new surroundings.
By the time Saint Luke’s moved to 46th St., the connection between the neighborhood and the church had weakened. Second-generation Lukans had moved out of Hell’s Kitchen to northern neighborhoods, other boroughs, and the suburbs. Consequently, the congregation’s primary focus was on maintaining their widely dispersed membership. Involvement with Hell’s Kitchen centered on evangelization.
Outreach to the community broadened following the installation in 1936 of Pastor Albert Neibacher, who had a strong interest in youth ministry. Addressing the limited recreational opportunities young people had in Hell’s Kitchen, he developed a Community House Program, opening the gymnasium for supervised recreational activities to the boys and girls clubs he established in late 1937.
Beginning in the post-war years, Saint Luke’s dramatically extended its mission. Pastor Neibacher acknowledged that for decades the church “was in the community but not related to it.” He bluntly stated that the future of the neighborhood was the future of Saint Luke’s, and under his direction the church reached out to the broader community, not only for souls but also to address the complex problems of Hell’s Kitchen.
In so doing, Saint Luke’s became a pioneer of modern inner-city ministry. Pr. Neibacher often said that “there was no textbook for what we did,” and so the congregation tackled problems as they arose. Beginning in the late 1940s and throughout the rest of the century, the congregation advocated for housing preservation and the creation of affordable housing, while developers pushed zoning changes to permit more commercial development. In the 1950s, as youth crime and gang violence exploded while city schools struggled, Saint Luke’s established recreational and tutorial programs for young people. In the 1960s and 1970s, when high crime and deteriorating housing led to flight from the neighborhood, Saint Luke’s expanded its programs to help those left behind—immigrants (largely Hispanic) and the elderly living in SROs. Later it addressed growing homelessness, and established a Clothing Bank and the Soup Kitchen that is central to its mission today.
Because food insecurity has remained an intractable problem, the Soup Kitchen program has become an anchor outreach ministry for the congregation right up to the present. Over time, new funding partnerships have been developed. Numerous volunteers from local corporations and our neighborhood have devoted their time to the Soup Kitchen, and formed deep connections in the process. In the Fall of 2023, midtown Manhattan saw an influx of refugees from Central and South America. Soup Kitchen attendance swelled to record numbers, with many women and children coming. Local hotels and restaurants joined forces with Saint Luke’s so that all could be fed.
Addressing Juvenile Crime & the Problems of Young People
In the 1950s, youth crime and street-gang violence exploded in Hell’s Kitchen as the entrenched Irish gangs clashed with gangs of newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants. The gang wars culminated in the Capeman murders in 1959 when, in the park opposite Saint Clement’s Episcopal Church, two innocent teenagers were murdered by members of a Puerto Rican gang who had mistaken them for rivals.
In response to increasing juvenile crime, Saint Luke’s opened its facilities and established a variety of programs designed to keep neighborhood youth off the streets. The congregation formed basketball teams and expanded their gymnasium programs with late afternoon and evening activities under the supervision of volunteers and a paid director. The warmer months brought weekly movies as well as “Summer at Saint Luke’s” programs led by young volunteers from the congregation, which engaged neighborhood young people in sports, games, arts and crafts, and cooking classes. In 1964 the program went year-round as OPEN HOUSE and TEEN OPEN HOUSE. The congregation also partnered with several neighborhood organizations to sponsor a camping program for 40 children.
During the decade, city budget cuts severely impacted public schools. So, when a Sunday School teacher noticed that her students had problems reading, Saint Luke’s established tutorial programs, with a large corps of young Lukans offering help in elementary school and junior high subjects, as well as one-on-one remedial reading for the younger students.
The congregation’s efforts had an impact. Pastor Neibacher boasted that no one involved in Saint Luke’s programs was involved in gangs.
Helping Those Left Behind: Immigrants & the Elderly
Project FIND Monthly Schedule, September 1979
Project FIND Coffeehouse
As crime rose and zoning regulations encouraged commercial development, Hell’s Kitchen began a decline that would continue through the 1980s. The neighborhood had some of the worst housing in New York City. Once-residential streets became lined with garages, commercial establishments, and boarded up tenements. Prostitution and drug addiction increased. Population declined dramatically, from some 58,000 in 1950 to some 38,000 in 1970. Those who could, fled, leaving behind immigrants and the elderly poor living is SROs.
To help Hispanic immigrants, Saint Luke’s opened its doors to UNIVERSIDAD DE TRABAJADORES, a volunteer organization that offered classes in English and in a variety of other subjects needed to earn a GED. It also provided immigration counseling and chances to socialize. The church even welcomed Spanish AA groups.
Beginning in 1973, Saint Luke’s hosted Project FIND, the first senior center in the area. Using government grants, it offered 200 seniors free weekday meals, snacks, recreation, arts and crafts, and a chance to socialize—in addition to help with financial problems, medical referrals, and housing. The church later assumed responsibility for the program, renaming it “Crossroads at Saint Luke’s.” The congregation also partnered with five other churches in the area to sponsor a coffeehouse on W. 43rd St. where seniors could come for companionship, social activities, and lunch six days a week. A decade later, the congregation established Meals on Heels, offering 150 seniors meals on weekends.
Helping the Homeless & Struggling Populations
In 1977 Saint Luke’s inaugurated its Soup Kitchen, the cornerstone of the congregation’s neighborhood outreach to this day. Initially the kitchen served just soup, but the cook insisted that it be homemade: “After all, this is Restaurant Row.” Neighborhood restaurants often supplemented the meal with food culled from their surpluses—smoked ribs, pasta primavera, fresh French bread, and chocolate mousse cake were among the offerings. “This soup kitchen carries the finest reputation in the city,” one patron said.
All were invited, including drug dealers and prostitutes, as long as they left their antisocial behavior at the door. Patrons were entertained with piano music, and the Soup Kitchen had its own theater-ticket desk, where customers could purchase tickets — usually from Off-Off-Broadway shows — for whatever they could afford.
Eventually the offerings expanded to include entrees, salads, and coffee. In 1993, The Street News, a newspaper put out by the homeless, reviewed the kitchen. The critic applauded the friendly, unconditional welcome and the cordial, efficient service. The food was uniformly tasty. But the Soup Kitchen garnered only 3½ out of 4 spoons because of the coffee. “If you really need a caffeine ‘fix’ it would be more pleasant chewing coffee grinds than braving their potent brew,” the writer opined. See 1993 review
The Soup Kitchen never closed, even in the depths of the COVID pandemic. Currently, Saint Luke’s welcomes some 200 people each serving day. In 2022 it served more than 500 people their Thanksgiving dinner. Patrons can now also take advantage of a mobile shower van that provides toiletries, towels, and underwear.
Friends of Saint Luke
The small congregation—in the late 1970s fewer than 50 voting members—could not afford to finance its social programs alone, so they reached out to the broader community for help. And Lukans had the perfect person to lead them: Pastor Hansen was a master at public relations. The New York Times ran an article about the congregation’s programs that sparked considerable TV and radio coverage and was picked up by regional newspapers throughout the country. CBS featured Saint Luke’s on Look Up and Live, and Pastor Hansen appeared on a segment of the Today Show that was broadcast as far as Brazil and Italy. Danish newspapers carried an article on the congregation’s mission, while German TV ran a segment on the Soup Kitchen at Christmas.
To reach the broader Lutheran community, Pastor Hansen created the Friends of Saint Luke. Well-connected with national and regional church bodies and congregations throughout the Midwest, he would present or send out a filmstrip, Miracle on 46th Street, to explain Saint Luke’s mission and solicit for the fund. Ultimately, he raised several hundred thousand dollars.