Kyrkorna Foto: Svenska kyrkan New York
Had the Swedish Church in New York been in a southern Swedish village instead, you would have thought it the highest medieval tower in town.
Three Questions About the Building
Many visitors ask about the fantastic building that has been the Swedish Church in New York since 1978. Often they are curious about the age and history of the location. The answer that is usually given to the most common question is that the building was built during the 1870’s. Another answer is that during its first 50 years, the building was a private residence. A third answer is that the building was renovated in the 1920’s with money donated by a man, millionaire James Talcott. None of these answers are correct. First of all, the building was not built during the 1870’s. Secondly, it was never a private residence. Thirdly, there was no man during the 1920’s who donated any money. However, there was a woman. The forgotten lady is worthy of finally being recognized. For it is thanks to her that the building exists.
The Woman Who Paid
Mrs. Henrietta E. Francis Talcott was a generous New Yorker in the early 1900’s. In 1920 she donated $250,000 to the New York Bible Society. They received the funds to build their own building. It was an enormous sum of money in the early 1920’s.
Who Was She?
All her life Henrietta E. Francis Talcott was interested in theology. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and she grew up in Bridgehampton on Long Island. During her adult life she belonged to New York’s richest society circle, which was a prerequisite for her large donations. For a rich woman great fortune was a way to be a participant in high society life. It was, of course, a period when women were restrained from having significant leadership positions. She donated $100,000 to Barnard College for a professorship in bible studies. At the residence on 54th Street she was the lady of the house and mother of four children. In 1920, when she donated money to the New York Bible Society to build a building, she did so in memory of her husband, millionaire James Talcott. He died in 1916 and despite what was said, it was not he who donated the money. It was she. Mrs. Talcott herself died unexpectedly of a heart attack in December of 1921. She was 79 years old. It is unclear if she managed to see the building completed. The year she died, the building was ready to be occupied. By then it had taken over a year to prepare.
The Building at 48th Street
The Building Received a Silver Medal
It was designed by architect Wilfred E. Anthony (1878-1948). The building was awarded a silver medal: the Fifth Avenue Association gave him second prize in the Best New Building category of 1921 in the Fifth Avenue area. That year there were many candidates up for recognition: after World War I, Manhattan transformed into a huge construction site and in the 1920’s the housing rush was in full speed. Otherwise Anthony mainly designed Catholic Church buildings; an example in Manhattan is Saint Catherine’s of Siena’s Dominican Dome Church on 67th Street. Outside of New York he designed Duns Scotus College in Detroit, among other projects.
Port in New Jersey
The Seamen’s Church
It was actually a new building that was constructed with Mrs. Talcott’s money. The assignment that the building should be a 1870’s style palace, no doubt, gets confused with the fact that the Swedish Evangelical Mission (EFS, a mission movement within the Church of Sweden) began services for seamen in New York on the first Sunday in Advent in 1873.
The location was the German-Scandinavian immigrant’s home chapel. At the altar stood Reverend John Swärd. He had just been sent over from Sweden. A portion of church attendees are still “sea people”. Due to short docking times, church personnel go to the harbors and meet the seamen onboard approximately three times a week.
Ancestry From the 1600’s
Already starting in the 1600’s Swedish services were being celebrated on the North American East coast. The Swedish Church’s first bishop for the North American congregation was Jesper Swedberg (1653–1735). At the same time he was bishop for North America he was also the bishop for Skara, Sweden. He wrote many letters to the Swedish congregation in North America, but he never came over the Atlantic. Today the congregations of Church of Sweden Abroad are administered by the Visby diocese.
A Warm Embrace
The building Henrietta E. Talcott funded was bought by the Church of Sweden Abroad in 1978. Amidst the office skyscrapers and exclusive boutiques, the Swedish Church serves as a warm embrace. Thousands and thousands of people “come home” to the church every year.
The Reading Room and Café
Reading Room and Prayer Corner
The ground floor of the Swedish Church is a reading room, kitchen and hall. In the hall there’s a memorial plaque. It was erected in memory of Mr. James Talcott. Mrs. Talcott is not mentioned. The first thing you notice when you enter the reading room is the prayer corner. It is there for mediation and contemplation. Many people leave stones at the altar. The corner was established after news of the terror attacks on the London subway reached New York, July 7, 2005. Raoul Wallenberg’s memorial plaque is also here. The prayer corner has been described as a quiet Swedish forest, the sheltered place many New York Swedes experience in themselves. The reading room still has inscriptions from the 1920’s. A two-story high bay with stained glass windows allow in the light. The architect was inspired by old English estates. Oak beams support a gallery with elegant banisters. On the beams are citations from the Bible.
The Prayer Corner
Light and Airy
Apart from the roof terrace, the upper floors consist of personal residences. Above the reading room are the chapel and children’s room. Next to the children’s room is the sacristy, a room for prayer and confession. The old fashion atmosphere reminds you that the Swedish Church first started having services in America in the 1600’s. The leather chairs are said to be from the 30 Years War days. Before you go into the main chapel you go through the foyer. It has a low wood ceiling. The simple design of the foyer speaks to the need for an empty space that life in New York can awaken. The chapel is light and airy like a whitewashed parish church in the Swedish countryside.
When the building was just opened, the room was called the Auditorium and there was a working fireplace on the Eastern wall. The stenciled-painted beamed ceiling has been preserved from that time. The wooden ceiling was installed when the room became the chapel in 1978. The organ is from 1986 and was made by organ builder Walter Thür in Thorshälla.
The Three Windows
The chapel is dominated by its most beautiful work of art — the three windows. They blend stained glass with stone sculpture in a technique known as “masverk.”
The windows have been described as a kind of triptych:
• The middle window is the Window of Love. It is love in fellowship. This is the largest of the three windows.
• The Western window is the Window of Creativity. Every Person is a co-creator with God. Through creativity God expresses his perpetual eternal creation.
• The Eastern window is the Window of Vulnerability. Without vulnerability there is no light in the other windows.
New York clamors and glitters through these three windows. Every person is a window as she is illuminated by light from beyond herself. The windows are like the different dimensions of humanity.
The Church Organ
When bread and wine are distributed in the chapel, New York and Sweden meet, different cultures and life-styles come together. In such a meeting place growth and maturity thrive. The windows tell of how God’s light shines through every person. In New York God shows many of His gifts: artistry, trade, science, spirituality and much, much more. The Swedish Church in New York is a place where you are enticed by others experiences and together create new ones. The building is fantastic — because people are fantastic.