‘Uncovering Parish Histories’ delves into slave history, racial injustice in Long Island diocese’s Episcopal churches

By Caleb Galaraga
Posted Jun 23, 2023

A photo of a painting of the original Zion Episcopal Church building in Queens, New York. Photo: Courtesy of the Diocese of Long Island

[Episcopal News Service] Uncovering Parish Histories is an antiracism project of the Diocese of Long Island that supports and encourages clergy and lay volunteers to investigate their parishes’ history of involvement in slavery and the slavery economy. The research project is one of several initiatives the diocese is undertaking to work toward Becoming Beloved Community, The Episcopal Church’s long-term commitment to racial reconciliation and justice.

“We’re taking an honest look at the legacy of slavery and the oppression of people of color in our diocese,” Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano said in a statement to Episcopal News Service.

“We’re doing what we can to grapple with that history, including investing in reparations,” he said. “I am encouraged by parishes and dioceses across the country engaged in similar work, as it’s an essential component of the world God wants for God’s children.”

In the fall of 2021, Provenzano approved the creation of Uncovering Parish Histories and appointed the Rev. Craig Townsend to a three-year term as part-time historian-in-residence. Bryan Clarke, an Episcopalian and librarian who works for the Queens Public Library, is the project’s assistant researcher.

When orienting prospective researchers – including parishioners, high school students, community members and retirees – Townsend and Clarke make sure to note that the work ahead is difficult.

“Try to have a team of volunteers working together,” they wrote in a project orientation presentation that’s shown to parishes, “so they can talk to each other about what they’re learning and how they’re feeling about it.”

Uncovering Parish Histories’ researchers consult centuries-old certificates of incorporation, vestry minutes and parish registers – documents that can often reveal an uncomfortable past.

“What I’m trying to do is have people keep their eyes open for the complication,” said Townsend. He emphasized that the goal is to not simply present an early church “full of bad people.”

“It’s not gonna be simple. It’s gonna be complicated,” Townsend said. “And that’s where history is really important.”

He said it’s important to identify those who were complicit in slavery and vestrymen who chose not to enslave anyone. “In that time, that’s a choice. But it’s not a choice people are making publicly,” Townsend said.

Described as a diocese whose people are among the most diverse in the world, the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island is composed of 129 congregations in Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties. “From the Brooklyn Bridge to Montauk Point,” Provenzano said.

“Our call to build the Beloved Community is often anything but convenient, straightforward or simple,” the bishop said in his statement. “It took hundreds of years to build the racist, unjust systems that prevent all of God’s children from flourishing. It will take an unwavering commitment to truth, equity and anti-racism to undo those systems and build ones that honor the dignity in each of us. “

The “old” St. James’ Church in Elmhurst, Queens, is no longer used but still belongs to the church. It was originally built in 1735-36 and has been expanded and renovated many times since. St. James bills the building as the city’s oldest surviving Anglican structure. Photo: Tdorante10/Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

In late February, five churches participating in the project presented their first public report via Zoom, including Zion Episcopal Church in Queens, St. Stephen and St. Martin’s Church and St. George’s Church in Brooklyn, St. John’s in Cold Spring Harbor, and St. Mark’s Islip in Suffolk.

Several churches in the diocese, including St. John’s, had begun research of their own prior to the start of Uncovering Parish Histories. The Very Rev. Gideon Pollach, rector of St. John’s, told ENS of a notable experience in 2016 when he was informed of a colloquially called “slave cemetery” on church grounds shortly after arriving in Cold Spring Harbor.

Pollach and parish curate the Rev. Mary Beth Mill-Curran began working with Townsend in September 2021 and were among those who presented in February.

Townsend spoke to ENS after the first official report of Uncovering Parish Histories was released at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights, where he currently serves part time as associate for faith formation.

“I didn’t set out to look at issues of racial justice,” Townsend said, who is white but became an expert on the history of Black Episcopalians after he published “Faith in Their Own Color” in 2005. The book focused on the struggle of St. Philip’s Church in Harlem, the first African American Episcopal Church in New York, to be fully accepted by its diocese. It was a “church that the diocese [of New York] was not fully embracing clearly because it’s a Black church and it’s an otherwise white denomination,” he told ENS.

In the early 2000s, while working on his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, Townsend was looking for a church “in a strange situation” as a possible subject. He read about the 1834 anti-abolitionist riots in New York in the journal Anglican and Episcopal History, which noted that St. Philip’s was not in union with the diocese, an arrangement he described as “anomalous.”

“The next thing I know I’m digging into it,” Townsend said. “But what I’m writing about is the intersections and interactions of Black and white Episcopalians.”

The idea for Uncovering Parish Histories was born in 2020, after Townsend and six students from Saint Ann’s School compiled a list of parishioners and church leaders of Saint Ann’s church – which was founded in 1784 – who profited from slavery. After the student presented their report to parish leaders in May 2021, he reached out to the diocese to see if a similar initiative existed for other parishes. He was told there were none but was asked to write a job proposal.

Townsend currently works with 10 parishes from the diocese, each at a different stage of historical research. Like the church leaders who presented in February, researchers hold diverse sentiments about their discoveries.

“It did not diminish the church in any way,” Christina Schonfeld told ENS, when she and fellow researchers from Zion discovered that 12 out of 17 signatories of the church’s charter enslaved a human being.

The cover of St. Ann’s first parish register, where record-keeping began in 1784. The parish is now St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights New York. Photo: Courtesy of the Diocese of Long Island

She said the church’s past shows it has “good parts and flaws,” and uncovering them contributed to its fullness. Likening it to personal faith, she said it is important to bring one’s full self to the table to have a “touching spiritual conversation” on issues.

Marguerite LeBron, also a Zion member, however, said that discovering Zion’s founder Wynan Van Zandt had four slaves “was very disturbing” and a “hard thing to think about.” The enslaved people were given as a wedding gift to Van Zandt and his wife Mary Allaire by Allaire’s father.

Townsend is working with Penny Grinage, a lifelong member of St. Stephen and St. Martin’s Church in Brooklyn, to decipher the original vestry register of St. Stephen’s church, which was founded in 1868 and merged with St. Martin’s in 1954. She’s in the process of discovering the background of its original organizers. Grinage is also the chairperson of the diocese’s reparations committee.

“Uncovering Parish Histories is also a form of reparations,” Grinage said. “It is truth-telling no matter how ugly or painful or the desire to keep full history hidden.” She later told ENS that she wants parishioners, especially young people, to know the history of her church.

In June 2006, the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church adopted a resolution urging every diocese to document how it was complicit and benefited from the institution of slavery.

A little over a decade later, Becoming Beloved Community became a key emphasis of The Episcopal Church. Truth-telling, one of its pillars, is foundational to racial reconciliation and involves discussing the church’s “racial composition and complicity in systems of racial justice and injustice – past and present.”

“We can’t move forward to our future if we don’t tell the story of our past,” said the Rev. Ronald Byrd, The Episcopal Church missioner for African descent ministries. He described the Long Island diocese’s Uncovering Parish Histories project as “significant and important.”

“My hope is that more and more dioceses will do this work,” Byrd added.

-Caleb Galaraga is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, Rappler and The Algemeiner Journal.