Our History 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 1865, 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 — 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, just north of 45th St. and close to bustling Grand Central Terminal. Though it was described in King’s Handbook of New York City (1892) as “one of the fashionable shrines of the city,” CHR also won a reputation for benevolence. As early as 1890 the church opened a soup kitchen for the poor, and during the desolate winters of 1915 and 1916 it was known nationwide for providing meals, shelter, and job referrals to the needy.
By the 1920s, as office buildings and retailers (Cartier, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman) had overtaken Midtown, the church found itself competing with neighboring St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew in what was no longer a residential neighborhood. Fortunately for Heavenly Rest, a dynamic young rector, the Rev. Dr. Henry Darlington, led the church to its bold next move. He negotiated the purchase of a new site on East 90th Street in November 1924, sold to us by the widow of industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who lived in her mansion across 90th Street (now the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum). Darlington also 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).
The two congregations shared worship space on 89th Street until the new site was completed on Easter Day, March 31, 1929 — only a few months before a massive stock market crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression. Heavenly Rest under Dr. Darlington’s leadership was a nationally known church celebrating five services every Sunday; Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was among its congregation. Darlington’s sermons became renowned for their controversial take on political and social questions of the turbulent Depression-era 1930s and wartime ‘40s. Under subsequent rectors, the musical and cultural life of the church blossomed, even in an era (the 1960s and ‘70s) of growing skepticism about religion in society. Responding to social change, the church developed many of its social activism, community outreach, and ministry programs, which continue to this day. 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.
Only the tenth rector in Heavenly Rest’s long history, the Rev. Matthew F. Heyd arrived in June 2013, having previously served as a priest at Trinity Church down on Wall Street.
Our Landmark Building The architectural gem that houses Heavenly Rest is perhaps our most glorious asset. An estimated 15,000 annual visitors (besides those who come for worship or school business) may enter Heavenly Rest to pray, meditate, or simply admire our architecture. Our doors stand open to the public every day from 10am to 6pm. The towering design of the limestone-clad church is Gothic in inspiration, but a strikingly modern interpretation: Its pointed arches echo the vertical energy of skyscraper Manhattan, distinctively informed with a streamlined Art Deco aesthetic. Inside, the two styles combine to create a powerful, reverent interior space in which — thanks to modern engineering — every part of the church is visible to all who enter the church. The focus of the interior is the altar, with a simple yet soaring carved reredos featuring a massive empty cross surmounted by the risen Christ. This serene, austere setting is sparingly adorned with meaningful symbols, from the metal grapevines of the glass narthex doors (symbolizing Christ as the true vine) to the Baptistery’s enameled mosaics of flowing waters (symbolizing the renewal of life through the power of God’s Holy Spirit). In the chancel, the choir stalls’ polychrome carvings of Tudor roses and Scottish thistles symbolize the roots of the Episcopal Church in America, while the vaulted ceiling is painted with stars to represent Heaven.
Thanks to our low-rise neighbors, sunlight still illuminates our glorious stained-glass windows, created in an Art & Crafts style by the famous English glassworks Whitefriars Ltd. Those on the north and south sides of the nave present the principal events of the Christian year; a rose window glows above the reredos, while a tall arched West Window pours in jewel-toned light over the church entrance. Next to the nave, the Chapel of the Beloved Disciple displays important memorial tablets moved from that congregation’s earlier building. Its Spanish-inspired decoration lends a sense of coziness, and color, to this smaller worship space. Stenciled ceiling beams and walls (note the fleurs-de-lis, a symbol of Mary and the Holy Trinity) are complemented by a stone reredos faced with enameled mosaics bearing the image of Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John, the Beloved Disciple.