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Facing a crumbling building, a New York church navigates transformation and resurrection

Epiphany moved its stained-glass windows, pulpit, lectern, 14th-century baptismal font, and columbarium to its new building. Photo/Church of the Epiphany

By Lauren Anderson-Cripps

The Living Church

The Rev. Matthew Dayton-Welch is becoming rector of the Church of the Epiphany as the New York City parish enters what he calls its “Easter season.”

Having sold its former church building, the 190-year-old parish recently moved down the block to a new home, with more capacity for its day school and outreach ministries, and a bolstered endowment.

Emerging from the grief of saying goodbye to its former building, a complicated building renovation, the disruption of COVID on parish life, and a multi-year rector search, Epiphany is brimming with potential as it enters is newest chapter, Dayton-Welch said.

“There are stories of small neighborhood parishes having a turnaround, but what you’re seeing at Epiphany are the ways in which those Easter seasons play out on a phenomenal scale, with odds and circumstances and, frankly, dollar figures that would terrify most of us,” Dayton-Welch said. “They’re now in their new Easter season. So, I have the humble task of walking the way of resurrection with them.”

Five years ago, Epiphany faced major decisions about its future. Its former building — a Norman Gothic-style, red-brick building with a large tower and prime corner location on the Upper East Side — was too small to accommodate its ministries and inaccessible to those with disabilities; unexpected building repairs were costly to the point of unsustainability.

The church building was also cherished by parishioners, a space where families had baptized children, buried family members, and gathered weekly for the past 80 years of its history.

Epiphany was approached by Weill Cornell Medicine with an offer to purchase the property to develop into a medical-school tower. The resulting $68 million deal allowed the church to simultaneously purchase a larger nearby Presbyterian church for $22.5 million, which it renovated for an additional $41 million.

“The vestry was able to balance the twin responses of grief and hope to the proposal,” said Bishop Jennifer Reddall, who was rector of the parish from 2014 to 2018.

“I remember doing a round of mutual invitation, as each person shared their honest fears and sadness at the loss of a building that had been so holy for so many — and also shared their personal willingness to move forward because they could see the possibilities for the ministry. It was, on everyone’s part, a sacrifice on behalf of the gospel.” she said.

The Rev. Matthew Dayton-Welch, rector of Church of the Epiphany. Photo/Church of the Epiphany

Before that deal reached the table, church members had been primed to consider the possibility of a building sale. Congregation-led discernment discussions centered on which elements of the church needed to be nurtured and stewarded, and which elements could be sacrificed for the sake of the larger mission.

“I think that really helped guide the parish to understand that it was the building that, in the end, we were willing to leave behind,” said senior warden Christian Vanderbrouk.

More changes soon came for the parish. At the same meeting in which vestry members decided to sell the building, they learned Reddall was a finalist for bishop of the Diocese of Arizona.

Reddall was ultimately elected in October 2018, and the Rev. Ray Cole stepped in as interim at Epiphany for the next four years.

Reddall “was a beloved rector and that was an emotional goodbye either way, but knowing we had the building sale coming along too, in a funny way, it made some of those things easier,” Vanderbrouk said. “We had a mindset of change and a mindset of transformation.”

Renovating the 135-year-old Presbyterian church was a massive undertaking. Jan Hus Presbyterian had occupied the space until dwindling numbers prompted the congregation to sell the building to Epiphany.

The church’s new home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Photo/Church of the Epiphany

Creating a space that would meet Epiphany’s needs required both structural and cosmetic changes.

About a month into the project, COVID-19 not only disrupted Epiphany’s worship but also paused construction, elongating the timeline and driving up costs. Adding to the complexity, a river was discovered underneath the building early on in the construction.

“In order to accommodate it, we effectively raised the floor of the nave a bit so we could build above the river rather than building a complicated bathtub,” Vanderbrouk said.

About halfway through the project, a welding issue set the roof afire.

“I’ll never forget the smell of the roof catching on fire, stepping outside, and seeing the flames coming out. That was a challenging moment for us,” Vanderbrouk said, noting that the fire did not ultimately contribute to significant delays in the project. “With the fire, the flood, the plague, it felt biblical at times.”

Cole, Epiphany’s interim rector, said parishioners stayed focused on the vision and navigated unexpected challenges with charity toward one another.

“Again and again, they rose to the occasion and demonstrated they were able to make the hard decisions,” Cole said. “I think in a project that is as complicated as this, or for any church that’s looking to recast their future in a new or radically redesigned facility, at the foundation, it has to be a matter of mutual respect and humility.”

Epiphany deconsecrated its former building in May 2022 and took occupancy of its new home that summer. The new day school opened to students in the fall.

Vanderbrouk acknowledges the deep emotional repercussions of a church moving to a new building. His children were baptized in the former space.

“It’s bittersweet. We have a lot of great memories there,” he said. “But I also think, what a gift for them that they get to be some of the first children to worship and experience this great new church and help define how we’re all going to worship and flourish in this new property.”

Epiphany now stands in a position to better fulfill its mission in the community, leaders say.

As a result of the real-estate transaction, Epiphany tripled its endowment to eight figures. The new building allows the church to expand its ministries that serve food-insecure neighbors. With seating for 150 in the parish hall, Epiphany is able to expand its long-running Wednesday meal program, and its large commercial kitchen can prepare and package as many as 1,000 meals daily through a partnership with Carter Burden Network’s Senior Luncheon Program.

“They are curating their programs in a way that is more responsive to the community,” Cole said.

Formerly hindered by space limitations, Epiphany’s day school is now spread out across two floors, with five light-filled rooms, a library, a new modern gym, and a rooftop garden, where students grow produce to be served by Epiphany’s meal ministry.

The nave seats 160 in movable chairs that can be reconfigured for various uses. Looking to preserve beloved elements of its former space, the church moved its stained-glass windows, pulpit, lectern, 14th-century baptismal font, and columbarium to the new building. It also commissioned 14 new stained-glass windows, and a new organ is being built for installation in 2024.

“I believe Epiphany is well-positioned to live into the future we imagined,” Reddall said. “Obviously, we couldn’t have anticipated the pandemic or its effects on church membership and attendance. But New York institutions always reinvent themselves, and with their new rector in place, and able to set a course for the future, I’m excited for them. They are certainly in my prayers.”

Now almost a year in the new space, Vanderbrouk said parishioners are adjusting to the rhythms of uprooting and replanting a block away.

“We’re still figuring out, ‘How does parish life adapt to this new building?’” he said.

Helping lead the parish through its next season, Dayton-Welch joined the parish as its 18th rector in early May. He previously served as rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, since 2017.

“When I read Epiphany’s parish profile, I was just in awe of the journey they had been on,” Dayton-Welch said. “A lot of churches … when they have those difficult years, usually there’s a lot of conflict and woundedness that comes from that. Epiphany didn’t have that. What marveled me was their story and the way in which they were committed to keep at it.”

“The search process was full of joy and hope,” Vanderbrouk said. “Being at the end of this building project, with many of the risks and fears behind us, it’s really helped the parish and leaders at Epiphany to shift mindsets to one of abundance and possibility and hope. What better time to call a new rector?”

Dayton-Welch sees his role as helping the church grow into its new space.

“It’s so well-organized, so well-designed, the sanctuary is beautiful, the school is phenomenal,” Dayton-Welch said. “So, I see my job as helping make that space feel lived in and warm. … They don’t have a lot of muscle memory in that space, and they’re sharing it with a lot of different entities. So, getting the congregation to feel like they’re home will be one of my opportunities and challenges, in some ways.”

Dayton-Welch commended parishioners for taking bold action for the sake of the church’s mission.

“They had a chance to go the hospice route and let it be someone else’s problem, but they, in great prayer and holy determination, chose not to do this and take this $63 million gamble,” he said. They wanted to ensure they didn’t hand off a church in decay, but that they handed off something beautiful. They took incredible circumstances and made something beautiful out of it.”

Vanderbrouk said the parish is glad to have Dayton-Welch at the helm for this next season.

“A lot of our lay leaders and staff, our legs are a little bit tired after this race,” Vanderbrouk said. “I think having someone to come in with fresh energy, it’s going to be wonderful and it’s what we’re ready for.”

This story was originally published in The Living Church.

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