Calvary-St. George’s gets a not-quite-new rector

Expansion of programs at St. George’s and beautification of church planned

Rev. Jacob Smith

Rev. Jacob Smith

By Sabina Mollot

As far as any of the parishioners are concerned, Reverend Jacob Smith, who’s been the priest-in-charge at Calvary-St. George’s for the past three years, has been the church’s leader for all that time.

However, due to certain formalities within the structure of the Episcopal Church, it wasn’t until last month that Smith, who’s been serving the double parish for the past decade, was called as its new rector. Normally, he explained, someone who began as a pastoral assistant, as he did at Calvary, wouldn’t get to become a rector at the same church, so his situation was an exception.

The city’s 199-Episcopal Church network also took the unusual step in seeking the counsel of the Diocese in calling Smith, and he’ll be assisting in the leadership of St. Ann’s, a church for the deaf. The date of his institution has not yet been set.

Meanwhile, as the official rector at Calvary, he now has tenure. This makes Smith, 40, the third rector to be appointed since the combination of the St. George’s and Calvary parishes along with a third consolidated parish, Holy Communion, in 1975. However, the roots of the three Episcopalian churches go back to 1749.

Smith’s predecessor, Gregory O. Brewer, left Calvary in 2013 after serving for three years. Prior to that, the longtime rector was Dr. Thomas Pike, who Smith has called a mentor.

During a recent interview at Gramercy Park’s Calvary Church, in Smith’s second floor office, he discussed growth at the parish — some that has happened already, as attendance has been significantly on the rise in the past three years, as well as planned changes like beautifying both church locations and greatly expanding the use of the St. George’s building in Stuyvesant Square.

Some of the beautification aspects are far on the horizon — the projected cost for both locations is $7 million and will require plenty of fundraising — but others will be more immediate. One project is to spruce up Calvary’s garden on Gramercy Park North, which is expected to be completed by the fall. But this little gated park won’t require a key to get in and will soon include benches. Projects like this will be done sooner, Smith notes, “with elbow grease and the sweat of our brow.”

As for the rest, it does help that currently the church is on good financial footing. In 2012, when Smith took on the role of priest-in-charge, church attendance was lower and donations had dwindled.

“It was right after the market crisis, so it was a series of circumstances that are typical for any old church,” Smith said.

The situation has improved since then, though, with attendance on any given Sunday having risen from 180 to about 300. And Smith hasn’t had to stand on any street corners to spread the gospel; the new flock has come thanks to word of the mouth or the internet. The parish has also seen an increase in worshippers from outside the neighborhood. At this time, Smith said the parish is about 60 percent local while 40 percent come from as far as the outer boroughs and New Jersey.

Smith credits this to a number of factors, with parishioners telling him through the church they’ve felt connected to the community and that they also liked his sermons. Smith, however, said he believes that was due to his focusing on the essentials of Episcopal tradition.

Reverend Jacob Smith plans to expand arts and family programming at the parish and hold on tight to its real estate. Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Reverend Jacob Smith plans to expand arts and family programming at the parish and hold on tight to its real estate. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

“We wanted to put the focus on pastoral care, going to hospitals, taking new parishioners out for coffee, tightening the liturgy and being a traditional prayer-book Episcopal Church,” he said. “The timeless nature of it — that’s something that speaks to everyone.”

The church has also focused on growing its preschool, the Jack and Jill School, located at St. George’s and closing its thrift shop. There will also soon be an additional morning service. Currently, St. George’s only hosts a 9:30 a.m. service, but beginning on September 18, the location will also offer a 10 a.m. service.

“We’re trying to reach out to the families in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village,” said Smith. “Historically that was a community church, and we’re putting an emphasis on family programs.”

A big 9/11 anniversary event will also be held there on September 11. The organizer is Gramercy Park Block Association President Arlene Harrison, who Smith has worked with on multiple charitable endeavors and called a “great partner.”

The St. George’s location has also recently become home to an increasingly popular jazz concert series, The Olmstead Salon, featuring performers who have played at Lincoln Center.

“It’s not like these are high school guys getting their first shot,” said Smith. “It’s quality musicians.” Due to the response to the concerts, which are $10 to attend and have been getting crowds of 50-60 people, Smith said a literary program is also in the works. It too will be salon-style and highlight works from local authors and playwrights.

“We’re going to open up St. George’s and bring it back to its roots as a community cultural center,” Smith said, “a place where families can engage people and explore the arts.”

The church will also continue to serve the poor through a soup kitchen that serves 100 people each Thursday.

Smith noted that despite Gramercy Park being known as an affluent community, the areas covered by Community Boards 5 and 6, which include Gramercy and Stuyvesant Town, have seen highest growth of homelessness in the city.

Asked what the toughest part of running Calvary-St. George’s is, for Smith, it’s not letting himself get overwhelmed by the church’s legacy. Along with St. George’s being one of the oldest churches in the city, Calvary is one of the birthplaces of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I can confirm that Steps 3-9 were written in this office,” he said.

As for the easiest part — that would be in swatting away the pesky developers who come around looking to buy church property.

“We have a vision for the place to be a church for the community but you can’t do that if you don’t have any space,” said Smith.

He noted how he often looks longingly at a condo building behind St. George’s that used to be church-owned. But, he added, that transaction was like so many other church real estate sales in that they happened at a time when “nobody thought New York would bounce back.” He also noted that sometimes church property, once sold, can get turned into “something notorious.” This was no doubt a reference to the Church of the Holy Communion, which, after getting sold and deconsecrated, turned into the infamous Limelight nightclub that’s now a mall of the same name. These days, Smith said, the church’s real estate is managed quite carefully.

Smith, an Arizona native who was ordained a priest in 2006, now lives in Calvary Church with his family. His wife Melina is a trained behavioral specialist also helps run the church’s children’s programming, and his two children Sophia, 8, and Henry, 6, attend the nearby Success Academy.

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