Church in the Wee Hours

This weekend, the nation pauses to celebrate the contributions of workers to its collective economic and social life. Over the last 322 years, Trinity parish has found many ways to support and serve the employees of Lower Manhattan, including scheduling church services at 2:30am, organizing the St. Paul’s Business Women’s Luncheon Club, and taking initiative to improve fire safety before Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

The life of New York City in 1900 was centered in Lower Manhattan. Wall Street was the economic powerhouse of the country, and local politics were concentrated in City Hall. Unsurprisingly, Lower Manhattan was also home to the newsrooms and print shops of the city’s many daily papers. The neighborhood had been electrified since 1882, and businesses like telegraph firms and the post office operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, illuminated by the light bulb.

It was the souls of these night workers, whose shifts lasted into the wee hours, that worried the Rev. Montague Geer, Vicar of St. Paul’s Chapel. Many souls worried Geer: women office workers who were, in his mind, open to lunch-time seduction by unscrupulous bosses, the newsboys who sold papers in the streets, and persecuted Armenians, to list a few. He was undoubtedly the parish’s grandmaster of quirky outreach ministries.

But back to the night workers: how were they to participate in Holy Eucharist on Sunday mornings? The Catholics, Geer knew, were holding late night Masses at a church on Duane Street. According to estimates he was given, there were 5,000 night workers within a one-mile radius of St. Paul’s—approximately 2,000 of those were Protestant—and the faithful among them were attending the Catholic Mass for want of a Protestant option.

In 1904 Geer proposed holding 2:30am services on Sunday mornings, just as those workers were heading home. Geer evidently planned this liturgical experiment without consulting the Rev. Dr. Morgan Dix, Rector of Trinity Parish. In 1904 Dix was an old man: he had started as an assistant minister at Trinity in 1858. When he caught wind of Geer’s plan, he must have objected, because the Trinity Archives contain Geer’s four-page response, clearly written in haste, defending his plan.

“I did not lay this matter before you because I could not ask you to commit yourself to an experimental—and because I found no difficulty in arranging for the first service. … If it is a failure, it can be charged simply to my consideration. If it is a success, then the whole question is to be laid before you.”

Geer goes on to explain his reasons for the service, concluding that he had “sufficient Providential indication of duty” to warrant a trial run. Dix allowed the experiment to go forward.

The first service for night workers was held on the first Sunday in Lent, February 21, 1904, at 2:30am. One hundred and two men and four women attended. Attendance hovered between 70 and 100 for the duration of the year.

Geer and his allies considered the services a success. In the parish yearbook they wrote:

“It is believed that something like this is probably the Churchgoing record of nearly all these men who have begun again their old custom of frequenting the Courts of the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day. There are several very young men, and others are likely to come later, whom these services, if they are continued, are likely to save from falling hopeless victims of the non-Church going habit.”

Trinity’s Archives contain a number of documents related to the services, including typewritten lists of all the night workers employed in nearby office buildings, and a letter from some anonymous employees asking Geer to intercede with management on their behalf and get them out of work 45 minutes early so they could attend the 2:30am service.

Evidently not everyone agreed with Geer. The services were discontinued in 1905. Notes from Trinity’s subsequent rector, the Rt. Rev. William T. Manning, about one particularly problematic vestryman and comptroller, shed light on the reasons for ending the services.

“Mr. C. [Herman H. Cammann] demanded that that ‘Service for Night Workers’ should be given up in Dr. Dix’s time because he held that the men who attended the service might claim the right to vote [in]the parish elections. I had the service resumed against Mr. C.’s will.”

And so the services were revived in 1911, with the “hearty sympathy and encouragement” of the new rector. Manning also furnished St. Paul’s with an electrically lighted sign, installed on the Broadway fence, announcing the services. It was turned on from 10pm Saturday night until 3:30am on Sunday and furnished “object-teaching to countless thousands of passers-by, that the Church of Jesus Christ takes a loving interest in the spiritual welfare of her people at all times, under all circumstances.”

St. Paul’s 2:30am services for night workers were discontinued in 1918, the same year Geer retired.