Our Lady of Good Counsel, in the 1870’s and 1880’s, following the Civil War, the city’s residents began to move northward, leaving the congested and noisy downtown area. The construction of elevated trains along Second and Third Avenues enticed may to Yorkville, which extends from 59th to 96th Street, and from the East River to Fifth Avenue. German families and immigrants, along with a large group of Irish, were particularly attracted to Yorkville. Brownstones and tenements were built for the laborers who worked at the Ehret’s and Ruppert’s breweries, or who crossed the East River at 92nd Street for an easy ferry ride to the Steinway Piano Factory in Queens.
The infux of Catholics soon overflowed Yorkville’s primary church, St. Lawrence OToole (now St. Ignatius Loyola), founded in 1851 on East 84th Street. New churches were established by the diocese. Thomas H. Poole designed the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel, which was completed in 1892. Its stone exterior is notable for crenellated coping and turrets which echo those found on the Calvary Squadron A Armory (designed by John R. Thomas in 1888-90) on Madison Avenue between 94th and 95th Streets. Inside, the ornate and spacious interior is decorated with lacy gothic details, galleries on three sides, and beautiful stained glass windows.
The Beginning Years: The Episcopal Period (1870-1929)
In 1870, the Reverend Isaac Tuttle, D.D., Rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, envisioned constructing a church to serve the spiritual needs of the residents of St. Luke's Home for Indigent Christian Women, which was located at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 89th Street in what was then still a sparsely populated area of the city. The site adjacent to the home on 89th Street was quickly acquired to carry out the Tuttle's plan.
Through the generous benefaction of Miss Caroline Talman, a philanthropic heiress and devout Episcopalian, the church was built in memory of her parents John Hubell (1776-1864) and Sarah Somarindyck Talman (1789-1867). Two inscribed marble plaques in the church and an inscribed tower bell recorded this memorial gift. Philip Hubert and James Pirsson of the architectural firm, Hubert, Pirsson & Co were retained. All Saints Day, 1870 marked the day the church cornerstone was laid. Three years later, the church was consecrated by the Reverend Bishop Potter. The large stone eagle, symbol of St. John the Evangelist, and the inscription, "We love him because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19), both located over the main portal, testify to the building's dedication as the Church of the Beloved Disciple. It served as an Episcopal church for elderly women of St. Luke's Aged Home until December 1925.
By the early 1920's, the number of parishioners of the Church of the Beloved Disciple was in decline. In this same period the Church of Heavenly Rest, located on Fifth Avenue and 45th Street, stated its intention to move from its neighborhood of increasingly rapid commercialization. In 1924, the Vestry of the Church of Heavenly Rest decided to build a new house of worship at Fifth Avenue and 90th Street in Manhattan. The church was constructed at the entrance to Central Park. It was designed by Bertram Goodhue and Hardie Philip in an Art Deco adaptation of previously popular Gothic style. In honor of the congregation that worshiped at the Church of the Beloved Disciple, a separate chapel was added to the church which was called the Chapel of the Beloved Disciple. The plaques memorializing the Talmans were relocated to this new chapel. In November 1925, the two, now nearby, Episcopal congregations merged.
The Ensuing Years: The Dutch Reform Period (1929-1949)
The Reformed Church of Harlem, founded in 1660, is the second oldest church in Manhattan, after its downtown parent, the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York, founded in 1628. In 1929, owing to what the Reverend Edgar Tilton, D.D., Rector of the congregation described as the "development of the city, the laws of progress, and the desire to extend the kingdom of God," the congregation of the Reformed Church of Harlem bought the vacant Church of the Beloved Disciple on 89th Street and made it their new home. The church was renovated and eight narrative stained glass windows conveying the story of Jesus were transferred from the old church.
On Sunday, October 6th, 1929, the Church of the Beloved Disciple was formally rededicated as the Reformed Church of Harlem. Three days later, the Reverend Henry Darlington, D.D., Rector of the Church of Heavenly Rest and the Chapel of the Beloved Disciple, addressed the Reformed Congregation in their new home and formally welcomed them to the neighborhood. The congregation experienced a steady decline in numbers, a trend reflective of the diminution of the Reformed Church of New York in general. By 1949 the ecclesiastical complex at 89th Street had fallen into its second period of disuse and plans were made to sell it.
The Faithful Years Begin: The Roman Catholic Period (1950-Present)
By early 1950, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, under the episcopacy of Francis Cardinal Spellman, sought to the establish a new parish in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, an area also known at the "Silk Stocking District." A successful negotiation with the Reformed Church of Harlem led to the acquisition of the property on 89th Street. On July 9th, 1950, Bishop Joseph P. Donahue, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of New York, consecrated a new parish and rededicated it as the Church of St. Thomas More.
Under the guidance of the first pastor, Monsignor Philip F. Furlong, later Bishop, the church underwent a new round of renovations. In the Lady Chapel, the stained glass window with coat of arms of the Dutch Reformed Church was replaced with a depiction of a cross decorated with symbols of the Blessed Mother, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who are surrounded by two angels along with Saints Peter and Paul. A sacristy was constructed connecting the rectory with the church. Inside the church, a marble communion rail was installed at the forward edge of the chancel and shrines to the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph were installed along the left and right sides of the chancel. Wooden reredos an angel-topped riddle posts, both displacing table flower ornaments characteristic of the "Decorated Style," were also installed. The richly carved band at the top of the reredos is composed of an intricate web of grapevines, bursting grain and fish, ancient Christian symbols of the Eucharist and Christ.
These renovations continued under Furlong's successor, Reverend Monsignor James Wilders, who held the position of past from 1969 to 1981. These renovations included the addition of two reconciliation rooms in the Chapel.
Msgr. Wilders was succeeded by Monsignor George Bardes, who held the post from 1981 to 1994. Under the supervision of Msgr. Bardes, other major renovations were undertaken that involved the Bell Tower, steps leading into the church, air conditioning, stained glass in the church and chapel and an oak plaque that was installed in memory of the previous Reformed Congregation.
The Church of St. Thomas More has been most fortunate in its pastors and their concern for the preservation of its lovely house of worship. The beginning of his pastorate, Reverend John A. Boehning (1994-present), greatly enhanced the aging and fragile church. The choir area and chance were completely refurbished. Changes in the chancel have been carried out with utmost and reverent sensitivity to the Gothic-Revival character of the church in general. Consider the beautiful new oak pulpit designed and hand-carved Hugh Harrison of England. Composed of five sides of an octagon, the pulpit is decorated with tracery defining bays of double ogee arches topped by quatrefoils accented with a low relief carving of a Gospel Book, grape clusters, and a Tudor Rose - the design of the pendant worn by St. Thomas More when he was Speaker of the House of Commons.
Also designed and hand-crafted by Hugh Harrison is the new tabernacle table. Trying together new and old, the legs of this oak table are decorated with blue polychromy and have low relief carvings relating to themes of Christian Salvation, the Eucharist and Noah's Ark. A sparrow, fish, grape clusters, bread, a chalice, and the More-affiliated Tudor Rose can also be seen in the carvings. The table is placed on a simple footpiece which is decorated with encaustic tiles of abstracted floral design clearly reflecting the design found in Pugin's Floriated Ornament of 1849. The communion rail was also removed to allow easier access to the chancel and lessen the crowding during ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. It was replaced by four predieu hand crafted by Hugh Harrison.
But the most striking change is the new organ case and pipes built by the firm of Lively-Fulcher and installed on the west wall of the chancel above the new oak wainscoting. Between the case's three towers are placed two coats of arms; on the left are the arms of the Archdiocese of New York, while on the right are the arms of Sir Thomas More.
Following the retirement of Reverend John A. Boehning, Reverend Kevin Madigan was named Pastor, joining the church in September 2012.