Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Harlem is my feature for Those Thursday Places.
This place behind the red doors was the link for those who came through Ellis Island from the Virgin Islands, to what was considered New York’s new immigrants that is, West Indians. Transfiguration Lutheran Church was considered the Way Mark for Virgin Islanders that had emigrated to New York to connect with their culture and heritage. Among the many Virgin Islanders who left St. Croix during the Great Depression were my maternal grand-parents Julius and Caroline Gasper-Bough who settled in New York.
Pastor Paul West (my mother’s godfather) was the first full-time pastor at Transfiguration Church. People would talk about his kindness and how he was known for seeking out church members from St. Croix that arrived at Ellis Island, to assist them with the adjustment period in New York City, which included attending church, where one would meet up with other Virgin Islanders.
Looking back as an adult at the Church, I realize what a great effort it took for the many families that traveled into Manhattan (Harlem) from Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, on the subways, for Sunday worship and to spend time with relatives. This was the place where we learned discipline, respect, and a love that permeated into a strong sense of togetherness. I recognized the value of our heritage, as we intently listen as children to conversations in dialect about St. Croix and its people. At Transfiguration, we shared much in common, including family cousins. There continues to be a bond of love and recognition among those who once attended this place of worship.
During the summer of 2011, I was afforded the opportunity to visit New York City. While in Harlem waiting for my daughter who was getting her hair braided (which takes hours upon hours), I decided to take a walk along 125th Street. I saw the old landmarks: The Apollo Theatre, the Adam Clayton Powell Plaza, and the merchandise of the many vendors.
After an exhausting tour, I thought, “hey, why don’t I go down to the West side and see Transfiguration Church”, so I took a bus from ST. Nicholas Avenue to the West Side and then walked up one block to 126th. Street. Things did change in the neighborhood. The corner newspaper candy store was now a Starbucks Coffee Shop. Up the block you could see a famous outdoor soul food café. Places were different and so were faces. Harlem now had a diversity of people. This place was plain different. When I turned the corner on 126th Street, and glimpsed those red doors to the church, I knew I was home.
What a feeling of joy and the fond memories that took over me, I wanted to go back and get my daughter so she could see and hear the stories, but I couldn’t. So I turned the knob, and to my surprise the door was open. I saw the altar where we took communion. The pews, everything, appeared so much smaller. Lo and behold, Pastor Paul West’s youngest son came to the door and welcomed me in with the warmest smile.
What a wonderful conversation we had about those days. He was able to bring me up- to- date on some of the members I once knew and many that I no longer remembered. I was able to bring him up-to-date to the happenings on St. Croix which became my home for over 30 years.
We came out of the church, he locked the doors went on his way. I locked that moment and that place, in my mind forever. This year, Transfiguration Lutheran Church commemorates and celebrates its 90th year at 74 West 125th Street, New York, NY.
I;m glad that you write. You have such a wealth of information to share with others that would no doubt otherwise go both unknown or not thought about!
Thank you Janet the elders were correct it made good memories and I’m glad I could share
Beautiful photo of the church and of the mesmerizing red door! I’m also very glad that you had a chance to connect with the Pastor’s son. I can certainly see where this special place and visit is one that you will carry with you forever. Excellent post!
I served this church as a white kid and pastor from the suburbs in the mid sixties under Pastor Gunther….loved the kids and teens…great food after church
..never felt in danger..just great folks
Thank you for commenting. It was a great time. I remember a Pastor Nielsen before Pastor Gunther arrived. I still remember the biscuits.
I appreciate your comments, when I thought about those Thursday places I realize I had a place that had so much meaning, that remains within me.
I’m looking for information on my great grandmother who may have been a pastor / member here in the 40s. Ethleen Kendall from Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas VI. We know very little about my grandmother’s family but I saw a photo of her dressed like a priest in a newspaper clipping. Then I came across an article about Lutherans from the Virgin Islands! Thank you!
Sorry for the delay. Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment. In reference to your search of your grandmother from Charlotte Amalia St Thomas, let me point you to Caribbean Genealogy library, St Thomas. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~vicgl/
If you havent already been on the website, you will find it very helpful. Thank you again. and happy hunting.
This is whete I was baptised in 1955.
So many lovely memories, the confirmation classes, and of course going down to the basement after Sunday services for biscuits with cheese. Thank you for the visit and bringing back the memories of transfiguration Lutheran church.
My paternal side of the family came to NY from Charlotte Amalie in the 20s or 30s. Transfiguration was our home. I am 46, so I don’t know all of the history, but I know my grandmother, nee Elsie Stewart née Francis, her parents, and her siblings were all Transfiguration members. That part of the family’s surname is Francis, but the entire church seemed to be cousins. Me, my brother, my father (Barry Stewart), were all confirmed at Transfiguration. My brother and I even went to the Montessori school in the church during the 70s. We were regulars at the church with my nana every Sunday through the mid 80s where we often served as acolytes. During our lifetime Pastor Gunther was the main pastor, but I recall a two white assistant/associate pastors, as well. Pastor Lubdell (sp?) was there in the 70s. I cannot recall the name of the other pastor. Much of our family’s oral history with the church left when my nana passed away in ’93. She knew everything and everyone. My father is 76 and probably is too far removed from his church days to remember much. I came across this site after a chance meeting with an older gentleman in Delaware which piqued my curiosity after he mentioned his former church home as Transfiguration. His family hailed from St. Croix and had the surnames of Sawyer and Sims. His name is Mike Rutledge. Near or far, we share a common bond that brings us fond memories and a true respect of our Caribbean elders that came to America for the opportunity at a better life. And yes, I certainly remember the food after church in the basement. Specifically those biscuits. What a treat!
Barry: What a pleasure to hear from a member of Transfiguration Lutheran Church. So many wonderful memories. We lived in Queens and traveled by train to Harlem every Sunday. By the time we got there at times Pastor Gunter would be coming down from the pulpit, but all in all we kept going and getting their earlier each time. Transfiguration members or lay activity committee should plan ta Reunion. So many wonderful memories. My mother died this year, and in going over her things I found my christening paper, baptized by Pastor Gunther and lo and behold I saw my confirmation group picture. I loved going to that church it seemed like everyone was family. My family surname from St. Croix is the Boughs, Gasper and Richards. In my confirmation class was I believe a Sims as well. My family and I relocated to St. Croix in 76, we just went through the worse hurricane season ever! the aftermath is the worse. We are still trying to recover. Well Barry, if I can help with any research on this end it would be a pleasure. Thank you for stopping by.