On East 29th Street near Fifth Avenue is a small Episcopal church founded in 1848. Although its official name is the Church of the Transfiguration, it is more commonly referred to by its nickname, “The Little Church Around the Corner.”
This neo-gothic church was designed in the style of an English country parish, complete with a lovely, spacious garden. At the time of its construction it was on the outskirts of New York City, in a comparatively rural area. Under the leadership of Rev. George Hendric Houghton, it became a principal stop on the Underground Railroad. In 1863, the church provided sanctuary to African-Americans fleeing the violence of the Civil War draft riots.
Legend has it that the unusual nickname comes from 1870, when the stage actor Joseph Jefferson, famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle, sought to bury his friend and fellow actor, George Holland. Approaching the priest of a neighboring church, Jefferson was turned away. During the 19th century, acting as a profession was somewhat frowned upon, hence the priest’s refusal to bury Holland. The disapproving priest suggested that, “there is a little church around the corner where it might be done.” According to the legend of the church, Jefferson is thought to have replied, “Then I say to you sir, God bless the little church around the corner.”
Ever since, the Church of the Transfiguration has been known for its strong ties to the theater scene. It became the church of choice for countless actors, including such legendary performers as Edwin Booth (who is commemorated in a stunning stained glass placed by the members of his Player’s Club) and Sarah Bernhardt. It is also the headquarters of the Episcopal Actor’s Guild. In 1914, the English comic author P.G. Wodehouse married Ethel Rowley at the church. He commented, “its got a fountain playing in front of it, and it’s a little bit of heaven dumped right down the middle of New York.”
The church continues to be a peaceful country oasis in the middle of the city. Today, the thriving church retains its close ties with the New York theater scene, and continues to foster a progressive, inclusive environment. In 2012, when the first same-sex wedding took place in the Diocese of New York, it was fitting that it happened at the Little Church Around the Corner.
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