Copyright Beyond My Ken
The Bowery Mission, at 227 Bowery St., was founded 7 November 1879 by Rev. Albert Gleason Ruliffson and his wife Ellen, strong proponents of the Social Gospel movement. Theirs was the third rescue mission in the U.S., and the second in NYC.
The mission originally held services in a small room at 14 Bowery, and in 1880 moved to 36 Bowery In 1887, they moved to 105 Bowery. Sadly, this third location was destroyed by fire in 1898, and they moved to 55 Bowery (formerly Gombossy’s Music Hall). Eleven people perished in the fire.
Moving was necessitated a fourth time when it got in the way of approaches to the Manhattan Bridge. Instead of constructing the bridge elsewhere, the city demolished the mission and many other buildings (shades of the evil Robert Moses’s machinations in a later generation).
There have been no moves since the mission moved to 227 Bowery (which was once an undertaker’s business) in 1909. This final move was marked by a visit and speech from Pres. William Howard Taft.
Since 1980, they’ve also owned the building next door at 229 Bowery.
The mission added a summer camp in Nyack in 1894, using ample leftover money from a food drive. The children who arrived at Rev. Lawrence Jewett’s estate in horse-drawn carriages on 14 June were from families helped by said food drive, many new immigrants and very poor.
Initially, the estate was rented for $1 a month, but after Rev. Jewett’s passing a few years later, Christian Herald owner Dr. Louis Klopsch bought the property.
Dr. Klopsch also bought The Bowery Mission in 1895, to relieve severe financial distress which arose in the wake of its superintendent’s death.
Under the leadership of British-born John Greener Hallimond, the mission added services including a breadline, a women’s home in Brooklyn, and an employment agency.
This mission was created in The Bowery at that time in response to the very pressing need to help an increasing amount of impoverished people. Prior to the Upper East Side becoming the location of choice for blue-blood Manhattanites with lots of money, The Bowery was quite the fashionable, moneyed neighborhood.
All that changed by the Civil War, though. Gone were the stately mansions and upscale shops. In their place arose seedy beer gardens, burlesque theatres, brothels, dancehalls, flophouses, pawnshops, dive bars, saloons, and concert halls.
Even the remaining “normal” businesses, like clothing shops and diners, were cheap and run-down, for the poorest of the poor. There were also a plethora of violent gangs, pimps, and drunks roaming the streets. By the 1940s, The Bowery was the city’s Skid Row.
In contrast to many other churches, The Bowery Mission’s second-floor chapel’s stained glass window inscriptions are designed to be read by people outside, not inside, since people not already in church need reaching out to most.
From those early days, the mission has provided thousands of free breakfasts every day, yearly holiday meals, daily weekday worship services, five Sunday services, employment and education counselling, a place to sleep for the down and out, medical care, and help for people trying to quit drugs and alcohol. They also continue to operate summer camps.
For 140 years, countless people have turned their lives around thanks to these dedicated services. When many others considered them past redemption, The Bowery Mission treated them like beautiful human beings who just need some extra help.
The mission appears many times in my contemporary historical Bildungsroman Little Ragdoll, which is set from 1959–74. Protagonist Adicia Troy eats Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter meals at the mission every year with her four closest sisters and their exploited live-in nanny Sarah when they live in the Lower East Side.
Adicia’s parents and oldest brother Carlos are too proud to accept charity, and her upwardly mobile oldest sister Gemma always eats holiday meals with her bourgeois friends in the gentrified northern part of the neighborhood (which later rebranded itself the so-called East Village).
After the Troys’ tenement burns down in June 1962, Adicia goes to the mission at night with her little sister Justine and Gemma’s baby Giovanni, whom she left behind for adoption after escaping her unwanted, abusive marriage. They spend a wonderful night there and sleep in a real bed for the first time. Adicia’s one decent brother Allen also gets job counselling and a loan of $300.
Bowery Mission: Grit and Grace on Manhattan’s Oldest Street, Jason Storbakken, Plough Publishing House, Walden, NY, 2019.