One of the most interesting churches of Washington Heights and Inwood is the Fort Washington Collegiate Church. It has served at least four generations of parishioners who have worshipped as members of the Reformed Church of America.
The property that Fort Washington Collegiate is on was at one time part of the estate of James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald. Bennett purchased the land from the estate of Richard Carman in 1871. Carman had passed away in 1867, and his sons sold off the vast properties owned by their father.
James Gordon Bennett Jr. inherited the Herald and the property the following year. James Jr., for a time, lived on the estate and passed away in 1918 in France. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation acquired the property from the Bennett estate and opened it as a public park on July 18, 1928.
The original entrance and driveway of the Bennett estate, known as Bennett Lane, started at 181st Street and Colonel Robert Magaw Place going to 183rd Street and then west to Fort Washington Avenue. The wrought-iron gate of the Bennett estate was salvaged by sculptor George Grey Barnard, owner of the original collection of medieval art which would eventually become the foundation of the Cloisters Museum in Fort Tryon Park. Barnard’s studio and collection was housed in a building on 190th Street and Fort Washington Avenue.
The Fort Washington Collegiate Church is a member congregation of the Reformed Church of America. It serves New York City along with other Reformed Church of America congregations, such as Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, West End Collegiate Church on West End Avenue and 77th Street, and Middle Collegiate Church on Second Avenue and East 7th Street. One of the most famous ministers of the Reformed Church in New York City was Norman Vincent Peale, who was pastor at Marble Collegiate.
Fort Washington Collegiate was constructed in 1909 of brick in the fashion of a quaint English church. The land it is on was owned by the West End Collegiate Church. The Parish House that shares the site was located at what is now 4232 Broadway in a rented storefront, which was a convenient place to meet for the parish.
The grounds of the church are well-manicured and surrounded by a well-appointed flower garden. The property has a fieldstone wall adorned by an iron fence. Above the entrance of the church is a Celtic cross that is lit at night.
On the Parish House wall are two memorial plaques. One honors Colonel Robert Magaw, commanding officer of Fort Washington when it surrendered to superior British and Hessian forces during the American Revolution on November 16, 1776. The second honors Peter Minuit, Director General of New Netherlands and organizer of the Reformed Church in 1628, and King William III (of William and Mary fame) of Great Britain, who signed the charter for the Church in 1696.
The history of the Reformed Church dates back to the Dutch colonial period. Its first congregation, called the Church in the Fort, was administered by Jonas Michaelus who, in 1628, reported the first 50 communicants at the first service celebrated. It was the official church of New Amsterdam and through the influence of the Dutch Calvinism expanded under the classis of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
In 1664 the English had taken control of New Amsterdam, and many of the Dutch customs and institutions were replaced with English with little resistance. Henricus Selyns (or Selijns) had become well known in the church in the 1680s and became popular with many merchants in the colony because of his integrity in the community.
In 1689 Jacob Liesler led a revolt against the British. When the revolt ended, Liesler was tried and executed for treason. Selyns had rebuked Liesler for the revolt and was praised by English Governor Edmund Andros for the quick restoration of calm among the Dutch community, the church and colonial government.
For the first half of the 18th Century, Gualtherus Dubois led the Collegiate Ministry in New York City. The Reformed Church in America took its present name in 1867 and remains not only in New York City but nationwide.
The ministry of Fort Washington Collegiate and other Collegiate churches has an interesting background. In the early days, Collegiate ministers shared responsibilities of serving several scattered houses of worship. Today the ministers serve particular churches with one board (Consistory) responsible for four congregations in New York City.
In 1909 Abraham John Muste was the first pastor of Fort Washington Church, but he was not a Collegiate minister. The second minister of Fort Washington was Irving H. Berg. He was the 36th person to be ordained into the Collegiate Church. Pastor Charles D. Morris is the sixth minister of Fort Washington Collegiate and is the 50th person to be ordained into the Collegiate ministry.
Another minister who served Fort Washington Collegiate is Daniel Poling. Reverend Poling served the church during the 1960s and 70s and is now retired. Reverend Poling’s brother, Lt. Clarke Poling, died on the USAT Dorchester, a troop ship during World War II carrying 902 soldiers and 3 other chaplains. The ship was torpedoed on February 3, 1943, just 15 miles from its destination off the coast of Greenland. Chaplain Poling had given his lifejacket to a soldier getting on a life raft.
During the Christmas season, Fort Washington Collegiate Church had a living nativity. Many of the parishioners were involved in the Nativity, and animals were used as an added effect. Christmas carols were an added part of the holiday cheer.
Over the years, Fort Washington Collegiate Church has published several newsletters. Most recent of them are Our Community Messenger and Chimes. Margaret Padilla is the editor for both of these. The newsletters give information on the activities of the church and its parishioners and are available to the community at the Parish House. Fort Washington Collegiate Church celebrated 90 years of service at its present location to the community in 1999.
The Parish House is located at 729 West 181st Street. It is used by numerous community groups. It has a gymnasium and theater for many groups such as the Boy Scouts, exercise classes, prayer groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, violin classes, tennis courses and computer courses.
For further information about Fort Washington Collegiate Church and the classes held at the Parish House, call (212) 568-4014. For information concerning the Reformed Church of America, visit its Web site.