In the fall of 1975 Chelsea resident and businessman Paul Gay sent letters to about 500 Chelsea neighbors announcing a series of meetings to discuss the possibility of forming a non-denominational church in Chelsea.
His idea was that the new church group, to meet at St. Peter’s landmark building on West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, would provide a local place of worship for what was expected to be mostly mainline Protestants. The idea met with enthusiastic support from St. Peter’s vestry and then-vicar the Rev. Rick Houghton, in a spirit of helpfulness and cooperation that continues today. Some 25 people attended the first meeting, among them present members Joanne Downes and Hilda Regier.
On November 2, 1975, Chelsea Community Church held its first service as a non-denominational worshiping community established entirely by its lay membership, not an offshoot of any other church, with no patterned identity, no fixed creed. Fifty-five people attended that Sunday.
The first year was spent in coming up with by-laws, a budget, a usual order of worship—no small task for a group of busy people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, some with very definite ideas and no one ordained to be in charge. In fact, we’ve been compared to the earliest Christian congregations, a small group learning about and sharing the Gospel, members actually running the church, with men and women contributing equally, according to their talents. For over a decade Lisa Mitchell taught in the Sunday school.
In January 1980 we moved to Seabury Auditorium at General Theological Seminary because of a time conflict with a planned Spanish Mass at St. Peter’s. We had some wonderful times there, but that was also the period of our lowest attendance. In November 1982 we accepted the invitation of St. Peter’s vicar and vestry to hold our services in their church at 11:45 a.m., with refreshments afterwards.
The commitment and spirit of compromise of those early years are reflected in the way we worship now: a happy balance of structure and flexibility, ritual and simplicity. And those attitudes also form the administration of our affairs today and keep our church going.
From 1997 through 2006, Rick Carrier produced and directed an inspiring Palm Sunday Pageant, featuring music from Jesus Christ Superstar and singer William Daniel Grey, who played “Jesus” in the original Broadway production, among an increasingly professional and loyal cast.
We’ve changed places and times, preachers and members, programs and special events, but through it all we have remained true to our basics as a non-denominational lay-led Christian church that welcomes people of any faith or of uncertain faith to worship with us and become part of our extended Christian family.
We’ve doubted and debated, but we are still here, and we have learned that we can count on each other. In times of sickness, unemployment, worry, even death, we know we have friends here to surround us with love and to whom we can turn. We know that here there is continuity and a faithful love—coming from each other, our guest speakers, and from God.