native of County Kerry
First on Waters St.,
Later near Times Sq.
March 17, 2005Approximately 133 years ago a former inmate of NYC's Tombs and NY state's Sing Sing founded (along with his wife, an ex-prostitute) a rescue mission whose evangelical and rehabilitative work with the homeless and destitute continues to this day although the original wooden building in Lower Manhattan has been long gone.
Years later McAuley wrote about how he and his wife began the mission house:
One day I had a sort of vision. I thought we had a house in the Fourth Ward, and a stream of people were coming in. I washed them outside, and the Lord washed them inside; and I cried as I thought, "O, if I could only do that for Jesus' sake."
"Do it for one, if you can't do it for more," said Maria, and that's the way we begun, in an old rookery of a house in one room, and a little sign hung out: "THE HELPING HAND FOR MEN."
From Finney to McAuley by Way of Lanphier & Gardner
Connections can be drawn between that late 19th Century October occurrence on Lower Manhattan's rough East River waterfront and another October occurrence a half century earlier in a forest just north of rural Adams Village in northwestern New York's Jefferson County.
Into that woodland walked a 26 year-old attorney determined to resolve in his mind the issue of the human relationship (his in particular) to the Divine. To borrow a biblical turn-of-phrase, he went to wrestle with God. When the young man emerged many hours later, he had won, in that he had resolved (not only in his own mind but in his heart as well) the nature of soul-saving faith -- as grace freely given and freely accepted or rejected.
Some believers might add the observation that God also had won the Adams woods wrestling match. For from henceforth lawyer Charles Grandison Finney took his Lord on as sole client.
After a decade on road as an increasingly renowned revivalist preacher, Finney in 1832 became minister at NYC's Second Free Presbyterian Church between Duane and Pearl Streets. Better known as the Chatham Street Chapel, the church had been the 1300-seat Chatham Garden Theater (previously the Pavilion and the American Opera House). Its close proximity to the notorious Five Points district had been a chief consideration of Finney's NYC backers, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, in selecting the theatre as the site for the new church. They and Finney wanted revivalism to impact the meanest of the city's 19th century streets.
Finney had become a leading force in what has been called the Second Great Awakening, a spiritual revival that swept much of America during the 19th century.
When Finney moved from Presbyterian affiliation to Congregational in 1834, the Tappans again backed him and helped provide him with an enormous church built to his specifications -- Broadway Tabernacle at 34th St.
Gardner at Lanphier prayer meeting.
During 1842, the same year that Finney died, a 33-year-old businessman from upstate New York, Jeremiah Lanphier, underwent profound spiritual transformation in the Finney-designed Broadway Tabernacle.
Some 15 years later as a lay urban missionary for the Old Dutch Reformed Church (also known as Collegiate Reformed), Lanphier began in the church's "Consistory" building what would become the world famous Fulton Street Prayer Meetings and the Business Men's Awakenings. Although much of the press of that era focused on the businessmen aspect, the fact is the meetings also drew and accepted less "respectable" types seeking to salvation too.
One of those "awakened" during a Fulton St. laymen's prayer service was a man who came from the tough Water Street district and whose "business" had not always been legitimate. Indeed, his reputation for violence and rough dealing was such that he was nicknamed Orville "the Awful" Gardner. A gambler and pugilist, he had been a trainer of prize fighters, perhaps the only one of his pre-conversion occupations approaching legitimacy.
Orville "the Awful," who had given up drink as part of his conversion, started a self-help support group of other men seeking rescue from sin, especially addiction to alcohol. His program, that came to be known as the "Fourth Ward Reading Room" (aka the "Coffee and Reading Room" and “The Drunkard’s Club”), involved some principles and practices resembling those seen in modern AA meetings.
Inmate McAuley Converted.
It was during one such service in Sing Sing chapel that inmate McAuley saw and heard Gardner with whom he had run back in the Fourth Ward when Jerry trained as prize fighter by day and practiced riverboat burglary at night.
The youth's lifestyle had been such that he became well acquainted with the city jails, including the Tombs, during stays as brief as a few days and as long as six months.
Sing Sing inmate McAuley was 24 when he heard Gardner preach in the chapel. Jerry had served 5 years of a 15-year sentence for a riverfront crime he always insisted he hadn't done.
Though his post-conversion preachings and writings readily admitted that he committed enough crimes to send him "to prison forty times over," McAuley maintained he hadn't committed the one for which he was convicted: "[The] crime was sworn on me by some that hated me bad and wanted me out of the way."
[Fifteen years] was the sentence I got, and when I was not 20 years old. That hour going up the river [to Sing Sing in January 1857] was the toughest I'd ever come to. I was mad with rage . . .
Then I got ugly and thought it was no use, and then they punished me. Do you know what that is? It's the leather collar that holds and galls you. You are strapped up by the arms with your toes just touching the floor, and it's the shower bath that leaves you in a dead faint till another dash brings you out.
I've stood it all and cursed God while I did. . . .
It was one Sunday morning. I'd been in prison five years. I dragged myself into the chapel and sat down; then I heard a voice I knew and looked up. There by the chaplain was a man I'd been on a spree with, many and many a time -- Orville Gardner.
He quoted a Bible verse that struck me, and when I got to my cell again I took the Bible and began to hunt for it. . . .
I wanted to be different. I thought about the new look in Gardner's face. "What makes it?' I said, 'and he's different, why can't I be?" . . .
You wouldn't think I'd have minded, but if 10,000 people had been in my cell, I couldn't have felt worse about praying. I knelt down, blushing as I had never done before in me life. Then I'd get up again, and that's the way it was for three or four weeks, till I was just desperate. Then came a night when I said I'd pray till some sense comes to me, and if it didn't I'd never pray again.
Then in a minute, something seemed to be by me. I heard a voice, or I felt I heard one plain enough. It said, "My son, thy sins which are many, are forgiven."
To the day of me death, I'll think I saw a light about me, and smelled something as sweet as flowers in the cell. I didn't know if I was alive or not.
I shouted out, 'Oh, praise God! Praise God!'
"Shut your noise," the guard said, going by. "What's the matter with you?"
"I found Christ," I said. "My sins are all forgiven me."
"I'll report you," he said, and he took my number, but he didn't report me.
Then at last came a pardon when I'd been in prison seven years and six months, and I came back down the river to New York [March, 1864].
Hold on McAuley.
Although Jerry McAuley's spiritual awakening in Sing Sing had given him a personal awareness of God he did not have previously, his old habits and lifestyle soon took hold again after his release. So much so, he acknowledged in his autobiography, that a "city missionary" who encountered him in a sad state of semi-stupor took him to the Howard Mission, apparently to sober up and stabilize. This same missionary continued to check up on McAuley regularly and help Jerry through repeated relapses.
The Howard Mission's prime focus was the rescue of children, thus its full name Howard Mission and Home for Little Wanderers. Situated at 37 New Bowery, the Home was previously known as the Fourth Ward Mission. While needy families and orphaned and neglected children were its chief clients, down-and-out men without family might occasionally seek and find help there.
At a tea in home of a spiritual benefactor Franklin Smith, McAuley joined in the singing and the praying. Again, he experienced the sense of forgiveness: "There wasn't any shouting this time, but there was quiet and peace.
Nightly, the small and ill-ventilated meeting hall, whose walls were adorned with Scriptural texts, would fill up with ex-convicts, drunkards and other men "on the skids." From 7:30 to 9, there would be hymns, a Bible reading, a brief talk by McAuley, and testimonies by participants as the spirit moved them to tell their own individual stories.
These personal revelations helped both the tellers and the listeners realize they were no longer alone in their situation and that change was possible. In his brief remarks, McAuley would challenge his listeners to take charge of their lives in order to effect the change for the better.
One of the many of the thousands he so challenged was Michael Dunn, a 52-year-old ex-con. Dunn had spent two-thirds of his life in various prisons.
"Do you want to keep on serving terms till you go up to your last Judge?," McAuley bluntly asked him. "You've got brains. You can be an honest man and a happy one if you will used them undo some of your wicked work."
In 1881, Dunn incorporated the transitional residence then providing food and lodging for 27 ex-convicts like himself. It became known as the Home of Industry and Refuge for Discharged Inmates.
The ex-inmate refuge program a decade later, after trying several interim locations, settled into a large building at 224 West 63rd St., in the northern fringe of Hell's Kitchen on the West Side. By 1892, the refuge had served as a temporary "home" for about 3,000 ex-convicts and found jobs for about 1,400 of them.
Meanwhile, McAuley also had moved uptown. In 1882, Jerry left Water Street (succeeded by S. H. Hadley) to start the Cremorne Mission near Times Square. Cremorne is a barony encompassing Ballybay and Aghnamullen in County Monaghan, Ireland.
Jerry had been born in County Kerry, Ireland, in 1839, the son of a counterfeiter. His father abandoned the family to escape law enforcement officers pursuing him. Jerry's mother, unable or perhaps unwilling to raise him herself alone, sent him off to live with his grandmother whose rosary praying on her knees provided him an easy target at which to throw things.
Who knows whether his grandmother's pious prayers, that he had once derided, may have played their part in the recesses of half- forgotten memory, readying him to receive the message of "new life" carried to him "up the river" by Orville "the Awful," a Sing Sing chapel message that helped turn his young life around and led him to help turn around the lives of countless others, first at the Water St. Mission and later at the Cremorne Mission.
Maria succeeded him at the Times Square area mission after he died Sept. 18, 1884. Newspapers of the era reported that Rev. Thomas DeWitt Talmage's reconstructed Brooklyn Tabernacle (aka Central Presbyterian Church) was so packed with people attending McAuley's funeral that the crowd overflowed onto the sidewalk -- quite a turnout considering that the 5,000-seat Gothic style facility was regarded as one of the largest Protestant churches, if not the largest, in the country at the time.
To place the pioneering nature of the 1872 McAuley mission outreach initiative into perspective, one needs to note that the Salvation Army did not land in America until about eight years later, by which time numerous rescue missions modeled on Jerry and Maria's Helping Hand House had already emerged. Londoner William Booth in 1865 founded an evangelical revival and charitable society that renamed itself the Salvation Army in 1878 and came to America about 1880.
Among those who trace their mission's roots back to the Helping Hand House are Jim VarnHagen and his wife, Anita, who run the New York City Rescue Mission. It indeed is a direct descendant of Jerry and Maria McAuley's first Water St. house of refuge.
When the 9/11 attack happened, the VarnHagens had their mission staff print and post handbills throughout Lower Manhattan, announcing the Rescue Mission was open for all needing assistance. What followed was a remarkable reversal of roles.
Through the doorway came people of the financial district -- injured, stunned, gasping for breath, covered with the dust of World Trade Center debris, wearied by their running and stumbling escape from Ground Zero vicinity.
In a matter of moments they had been reduced to just human beings in need of physical help and spiritual comforting.
This they were given in full measure by some of the least influential and least affluent people in the city, the mission's usual clientele -- the poor, the homeless, the unwanted.
How appropriate was the location of that memorable moment in the history of the New York City Rescue Mission, a history begun by an ex-inmate named McAuley. The address: 90 Lafayette St., one block up from The Tombs!
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