a rich past and dynamic present
What is in a name?
The name of the church and the history of our structure says a lot about Union Church of Bay Ridge today.
Two Congregations Become One
Our church began life as two congregations, a Dutch Reformed Church and a Presbyterian Church. Both churches laid their cornerstones in 1896. The Dutch Reformed Church, also known as Bay Ridge Reformed Church, was located where our church stands today at the corner of 80th Street and Ridge Boulevard. The Presbyterian Church lay one block south, at the corner of 81st Street and Ridge Boulevard.
From the outset, relations between the first pastors Dr. Charles Scudder, pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Dr. Walter R. Ferris, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, congregations were friendly. Recognizing their shared faith and vision, over the course of the following decades they undertook a merger, which was complete by December 1918.
A Dedicated Congregation Builds a Church
At the time of the union the church held classes in the kitchen or belfry, as they lacked a proper parish house. As the neighborhood grew, and the congregation along with it, it was clear they needed better accommodations. In 1924, the congregation set out to raise the necessary funds. By 1931, they had one. The church that stands on the corner of 80th Street and Ridge Boulevard today stems directly from the dedicated efforts of the members of the congregation.
A Legacy of Progressive Pastors
Over the years, Union Church of Bay Ridge has been under the leadership of a number of dedicated and dynamic pastors. Though each has brought his or her own unique style and personality to the pulpit, they have all shared a commitment to championing progressive issues and to cultivating a spirit of inclusion, and a spirit of empathy and service toward their members and toward the outside world.
- Dr. John Paul Jones (1931) was a man ahead of his time, who often spoke on labor and other seminal issues that defined the first part of the century. He sometimes exchanged pulpits with a minister from Bedford-Stuyvesant and with a rabbi. He was a dramatic, gripping preacher and one of the first civil rights activists.
- The Reverend George Bonnell (1956) was a theologian and scholar. His preaching style reflected that. During Rev. Bonnell's tenure, Margaret Howland—the first woman ordained by what was then Brooklyn-Nassau Presbytery and the twelfth woman in the denomination—was ordained to the parish ministry at Union Church in 1958. Bonnell’s wife also contributed to the community by founding the Bay Ridge Festival of the Arts.
- The Reverend Paul Stake (1965) presided over a thriving dramatic group and chaperoned the young people of the church on a trip to Puerto Rico.
- The Reverend Bill Tolley was called to Union Church in 1968, and his wife, the Reverend Jo Tolley, ordained in 1983, became assistant pastor. Under their stewardship the Bay Ridge Festival of the Arts grew. They also helped found the Union Center for Women at Union Church.
- The Reverend Jim Burton (1994) led the church through its centennial year (1996) and its turn-of-the-century New Millennium Capital Campaign.
- Reverend Mary Barrett Speers came to Union Church in the fall of 2001.
As in the past, Union Church of Bay Ridge continues to operate in this spirit of openness and fellowship toward other congregations, practices, and beliefs. We also continue to draw on the heritage of our first pastors and past congregations, seeking out ways to praise God, to serve, to ask questions and learn, and to build community with each other and with our neighbors, the world over.
We are growing!
The cornerstone of our beautiful stone-and-wood church was set in 1896, making us over 100 years old. Even the most ageless beauty needs a makeover now and then. That's why over the next several years our church will be undergoing a major renovation.