Tucked in the massive Citicorp skyscraper at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue is Saint Peter's Lutheran Church, widely known for its jazz ministry. Especially at 5 p.m. on Sunday evenings.
That's the time for Jazz Vespers, created back in the 1960s by Pastor John Garcia Gensel. He believed that jazz musicians, who found it hard to come to church on Sunday mornings after working late Saturday nights, would welcome the accommodation.
By 1968, the jazz ministry was fully established at Saint Peter's, with luminaries like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn among those attending and playing regularly. Strayhorn's estate donated his personal Steinway piano, which is used regularly.
Musicians from New York and throughout the world come to play. Everyone is welcome. From time to time communion is shared during a Jazz Mass. There's a sermon, and a band that plays and leads those assembled in song and, sometimes, dancing.
The church's commitment and ties to jazz extend beyond that service. A music room on the lower level is available for practice or rehearsal. Senior Pastor Amandus Derr, universally known as Mandy, said that the first donation for the room was given by Ellington. The connection to the jazz great continues with the Duke Ellington Society, which meets monthly at the church from September to June.
Derr is a distinguished-looking 67-years-old with fulsome gray hair. He said that from the completion of its 1977 building, Saint Peter's stated mission was to be a hospitable place serving the community.
Studying for the ministry, Derr said he early on “fell in love with the Hebrew language.” He referenced the 1994 Lutheran Church's rejection of the anti-Semitic writings of its founder, Martin Luther. The document of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, formally rejecting Martin Luther's anti-Semitic language, states: “In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers.”
Derr stated: “It is important that Christians recognize how many were complicit in the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II.”
Now beginning his 20th year at Saint Peter's, Derr has become “convinced that we have to work across faith lines.” Indeed, this church appears dedicated to inclusion. Neighboring Central Synagogue has used the space occasionally, he said.
“The 55th Street Mosque started here,” he said.
With a current membership of 600, the church is expected to grow, having merged with Iglesias de Sion, a Spanish East Harlem Lutheran congregation. A Spanish mass is now offered.
The stark and serene sanctuary is set off by the huge Klais pipe organ. “Everything in the sanctuary moves except the organ and the baptismal font,” said Derr. “The only cross is engraved on the pulpit and that is easily covered.”
The chapel, currently under restoration, is a comforting five-sided space. Two facing walls are covered with Louise Nevelson sculptures. “Choice of a Jewish artist was intentional,” according to Derr, because “the designers wanted to emphasize that the chapel was for everyone.”
The openness of the church is striking, with many large clear glass windows. Doors are left unlocked. Pathways between the Citicorp building, the subway, tower, atrium and the church were closed off after 9/11, because the skyscraper was seen as a prime terrorist target, but every effort was made to maintain a feeling of welcome.
There is a Senior Center, and a space called the Living Room that's used daily to serve food to the homeless and people with AIDS.
Beyond its liturgical functions, the church doubles as a theater, concert and conference hall. From the beginning, the building included a black-box theater. For decades, the lower level of the church has been home for the York Theatre Company. For more information, visit saintpeters.org and saintpeters.org/jazz.
The jazz beat extends to concerts for the midtown community at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays. And anyone wanting to play at Jazz Vespers should contact the director of music. There's even a Jazz Connect Conference at Saint Peter's next January 5-6, 2017.
Church, CitiCorp Center eyed for historical value
“The church building represents a time of urban renewal and is worth preserving,” Pastor Amandus Derr said, explaining that he hopes the Landmarks Preservation Commission will designate the church.
The church, as part of the larger Citicorp Center complex, will be part of a hearing on proposed designation on September 13.
Saint Peter's interior was designed by Lella and Massimo Vignelli. The floor is Caledonia granite, and the consistent beige-colored paint sets off a motif of red oak and steel. The Klais pipe organ is of red oak, 18' square and 4' deep. The Louise Nevelson sculptures in the chapel are white painted wood on white walls. The Sion Center looks like a dance studio, with a mirrored wall and wood flooring, to accommodate the dancing that accompanies much of Spanish Lutheran practice.
The Citicorp Center is actually three buildings: an office tower reaching 59 stories, a six-story building housing office and retail space, and Saint Peter's, integrated architecturally, but a free-standing structure. Conceived in late 20th century Modernism by Hugh Stubbins and Emery Roth & Sons, the tower reaches up 910 feet, rising on four 115-foot-tall pylons.
The original legal agreement created a condominium in partnership with Citicorp. In 1973, when the church land was sold for $9 million, Saint Peter's retained a 5 percent interest, according to Derr. Boston Properties, Citicorp's owners since 2001, have plans for the complex, including a desire to create a wall replacing the Sion Room's glass doors.