A History of St. John's Church in Yonkers

David C. Lucas, PMH Staff
Published on
April 6, 2024
April 3, 2024
West Façade of St. John's Episcopal Church in Yonkers. Photo by author.

New York’s colonial history is written in part by its churches, and Yonkers is no exception. St. John’s Episcopal Church, located at the corner of Hudson Street and Broadway (Route 9) has a rich legacy. The original congregation formed in what would become Yonkers in 1684. The former Adriaen van der Donck patroonship had been acquired by Frederick Philipse I in 1672.

In 1685, Philipse and his second wife, Catherine Van Cortlandt Philipse, designed and built the Old Dutch Church in present-day Sleepy Hollow. He and his second wife Catherine are all buried in the family crypt there.

The Dutch Reformed Church was the official church of the Netherlands, and therefore New Netherland. When the British took control of the colony of New Netherland in 1664, they established Trinity Parish of the Church of England, displacing the Dutch Reformed as the official state church in the colony. Frederick and Margaret were both Dutch emigrants and the Philipses retained many of their Dutch customs, even after the British took over.

As early as 1684, a minister was brought to Westchester. Although there was no Church of England edifice in the area “…the Justices and Vestrymen of Westchester, Eastchester and Yonkers, do accept of Mr. Warham Mather as our minister for one whole year, &c.”1 Warham Mather was the first cousin of the famed theologian Cotton Mather.2

In 1692, during the reign of King William and Queen Mary of England, Ireland, and Scotland, the Third Act of Assembly was passed, establishing the Church of England in the Colonies. The following year, the colonial legislature would establish a Westchester parish. That was the same year that the first Frederick Philipse was granted a Royal Charter, making him Lord of Philipsburgh. At the time, he owned about 90,000 acres of land.3 The establishment of a manor gave Philipse certain political rights in addition to the right to collect rent from his tenants. Among the rights Philipse was granted were those of church advowson (the right to name a vicar or rector to a parish post) and the right of patronage of all and every church erected within his Manor.

Manor lords like Philipse would also set aside a glebe – or land designated for use by the church to support the church property and/or the minister. It usually contained the church building itself, the cemetery, the minister’s residence, and the lands could be farmed or rented out to support the minister’s family and/or his salary.

When Frederick I died in 1702, he was one of the wealthiest men in New York. His property was divided between his son Adolphus, and his grandson, Frederick II. Young Frederick was born in Barbados and had been educated in England. He would eventually reunite the manor lands, as the second Manor Lord. When he died in 1751, his will instructed his heirs to build an English church and minister’s residence on the Nepperhan (Saw Mill) River. “That out of the rents that are or shall be due tome from the Manor of Philipsburgh, the sum of 400 [pounds] be, by my executors, laid out and expended towards erecting, building and finishing a church of England as by law established…by Saw Mill River.”4

The Philipse family, nearly 100 years after British rule, had finally decided to become fully English.

The Early Church

St. John's Church before 1858, as illustrated in Old Yonkers: 1646-1922: A Page of History by Henry Collins Brown (1922).

Portrait of Frederick Philipse III by John Wollaston, c. 1750. New-York Historical Society collections.

The church would eventually be built in 1752, by young Colonel Frederick Philipse III, not on the site his father picked upstream (near the current St. John’s cemetery in Yonkers), but a short distance across the Saw Mill from the family Manor Hall, which had been built in the 1680s.

St. John’s was constructed of locally quarried fieldstone set in irregular courses and accented with brick quoins. The brick is said to have come from the Bronx. The church was originally a rectangle about 35 feet by 60 feet in size, with a gable roof. A square tower, topped by a spire, was centered on its western side, but the main entry was the arched door that we still see today on the original south façade. There was a series of four rounded windows of clear glass.

The inside of the church probably included a pulpit and lectern centered on the north wall, opposite the main door. At the time, there would not have been an altar. Four sets of pews would have faced north. On the west end was a door leading to the foyer under the steeple and, perhaps a communion table would have been located somewhere along the east wall. St. Paul’s church in Mount Vernon, now a national historic site, is very similar to what the original St. John’s might have looked like.

At first, the church had no dedicated minister, but was supplied clergy from nearby Westchester Square, now part of the East Bronx. The first minister rotated between congregations at St. John’s in Yonkers, St. Paul’s in Mount Vernon, Christ Church in Rye, and St. Peter’s in Westchester Square, (now part of the Bronx). In 1764, Colonel Philipse would petition the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) for a dedicated minister. “He therefore earnestly requests the SPG to send them a Missionary that he and his poor tenants, near 150 families, may no longer be destitute of the worship of the Church of England.”5 The SPG would send a Reverend Harry Munro to service Philipsburgh Manor.

During the American Revolution, after removing his family to Manhattan, Philipse also served as vestryman of Trinity Church, from 1779 to 1782. During the time period, St. Paul’s, Manhattan was used, as the original Trinity had been destroyed in the Great New York City fire of 1776.6

One of St. John’s parish’s first projects was a school in the Mile Square area of what is now central Yonkers. (The Mile Square was not part of any of the surrounding feudal-style manors.) During the Revolutionary War, St. John’s parishioners were forced to take sides. The Philipses and the minister, Reverend Luke Babcock, signed a Declaration of Dependence in December of 1776.7 Notably, the Van Cortlandts, relations by marriage, did not sign the Declaration. They would become major supporters of St. John’s after the Revolution.

Philipse Manor was something of a no man’s land during the war. British forces held the entirety of Manhattan, and Patriot forces held sway to the north. Church services at St. John’s in were suspended during this time, and the communion platter was sent to Manhattan for safekeeping but was never to be seen again. The church became a hospital, servicing casualties on both sides.8 Some believe that soldiers may be buried under the floors.

For his Loyalism, the Reverend Babcock was arrested by the Patriots and returned to his glebe home. Church lore alleges that Babcock fell dead on the doorstep, shortly thereafter. He was buried on Vault Hill, on the Van Cortlandt estate.9

Plaque in honor of Reverend Luke Babcock, currently on display at St. John's Episcopal Church in Yonkers, NY. The plaque reads: "In Memory of Rev'd Luke Babcock, Born July 6th, 1738, rector of this church from 1770, to 1777, when he departed this life in the 39th year of his age." Photo by the author.
Exterior plaque "To honor all American Revolution soldiers buried in Saint John's Church Cemetery, Yonkers, New York. Presented by the Keskeskick Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, 75th Anniversary June, 1970." Photo by the author.

After the American Revolution, Americans established the Episcopal church in the new United States, to separate themselves from the Anglican Church and its English ministers, who swore allegiance to the King of England, who was head of the Anglican Church.

As Loyalists, the Philipses left the colonies in 1783 with the British, as George Washington camped at the Van Cortlandt house, preparing to ride into Manhattan on Evacuation Day. The Philipse lands were broken up and sold by the Commissioners of Forfeiture, but the church received special attention.

After the Revolution

Map of Yonkers as it looked in 1813, including the Glebe and church of St. John's Episcopal. As illustrated in Old Yonkers: 1646-1922: A Page of History by Henry Collins Brown (1922).

In 1784, the new New York State Legislature established an act to recognize the existing status of religious bodies. The Yonkers Episcopal Society was incorporated by Frederick Van Cortlandt and Thomas Valentine. There was an amendment to the Forfeiture Act of 1784, providing “that it shall be lawful to convey to such trustees of the Episcopal church in the aforesaid Manor, the church or building situated near the Manor House, together with two acres of land adjoining the church, and also the parsonage or glebe containing 97 acres now occupied by the Widow Babcock.”10 Notably, another Van Cortlandt, Augustus, was the first warden of the church.

In 1791, a fire destroyed the roof, interior woodwork, and steeple of the church.11 Renovated the next year, it was consecrated as St John’s Church, Philipsburgh; this was the first time the name was used.12

By the 1870s, the church needed expansion. An article in The Statesman, from November 1872, reported that “the question presented was, whether the old building should be enlarged and improved, or pulled down, and a new church erected. After careful deliberation, it was decided to enlarge and improve the old building, retaining as many of the venerable features of the original edifice as should be practicable. With this view, the work was committed to Mr. Edward Tuckerman Potter, the well-known architect, and the church now nearly completed, bears ample evidence of his skill, taste and devotion to his art.”13

Edward Tuckerman Potter (1831-1904).

Potter won the commission over submissions by John Davis Hatch, Renwick & Sands, and Frederick Diaper, major architects of the era, precisely because his design incorporated the south wall of the original church.14 The fieldstone walls, brick quoins, and arched windows and doors use Georgian elements, with a decidedly Dutch Colonial flavor. The style of the expanded church also had elements of Renaissance revival, mimicking the style employed during the reign of George II of England. But, the Statesman article went on to say:

“the herring bone courses of brick work – the peculiar arrangement of the coping – the raking buttresses of the façade, not built with weatherings in the Gothic manner, but carried up on the batter, giving an appearance of massiveness and strength – the elaborate brick work of the doorways – the paneling of the doors, and the big rings used as handles – all carry us back to the days of our grandfathers, and clearly indicate the Dutch influence which prevailed at the time the original structure was put up. The entire south wall of the old building is retained, with the venerable door and windows.”15
St. Johns Episcopal Church south wall. Photo by the author.
“All that side of the church which borders on Broadway has been preserved exactly as it stood before, and the vines still cling to the old walls which have been so long silent witnesses of the many changes constantly taking place around them. The enlargement consisted in widening the church and adding a clerestory and chancel. In carrying out this improvement, and while avoiding the destruction of the most interesting details, the architect has produced to an extraordinary extent the spirit and design of the first architect of the building, so perfect indeed, that it is almost impossible to see where the old ends and the new begins.”16 

The same year, another article from The Statesman notes:

“The entrance to the church is from the west. There is a very ample vestibule separated from the church by a large screen of carved chestnut, and plate glass windows. To the right of this entrance is an old fashioned fireplace, in which, on the occasion of the inauguration services, a large wood fire was burning. Over the vestibule is the organ loft, very spacious, with the front very elaborately decorated with carvings of musical instruments. The church is divided into nave and aisles by six elevated bronze columns, which give substantial support to the clerestory. The windows of the latter are of richly stained glass. Along the frieze of the entablature above the columns, on the north side, is the text, “He Brought Me Into His Banqueting House,” and on the south side, “And His Banner Over Me Was Love,” carved in old English letters. On either side of the nave, near the chancel, project small transepts, which afford additional entrances to the church. The chancel is 30 x 50 feet in outside measurement, and between 60 and 70 feet in height. It is apse form, lighted by five lofty, round arched lancet windows. The arrangement of the aisles in the apse gives considerable accommodation in this part of the church. That part of the interior of the church constructed of wood is illuminated in polychrome, with gold ornaments. It is very interesting to notice how far this style of decoration accords with details like those of the old church.”17
Interior of St. John's Episcopal Church, with vaulted ceilings, columns, and pews. Photo by the author.
Passage from the Song of Solomon, 2:4, carved into the entablature above the arches of St. John's Episcopal Church. Photo by the author.

The bronze bell in the south bell tower was among the items saved from the old church during the expansion in 1872. It was cast in Mansfield, Connecticut at the beginning of the 19th century, and Trinity Church contributed $300 to the building of the tower.18 Today, three unused bronze bells sit on the lawn of the church, surrounded by climbing roses. These came from St. Andrew’s church in Yonkers, which burned down. Other bells still have a function and are used in the firehouse a block away.

Bell from St. Andrew's displayed on the St. John's lawn. Photo by the author.

If one looks at the huge half rose window over the front door of the expanded church, it matches the shape of the fan windows over the doors of Philipse Manor Hall.

The sunlit stained glass fan window which echoes the Palladian style fan windows over each of the doors of Philipse Manor Hall. Photo by the author.

St. John’s Cemetery

Historic marker for St. John's Cemetery on Saw Mill River Road, which reads: "St. Johns first public burial ground on Yonkers - about 1783. Graves of Soldiers of Revolution and also later wars; also early settlers of Yonkers." Erected in 1936 by the New York State Education Department. Photo by the author.

The first burial place for the poor of the Lower Mills region was at Philipse Point, a stony out cropping on the northwest corner of the current St. John’s property. When Riverdale Avenue was built and widened, human remains were discovered.19

Saint John's Cemetery was established by the church in 1783, on land that had been bequeathed to the Church of England by Frederick Philipse II in 1751, at what is now Saw Mill River Road at Axminster Street.20 The cemetery contains the graves of several notable Yonkers residents from the 19th century, as well as more than 200 veterans of America's armed conflicts from the Revolutionary War through World War I. Saint John's Cemetery is separate from Oakland Cemetery, a non-sectarian burial ground that opened in 1867, and adjoins its south and east sides.

The area marked as the parsonage (the small black square is the parsonage building) on this map later became St. John's and Oakwood cemeteries. Detail from a 1933 map of the post-Revolution purchasers of land in Philipse Manor, annotated by Paul A. Bourquin. Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site.

In 1751, Frederick Philipse entrusted “The Glebe” to his children, for use of the Church of England ministers at Saint John’s. Later, it appeared that the intentions of Mr. Philipse were not to be carried out. The Vestry of St. John’s went to the Supreme Court and was granted permission to sell all but a small portion of the property, which later became St. John’s Cemetery.21

In post-revolutionary times, title for the property appears in the name of Leonard W. Jerome, Esq., who had purchased several farms in the area. (Jerome Avenue in the Bronx is named after him.) In 1866, Jerome turned his land over for the establishment of a cemetery, in exchange for certificates of indebtedness for $200,000, and the Yonkers Cemetery Association was established. In 1882, the name was changed to Oakland Cemetery.22

A walk through Oakland today shows waves of various ethnic groups, who lived and died in the environs of Yonkers. At some point in the 1800s, permission was given to “the colored” to have a fenced-in area for burials. The location of the Black burial ground is no longer known, but it is likely to be in an empty plot between the St. John’s and Oakland cemeteries.23

The Reverend David Cole described Saint John's Cemetery as he saw it in 1886: "The ground is on a high and beautiful elevation [and] comprises 7.6 acres, and is still the property of St. John’s Church and under its control. The carriage entrance to it from the Saw-Mill River road is on the northwest corner of the grounds. The foot entrance, further to the south, is by sixteen steps of very abrupt ascent. On the grounds, are several family vaults, some of which are very old, and several quite imposing obelisks and other monuments. [. . .] The ground is now becoming very closely filled with graves. There must be a time, and it cannot be far distant, when its room will be wholly taken up."24 

St. John’s Today 

Stained glass window at St. John's Episcopal Church depicting the birth of Christ and the arrival of the Magi. Photo by the author.

On a recent Sunday, we took a tour of the chapel. It is an exquisite, soaring space, painted in tones of periwinkle blue and cream. Gilding adorns the column bases and hanging light fixtures. Stained-glass windows ring the space, and there are painted clerestory windows above. One of the stained-glass windows is Tiffany. Another bears a dedication to carpet mill heiress Eva Smith Cochran, whose lobbying and generosity kept Philipse Manor Hall from the wrecking ball. There are wood and marble plaques between the windows. The oldest is a memorial to Reverend Babcock. (Sealed up behind it is the original front door and pictured above.) Sculpture, flags, tiers of votive candles, and a winged angel baptismal font made of marble are positioned around the grand space.

Stained glass window of St. John's Episcopal Church dedicated "To the glory of God and the memory of Eva Smith Cochran." Photo by the author.
Tiffany stained glass window in St. John's Episcopal Church, dedicated to "Sarah Morton, wife of John G. Christopher and daughter of Henry Bowers. Died July 8, 1879 aged 21 years 7 months and 12 days. Erected in loving memory by her father." Photo by the author.
Marble baptismal font depicting a winged angel kneeling from St. John's Episcopal Church. Photo by the author.

It is fascinating to learn the history of the building, and its 90-degree shift in orientation, from the original to the current, much-enlarged space. The original plan was intended to be symmetrical, but it was discovered that the parish did not own enough land on the northside; the north apse is half the depth of the south. As our staff wag has noted, “it was half-apsed.”

From its beginning, the church has involved itself in the community. Its parishioners established what is now St. John’s Riverside Hospital in 1869.25 According to the St. John’s website, “…this parish was instrumental in founding C.L.U.S.T.E.R., an agency to support people in need, and the Sharing Community which has helped thousands make the transition from homelessness to mainstream life.” There is also a seasonal farmer’s market on Thursdays, supplying fresh food and wares to the neighborhood.

The website goes on to say that St. John’s is “a diverse congregation, including people who are American-born, as well as people who have immigrated from Antigua, Barbados, Belize, Gambia, Haiti, India, Ireland, Jamaica, and the Philippines, among others. We are gay, straight, transgender, young, old, married, single, working, retired, unemployed, homeless and everything else. This is a loving and kind community that strives to be the body of Christ in Getty Square.”26

Like many historic churches, St. John’s serves as a reminder of the generations of worshippers who came before as well as future generations yet to come.

Author Bio:

David C. Lucas is an interpreter at Philipse Manor Hall, giving public tours, working the front desk, and contributing to the website and social media. In his previous career, he spent years at Macy’s in Manhattan as a Graphic Designer and Art Director. Subsequently, he taught Design for several semesters at New York City University of Technology and worked at Rye Playland. He occasionally serves as a docent at the Hudson River Museum, and is the Trail Maintainer for the German Hollow Trail of the Catskill Forest.


[1] Bolton, Robert, A.M., History of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in the County of Westchester, from its Foundation, 1855, p. 497

[2] He would later move to New Haven, where he was deemed “an unsuccessful minister,” would dabble in medicine, and would end up in law.

[3] Bielinski, Steven, An American Loyalist: The Ordeal of Frederick Philipse, New York State Museum, 1976,  p. 6

[4] Bolton, p. 489

[5] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[6] https://blogs.shu.edu/nyc-history/2016/12/13/trinity-church

[7] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[8] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[9] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[10] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[11] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[12] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[13] Kirkwood, Agnes E., Church and Sunday School Work in Yonkers: Its Origins and Progress, 1889, p 34.

[14] Potter’s most famous commission is probably the Mark Twain House, in Hartford, CT.

[15] Kirkwood, pp. 34-45.

[16] Kirkwood, pp. 34-45.

[17] Newspapers. com, The Herald Statesman Archive, 1891-1998.

[18] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[19] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[20] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[21] www.oaklandcemeteryny.com/History.html

[22] Kempton, Wayne, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Getty Square, Yonkers, New York; The Early Years

[23] www.oaklandcemeteryny.com/History.html

[24] Rafferty, Patrick, on behalf of the Westchester County Historical Association and Clio Admin. Saint John's Cemetery. Clio: Your Guide to History. July 20, 2021. Accessed December 10, 2023.

[25] https://riversidehealth.org/about/history

[26] www.stjohnsgettysquare.church