Organized in 1883 by its founding rector, Fr. Edward Wallace-Neil, the Episcopal Church of St. Edward the Martyr is located in East Harlem near the northeast corner of Central Park. Dr. Neil, along with his close friend Bishop Grafton of Fond de Lac, was one of the leaders in the high church movement in the Protestant Episcopal Church. From the beginning, St. Edward’s was known for its elaborateness of the ritual in its services.
An excerpt from Dr. Neil's sermon on the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the parish:
From the very start S. Edward's parish has identified itself with the Catholic cause in the Church. Its sympathies have ever been with that portion of the Church militant whose aim and object are to restore to the service of the Church all those parts and portions of her heritage of which she was robbed by Puritan fanaticism. Everything that is beautiful in the service of God, everything that will gladden the eye, rejoice the heart and elevate the spirit, has ever found a congenial environment in this parish. "The best that we have for God," has ever been our motto. S. Edward's was the first parish in Harlem to adopt those helpful auxiliaries in the public worship of the Church, which are so common to-day, but which were looked upon with suspicion and distrust ten years ago, when the old cry of "Romanism" was raised against anything that was beautiful in the service of the sanctuary.
Ours was the first surpliced choir, the first choral service. The first to use the proper priestly vestments. The first to use lighted candles on God's altar. The first to exalt the Holy Sacrifice to the place where it belongs as the one, only, grand and central act of worship, which our Blessed Lord intended it should be. Those acts of outward reverence, those exterior gestures of piety which bespeak the devotion of a religious heart and which go so far towards making the worship of Almighty God a vital reality, were ceremonies peculiar to S. Edward's ten years ago and were openly frowned upon and cried down by Churchmen of the neighboring parishes.
Architect George A. Bagge designed the Gothic church that was built in 1887. The church was expanded in 1903 by J.B. Snook & Sons, architects. The new decorations in the interior of the church, including the reredos, altar, stained glass, mosaic, marble and metal work, were designed and installed by J. & R. Lamb, under the supervision of Charles R. Lamb. The expansion was funded by Elbridge T. Gerry, then the senior warden of the parish.
Gradually neighborhood demographics changed, and after World War I the patron's family and other benefactors left. It was no longer a rather elite up-town parish. English and German immigrants were replaced by Italian, Jewish and West Indian. The Puerto Rican community, worshipping in Spanish, became predominant after 1938 as the neighborhood quickly became almost entirely Hispanic.
St. Edward's has always maintained the fullness of Anglo-Catholic worship and theology.
King of England, son to Edgar the Peaceful, and uncle to St. Edward the Confessor; b. about 962; d. 18 March, 979. His accession to the throne on his father's death, in 975, was opposed by a party headed by his stepmother, Queen Elfrida, who was bent on securing the crown for her own son Ethelred, then aged seven, in which she eventually was successful. Edward's claim, however, was supported by St. Dunstan and the clergy and by most of the nobles; and having been acknowledged by the Witan, he was crowned by St. Dunstan. Though only thirteen, the young king had already given promise of high sanctity, and during his brief reign of three years and a half won the affection of his people by his many virtues. His stepmother, who still cherished her treacherous designs, contrived at the last to bring about his death. While hunting in Dorsetshire he happened (18 March, 979) to call at Corfe Castle where she lived. There, while drinking on horseback a glass of mead offered him at the castle gate, he was stabbed by an assassin in the bowels. He rode away, but soon fell from his horse, and being dragged by the stirrup was flung into a deep morass, where his body was revealed by a pillar of light. He was buried first at Wareham, and then three years later, his body, having been found entire, was translated to Shaftesbury Abbey by St. Dunstan and Earl Alfere of Mercia, who in Edgar's lifetime had been one of his chief opponents. Many miracles are said to have been obtained through his intercession. Elfrida, struck with repentance for her crimes, built the two monasteries of Wherwell and Ambresbury, in the first of which she ended her days in penance. The violence of St. Edward's end, joined to the fact that the party opposed to him had been that of the irreligious, while he himself had ever acted as defender of the Church, obtained for him the title of Martyr, which is given to him in all the old English calendars on 18 March, also in the Roman Martyrology.
The altar is of white marble and was given by Mrs. Harriet B Ranney in memory of her two sons. It was made and erected by R Geissler of New York. The Reredos was added later. It is fifty feet high and twenty feet broad. It is constructed of finely carved oak. The central panel contains a rich mosaic of Christ in Benediction while the side panels are filled with adoring angels. The richness of the mosaic work in the upper part of the Reredos, the blending of gold and various colors, all present a most pleasing harmony. The Bishop of Fond du Lac [Charles Chapman Grafton] writes of the Reredos that "it marks a new stage in the progressive development of ecclesiastical art. The contrast in color between the Choir and the Sanctuary is very effective and significant. The figure of Our Lord vested with outstretched hands, in welcome, not in agony, tell the worshipper of his presence with his people. The details of the work are suggestive and beautiful." The Reredos was executed by J and R Lamb New York City.
[Excerpt from Rev. John Wright, Some Notable Altars in The Church of England and The American Episcopal Church (1908).]