History of Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church
The Second Oldest Church
in the A.M.E. Zion Denomination
Mother Church of the
New England Annual Conference
James Varick led a group of people fighting for religious freedom in early 1796. This group was called the A.M.E. Church of New York. In 1848 ‘Zion’ was added to the name to distinguish ourselves from and not cause confusion with another Black Methodist group led by Richard Allen also called A.M.E.
In the fall of 1818, after having received correspondence on behalf of a small group of struggling black Methodist in the city of New Haven, in November Varick along with others came to New Haven and met with those struggling Christians. The First Methodist Church of New Haven was assigned a staunch segregationalist as its minister. Apart of the congregation were thirty-five slaves who were made to worship in separate quarters of the church and were denied communion on the first Sunday’s (when the sacrament was usually celebrated) and further were discouraged from taking any active role in the liturgy of the church. These slaves longed for religious freedom. At risk of severe punishment, these slaves continued meeting with Varick’s ambassadors and organized a formal congregation. The Reverend Jeremiah Jacobs was the first minister for this new Methodist Society in New Haven. This society, through-out its long and storied history has been known by several names, ‘The Black Methodist Society of New Haven,’ the ‘John Wesley Church’, ‘Big Zion’ and in some records the church was simply called ‘Zion.’ In honor of the denominations founder, and driving force behind this local Society’s establishment the name of this church was changed and would be hereafter known as The Varick Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Those original thirty-five slaves who together started the first colored Methodist Church in New Haven were encouraged in the early years and drew strength from John Wesley’s (founder and leader of the world Methodist movement) strong opposition to human bondage.
The A.M.E. (Zion) Church of New York was incorporated and published its first church discipline. The Annual Conference of the denomination was held in New York; James Varick presided as its Superintendent and on June 17, 1822 he received Elders Orders. In July of 1822 James Varick was elected the first Bishop of the Church.
In 1824, Reverend James Anderson, the second Pastor of the New Haven Society was appointed to Middletown, Conn. where he helped to organize what is presently The Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church.
In 1827 God in His wise providence saw fit to call our founder and leader, Bishop James Varick from earthly labor to eternal reward.
In 1832 Eliza Ann Paine, a housekeeper for Dr. Theodore Dwight Woolsey, arrived in New Haven, presented her letter and was received into the First Methodist Church. Later she left First Methodist Church and joined the New Haven Society of the A.M.E. (Zion) Church where she became a member of the steward board. Due to the influence of Dr. Woolsey she was a driving force in the church, acquiring its first building for worship.
During those years the New Haven Society of the A.M.E. (Zion) Church experienced movement back and forth in both its membership and leadership. This back and forth movement served as a detriment in the struggle for religious freedom among Black Methodists at large and certainly was the cause for slow growth of the local congregation. By 1841, according to the New Haven city records the society was in possession of their own building. The building was located at the corner of Broad and Hospital Streets, in the ‘Hill neighborhood.’ It is interesting to note that none of the early black congregations of New Haven were located in the “Negro Section” in or around Negro Lane. For many years the New Haven Society worshipped wherever they could gather in privacy before obtaining this property. Tragically, exactly one year after acquiring its first permanent location, a fire destroyed the building, and to make matters worse there was not sufficient insurance coverage to replace the building. This tragedy was a serious loss and impediment for this congregation.
In 1845 Bishop Christopher Rush organized four northern Annual Conferences. The New England Annual Conference was organized in Hartford Conn. at Metropolitan Church, Varick Memorial (then known as John Wesley) became the “Mother Church of the New England Annual Conference.”
After about six years of worshiping in rented spaces, in 1848 Varick relocated to a new address on the corner of Broad and Morocco Streets, a few blocks away from the first location. In 1855 James Walker Hood came to New Haven to work as a colored waiter in the Torentine Hotel. He joined Varick Memorial and was a very active member. Hood later was called to ministry and preached his trial sermon at Varick Memorial Church. He went on to become one of the most powerful preachers of our church. Hood also distinguished himself as a Church expansionist, starting many congregations during his ministry. Bishop Hood is known as one of the greatest bishops in the A.M.E. Zion Church. Hood Theological Seminary, Salisbury, North Carolina is named in honor of him.
In 1861 Ms. Hannah Gray left her home to white trustees for the purpose of housing the aged. The home and its residents were cared for by the women of Varick Memorial Church.
It took more than twenty-four years of praying, planning, and fundraising but after many sacrifices in 1866 an edifice was purchased from the East Pearl Street Methodist Church. This edifice was moved from its Fair Haven location to Foote Street in the Dixwell Neighborhood.
During the formative years the John Wesley Society (Varick Memorial) experienced its ups and downs and had many great leaders. In 1889 The Reverend George B. Biddle, a graduate of Yale, and well remembered military chaplain, served as Pastor. He was a member of the 54th Regiment of Colored Soldiers from Massachusetts stationed in Fort Wagner, South Carolina. The women of Varick Memorial (then John Wesley) made and presented the regimental flag for the colored soldiers of the 54th regiment who fought during the civil war. Reverend Biddle founded “Zion’s Trumpet,” a national publication while he was serving as Pastor in New Haven.
In 1902 the late Mrs. Mary Perry was born and later baptized at Varick Memorial Church, her father, The Reverend J.W. Davis served as Varick’s Pastor, and led in the planning of the new building and purchased the Old Parsonage (13 Charles Street).On October 10th 1908, construction began on the site at Charles Street and Dixwell Avenue. In 1910 The Reverend Calvin Whitted served as Pastor.
On October 25 1915, for the church celebration, Dr. Booker T. Washington, founder and President of the Tuskegee Institute, was invited to New Haven and delivered his last public speech from the pulpit of Varick Church.
Varick Church struggled as most churches did during the years of 1924-1929, these were known as “the lean years” by the recollection of older members. This was during the time of the great depression, but somehow God blessed the Varick congregation and kept this old ship of Zion from sinking. During these years The Reverend Dr. S.W. Weller was appointed pastor. He came with the vision of liquidating the mortgage, he presented a plan for ‘One dollar Rallies.’ Through his leadership and the congregations support in 1929 the second mortgage was burned.
During the 1940’s while the great migration of African Americans, from the South to the North was at its height. The numerical growth of Varick was improving and things began to look-up for the church once again. The war had created employment opportunities and New Haven was booming economically. Bishop J.W. Walls was the Presiding Bishop of the New England Annual Conference and he went south to find a minister for the New Haven Charge. Bishop Walls found and appointed The Reverend R.A.G. Foster (know as “Rag Foster”) as pastor of Varick Church. Reverend Foster became the first black Alderman of the city of New Haven and is credited with obtaining many jobs for blacks in the Dixwell community.
In 1952 The Reverend Matthew Rudd was appointed pastor of Varick at the New England Annual Conference. It was during the tenure of Reverend Rudd that a strong layman arose into leadership at Varick Memorial, Mr. William Brockington. Mr. Brockington was a tireless leader for Varick. He led the Trustee Board for many years. He had the ability to motivate the congregation like no other.
In 1960 The Reverend Lee Clinton Siler was appointed pastor.
In 1964 The Reverend Harold A.L. Clement was appointed pastor.
In 1974 The Reverend Dozier R. Miller was appointed as Pastor. Reverend Miller began to bring the congregation together again, he and Mrs. Miller gave invaluable service to the Varick Memorial Church. During the Miller pastorate the late Reverend Lila Sykes, a tireless church worker and associate minister became a member of Varick Memorial Church and joined the New England Annual Conference.
During the Miller years an old mortgage was paid off and in 1977 a 12 year mortgage in the amount of $150,000 was acquired and $50,000 was paid toward this indebtedness during the Miller Pastorate. On April 2, 1978 a rededication service was held to celebrate the reconstruction of the church and historic parsonage. Bishop Herbert Bell Shaw was the preacher for the rededication and laid a corner stone for the church. A time capsule to be opened at a later date was buried that day. Reverend Dozier R. Miller retired during the 1978 New England Annual Conference.
In 1979 Bishop H.B Shaw appointed The Reverend Cleveland S. Thornhill II and the new pastor for Varick Memorial Church. In 1983 the remainder of the mortgage was paid and the church celebrated with a grand Mortgage Burning Program. Bishop Alford Gilbert Dunston Jr. was the preacher for the occasion and led in the mortgage burning ceremony.
In 1984 during Reverend Thornhill’s pastorate a new grand piano was purchased as well as the Allen 3 Manual organ.
Reverend Thornhill sought to expand the footprint of Varick Memorial Church and in 1990 the adjacent property at 246 Dixwell was purchased. This property was formally the well known Sosensky’s hardware Store of New Haven. This spacious building was to be used as a Community Center for Varick Church and the Dixwell Community. In 1991The Varick Christian Outreach Center was renovated and officially opened. In 1992 ground breaking for the new building of the Ella B. Scantlebury Homes was celebrated which was sponsored by the Varick/ Hannah Gray Development Corporation.
In May of 1992 Bishop George Washington Carver Walker Sr. appointed The Reverend Lester A. McCorn as the new Pastor of Varick Memorial Church. Reverend McCorn, a splendid preacher and many new members and ministries were added during the McCorn years. The transpiration ministry was started, the stained glass windows restored and the Carillon Bells were purchased and installed. In 1997 the Old Historic Parsonage becomes an official stop on the State of Connecticut’s Freedom Trail. This same year Varick becomes a part of the Winchester Repeating Arms Historical District of New Haven Conn. Reverend McCorn proved to be one of Varick’s most progressive and endearing pastors.
In October 1998, Bishop George W.C. Walker Sr. appointed The Reverend William David Lee as the new pastor of Varick Memorial Church. While Reverend Lee showed great promise his pastorate ended on a less than desirable note.
On Sunday October 28th 2007 Bishop George E. Battle Jr. appointed The Reverend Eldren D. Morrison, as Pastor of Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. Reverend Morrison’s first sermon at Varick was, “Your forecast is changing.”Reverend Morrison came to Varick during the worse days in the churches history. Many terrible things had transpired. The church's attendance had drastically dropped and there were talks of combining the 8:am and 11:am services into one worship service again.
Rev. Morrison led this congregation through a 5 year legal storm that threatened to close the doors of our church. He brought Varick back to life and transformed the scope of mission and ministry for our congregation. The congregation doubled in size and today there are three Sunday morning worship services, and a host of ministries that are making an impact in the New Haven community. Rev. Morrison founded (VCE) Varick Center for Empowerment. He took to heart the words of Booker T. Washington, “At the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, even at the bottom of religion, there must be for our race economic independence." The VCE is concentrated on changing the footprint of our neighborhood and improving the economic opportunities for the Dixwell community. Rev. Morrison believed and taught that education must be a priority if we are to move forward as a church and community. He founded The Booker T. Washington Group with the goal of establishing a new school in the Dixwell community. Rev. Morrison believed that parents should have options and ownership in the scholastic training of their children.
Rev. Morrison led the church in acquiring additional property on Sperry Street and anticipates the acquisition of additional property for future development for our church and community. Varick's future was looking promising and bright, as we continued to move forward in evangelism, education and economic development under the leadership of Rev. Morrison. After nine years of ministry, on August 13, 2016 the 42nd Pastor received a new appointment to another church in the south, and relocated with his family at the end of August.
September 4, 2016 Bishop Dennis V. Proctor appointed Varick's 43rd Pastor in that of Rev Kelcy G.L. Steele. Pastor Steele has hit the ground running by taking the proverbial bull by the horn. He is married to Lady Natasha Steele and they are poised to continue the legacy and work that was started by great Giants before him. Varick is a great church, doing great things, serving a great God!!