There are 3 important dates in the history of Bethany Chapel in Yonkers, NY: 1904, 1918, and 1938. Let’s see what was happening in the world and in the chapel during those years.
In 1904, the world was focused on many things: (1) Teddy Roosevelt was elected president (2) The U.S. held the Olympics for the first time and (3) the St Louis World’s fair was in full swing, giving the world exciting new things. One of those was “fairy floss,” or, as we know it, cotton candy.
In Yonkers, folks would pass by St. Mary’s church on South Broadway, there since 1848. And they were probably VERY excited about the new 242nd Street subway station being built right down the road in the Bronx.
But also in 1904, a group of like-minded Christians were focused on other things. They began a fellowship, meeting in a private home at 37 St. Andrew’s Place, to worship the Lord in the scriptural manner of the church as found in the 1st Century.
We don’t know all the names of those pioneering souls, but the home where they met belonged to Charles and Mary Young.
At this same time, the James Slip Mission was in operation under, or nearly under the Brooklyn Bridge, ministering to the servicemen coming in on the docks, and the struggling men and women in the local area. When the directors died within months of each other, 50 believers gathered to plead with the Lord for a replacement. No name was volunteered, and no one came forward. They met again, and prayed earnestly, but still no one volunteered. Finally, after the third prayer session, Simon Holmgren, one of those 50, said he would do it. At the time, he was in his late 30s.
The group did not know what to make of this, since he was a quiet, reserved, gentle man from Scotland, and had no experience dealing with the problems of the street. But his wife, Elin, agreed with Simon that it was the Lord’s leading. With that, the early elders of Bethany Chapel commended them to the work in the rescue mission known as “James Slip” on January 15, 1920 and the Holmgrens moved into the mission.
Simon and Elin Holmgren were the first commended workers Bethany Chapel placed into the Lord’s work.
What does it mean when we say commended workers? We use the word “commended” because our missionaries are not sent out by any denomination, agency, organization, or mission board. When the elders of a local assembly are satisfied that the potential missionaries or workers are both qualified and called by God to a particular work, they "commend" them or, hand them over to Him for His gracious care, guidance and provision to accomplish that work. In turn, the desire of those workers is to serve the Lord and trust Him alone for their needs. They believe that the Lord knows their needs and will not fail them.
The Holmgrens are also the reason why the ladies at Bethany Chapel up to the present still have their annual Christmas luncheon. In the mid-1920s, once a month, on a Wednesday night, they would go down to the James Slip Mission and have a meeting for the ladies in that neighborhood. And at Christmas time, the chapel ladies would take gifts for them. Elin Holmgren was not one to spend money on herself, so they would bring her a nice gift of some needed clothing. When the mission finally closed in 1947, that meeting transitioned to Yonkers and was held at the location where the Christians were then meeting. More on that shortly…
Later, when others were commended to the Lord’s work, a donation was taken, and gifts were purchased, wrapped, and mailed. Eventually, it was felt that monetary gifts would be more practical.
As this small fellowship of Christians in Yonkers grew, the congregation moved several times to different locations along South Broadway. They eventually ended up in the old Putnam Railway Station down in Getty Square; on the spot that is now 20 South Broadway.
The year 1918 was another memorable one in the history of Bethany Chapel, and not entirely for good reasons. That year saw the now infamous flu epidemic, the deadliest in modern history, which infected about one-third of the planet’s population and killed about 50,000,000 people. In America, one in four became sick and almost a quarter million died. The United States was also now knee deep in fighting the Great War – what we today call World War I. Many soldiers survived the war, only to come home and die of the flu when they returned. In fact, more soldiers died from the flu, than in combat during WW1 which ended in November of 1918.
Woodrow Wilson was president. Phones were on the market, but were very expensive, and few had them. The radio was invented, but commercial broadcasts wouldn’t start for two more years. Cars were being produced, but again, not many had them because of the expense. rains were the most common form of transportation in the country. In Yonkers however, the trolley was the way to go!
In 1918, the Bethany Chapel fellowship moved from old Putnam Railway Station (i.e., from the location at 20 South Broadway) to a rented room at the Women’s Temperance Union at 57 North Broadway. They remained in that location for the next 20 years. This was right around the corner from Phillipse Manor near Larkin Plaza.
As a relatively young assembly and being missions minded, the Christians would regularly hold open-air evangelistic meetings right there in the vicinity. More than one hundred years later, Bethany Chapel still holds such outreaches and has never lost its desire to reach people with the Good News regarding the Lord Jesus Christ and how to have eternal life by believing on Him.
1938 had its share of troubles too. It is unfortunately remembered for the massive hurricane in NY that killed 700 people and injured another 1700. And in 1938 Orson Welles broadcast his version of The War of the Worlds, creating a nationwide panic when listeners believed that aliens had actually landed in New Jersey!
But there were some good things too. For just 3 cents you could mail a letter even to the President of the United States, who was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The minimum wage was 25 cents/hr (that’s 10/week) … my how inflation has changed things.
It was also in 1938, that Bethany Chapel’s congregation grew to 200 and moved into their new building at 55 Greenvale Ave. That’s right, we moved to our present location more than 80 years ago. And the men and the women of the chapel built the building itself. They used bricks from the Alexander Smith Carpet mill, hand cleaned them, and used them for much of the interior wall construction.
Helping to clean bricks was Charles Young himself – one of those who helped launch Bethany Chapel back in 1904. He passed into eternity before the new building opened its doors. It is fitting that one of the men who started our fellowship prepared the very bricks that sit in the walls that surround us to this day.
1941 saw the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of US involvement in World War II. Bethany Chapel was heavily impacted by the country’s life and death struggle with wickedness overseas. Eleven of those who were in the congregation went off to fight in the conflict. Sadly, the chapel lost two of our boys overseas, Sam Christie fighting in New Guinea and Stephen Drost on a B-17 bombing run over Germany. Their names are on the War Memorial on South Broadway. Eventually, twenty of those who either were in or eventually came into fellowship at the meeting would fight Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
In 1942 the chapel sent out Ernie and Virginia Gross, who worked in South Carolina and started the Overbrook Chapel in Greenville. They also had a big hand in founding Camp Hope – a Bible camp in Georgia.
Right after the war, Miss Florence Barnwell was commended to the Lord, to work amongst the Jewish population in NYC. She had done similar work in Vienna before the war.
In 1948, Joe and Connie Giordano were sent by the assembly to work in various locations in the U.S. including Connecticut, California, North Carolina, and Florida.
That same year, Dave and Elsie Ward went out to minister the Gospel in Mystic, Connecticut. They worked heavily among US sailors from the nearby submarine base at New London and with those at the Coast Guard Academy. They would help found Groton Bible Chapel and played a significant role in helping get Camp Berea off the ground in New Hampshire.
Then in 1949, we sent out our first foreign missionaries, Gerry and Pat Couenhoven, who were led to work for the Lord in the jungles of Peru. A year later, Mark and Joan Levengood were commended to the work in South Africa.
In 1952, Virginia Michon left for the Belgian Congo in Africa. She was married to John Michon’s brother, George, who, tragically, drowned on their honeymoon. More about John Michon shortly…
In 1954 Don and Claire Harris left for Mexico and labored there until 2001.
Then in 1956 Joe and Elinor Spacek were sent into the Lord’s work in Hawaii and ministered in three different assemblies. Not too bad a place to do missions work.
In 1967, John and Annette Ferris went out to do missions work in South Korea. A number of meetings across South Korea are in place today because of their work.
And in 1968, Elfi Japp left for Kenya.
In the 1970s, Candido and Celina DeSousa were commended by Bethany Chapel to work among the Portuguese in NJ and LI, establishing and building up the assemblies in both locales. Candido was a beloved elder at Bethany Chapel and the chaplain at the Yonkers Gospel Mission Home.
Throughout its history, the Chapel has done street evangelism. For many years, such work was done in Lincoln Park in South Yonkers. A number came to know Christ as Savior as a result of these summer campaigns. Some were homeless and/or had alcoholic backgrounds. It soon became apparent to a number at Bethany Chapel that there would be a need to provide some sort of housing to such men. The Yonkers Gospel Mission Home was started by several brothers from Bethany Chapel, including John Michon, Denny Goodall, and Bob Scheid, among others. This is the same John Michon whose sister Virginia, suffered the tragic loss of her husband on their honeymoon. The Mission opened its doors on October 31st, 1964, in a facility not too far from the park itself. Eventually the Mission would settle at 191 North Broadway. The outreach would grow to house and feed up to 55 men.
As it had with the James Slip Mission for more than four decades, the Chapel took an interest in reaching and providing for the homeless. For the next five decades, Bethany would provide most of the support for this outreach to the homeless. The last man left, coincidentally, on October 31st in 2014, some fifty years to the day the Mission had opened. It was yet another way that the Chapel had its hand in the spread of the Gospel.
And from 1954 to 1966, a clothing center was operated in the home of Anne Jacobsen. She had been attending the Chapel going back to the 1920’s. Her purpose was to aid foreign missionaries, who were home from the field on furlough. Eventually, it became “too successful” to be housed in her basement. The entire operation would eventually move to and be absorbed by Christian Missions in Many Lands, CMML, in Wall Township, New Jersey. Today it is the CMML clothing center.
Bethany Chapel has never had in its fellowship more than 200 and today we have just several dozen or so. Yet, the Lord in His good grace, has chosen to use this little Gospel preaching, independent gathering of Christians to reach people with His love and message of justification by faith through grace in His completed work on the Cross of Calvary. And He has been using this little gathering of Christians in Yonkers, NY for more than a century.
Indeed, we can utter with the Psalmist, “One generation shall praise Your works to another, and shall declare Your mighty acts.” – Psalm 145:4
And we can whole heartedly exclaim, “The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad!”