The Jan Hus Church in New York – a remnant of the Upper East Side’s Czech past

Jan Hus Church

The Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House is to be found on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It takes its name from the great Czech religious reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415 and influenced the later Protestant movement. When the church was established in the 1870s, it was one of the hubs of a large Czech community that in those days totalled thirty or forty thousand people.

Reverend Moira Aherne
Today the Jan Hus Church no longer serves the Czech community, who have almost all moved out of the area. But it still has a small number of Czech parishioners and bears a number of signs of its Czech past. When I visited the church, I was shown around by its present day pastor, Reverend Moira Aherne.

“The church was originally organised in 1877 by Czech immigrants. Actually, Gustav Alexy, who was a Hungarian missionary, felt a calling to work among the Czech community, and he did so. The church grew from there.”

Do you have any idea how big the congregation was in those days, or even how big the parish was?

“I know that at one point the Sunday school had an enrollment of fifteen hundred children, so I’d hazard a guess that it was several thousand at one point, in this community.”

As well as the church itself, would there have been other social groups connected to the church?

“The church built its Neighborhood House in 1915 to celebrate Czech culture: the folk music, the dance, marionette theatre…all these things, especially the music – it was really celebrated. And there were organizations founded to help work with immigrants.”

Jan Hus Church
Is there much visible evidence of the Czech past of the church? For instance I saw on the wall outside the words Truth Prevails, which is a famous Jan Hus saying.

“Yes. We put that there deliberately, because we wanted some vestige of Jan Hus to be very visible when people came into the building, to know where the church takes its spirit and takes its heart from.”

Those words are in English – is there a lot of Czech to be seen here today?

“Not so much any more. That community moved out of this neighbourhood…we have maybe three or four Czech members left.”

I presume they’re elderly.

“Three of them are, yes.”

Today how does the ethos of Jan Hus inform your church?

“Jan Hus Church tends to be a very progressive church, it is a very progressive church and we’re very active in social outreach. We have a very active homeless outreach programme. In terms of our theology we have a very progressive theology, and we’d like to believe that the forward thinking and spirit of the Hussites is still here.”

The church isn’t particularly elaborate. You have the stained glass windows and the altar, but otherwise it’s quite bare. Is that typical also of the Hus tradition?

“I think the focus on the spirit, not on the outward appearance of worship and things that go with worship…yes, it’s very simple and very focused on the word and the cup.”

The chalice?

“The chalice, yes.”

Also I saw outside a plaque to somebody called Reverend Vincent Pisek. Do you know who he was?

“He was the pastor who followed Gustav Alexy. He was pastor here for almost fifty years. He was an amazing, amazing person, and well loved. He really helped build up the Czech community and the church itself.”

In what sense was he amazing?

“Oh my goodness. He was a tireless worker, he went all over the country in the summers – he travelled all over the world, actually. He helped found churches all over the United States, in Czech communities, and helped nurture them along. He really cultivated the sense of Czech culture…with music, he was a great music fan and he really fostered that here.”

Interior of the Jan Hus Church
Vincent Pisek was indeed a remarkable man. He became pastor at only 23 and, as we’ve been hearing, remained in the post for nearly five decades. Part of his work involved finding ministers to send out to newly founded Czech parishes in the “Wild West”, while Pastor Pisek also helped set up various Slavic societies and organised missions to Serbia during World War I. He also undertook a dangerous trip to Siberia in 1919-1920 to offer encouragement to members of the Czechoslovak Legion there, many of whom had not been home for six years. The minister made an influential friend in Dale Carnegie, who contributed funds to the Jan Hus Church’s Neighborhood House.

Pastor Pisek died in 1930. The plaque in his honour on the front of the church reads: “His ministry of fifty years was the means of advancing the cause of Christian religion and good citizenship among the Czechoslovak people of New York and throughout the United States.”

But getting back to the current occupant of the post, would Reverend Moira Aherne be able to tell us when the church had its first non-Czech pastor?

“I believe that was Brent Fisher, who was here in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.”

When would the language used have switched from Czech to English?

“That would have started in the 1970s. Services were held both in Czech and English, but then gradually it shifted almost entirely to English. Now we do our benediction blessing both in Czech and English, for those who speak the Czech language.”

So you can speak a bit of Czech?

“No. But part of the benediction blessing I can read along with everyone else.”