Roger Ferlo in the sanctuary of New York's St. Luke in the Fields, where he is priest
by James Leach
Seeking refuge from yellow fever, a group of middle class New Yorkers moved their families north of the city 174 years ago, to the fields alongside the Hudson River. There they built an Episcopal church and named it for St. Luke, the physician.
Landfill long ago diverted the river, and the west side of Greenwich Village was built upon what was once the open countryside around St. Lukes. But St. Luke in the Field remains and is still a refuge, though now from a plague of a different sort.
St. Lukes today takes up a city block bounded by Hudson, Chris-topher, Greenwich and Barrow Streets. With its parish house, school, thrift shop, church, resi-dential properties and spacious grounds it is as much a neighborhood as a church. And Roger Ferlo '73, who is its priest every day, is also at times its mayor and CEO.
"Teaching and preaching are the core of what I do," says Ferlo, who came to St. Lukes two years ago from a small church in Pittsburgh. But he is also politician, counselor and manager of an enterprise that is one of the most unusual in the Episcopal church.
St. Lukes attracts a congregation that includes families young and old, but also a significant representation of the artistic community that has made the west Village its home. It is a community, and therefore a parish, with a strong social consciousness. It is steeped in a tradition of inquiry.
It fosters the arts and letters. It is very much New York. And it is confronted with AIDS in uncommon magnitude.
"There is a real continuity between what we are today and what we were when the church was founded," says Ferlo, who on any day can look down from his pulpit and identify at least 25 long-term survivors of AIDS among the worshippers; the actual number may be double that.
"The parish models a way to be straight and gay and neither," said Ferlo, "of how to live with differences. Not only to live with them, but to be creative with them and celebrate them."
The school is an important piece of the equation. Its students in grades from kindergarten through eighth contribute the optimism and innocence of youth. And on Saturday afternoons when neighboring chefs create a gourmet meal for persons with AIDS, the schoolchildren help provide the service.
In his first six months at St. Lukes the 44-year-old Ferlo performed more funerals than he had in his seven years in Pittsburgh. "Most were for people my age or younger," he said. "That's one reality. Another is, you look out back and see 200 children roaming on the school grounds. Or you speak with the parishioners, now in their eighties, who were baptized here. You have a sense of the disjunction of these lives but also of some real congruities. There are people in the parish who have been wounded by religion, and they find here a place where their sexuality is both a big deal and no big deal at all."
History and evolution
For all its history and tradition, St. Lukes seems always to have been a church in transition. "The makeup of the church changes in a sense every six months," Ferlo notes. "New York is a transient place."
He cites the major periods in the history of St. Lukes: the founding gentry left the church and moved uptown in the 1880s, taking with them the remains of their ancestors exhumed from the St. Lukes graveyard; then followed 40 years as a slum church serving the dock workers who resided in the tenements that were once grand homes; the neighborhood regentrified after World War II and a new population began to develop the aesthetic that continues to this day.
The history of St. Lukes is also a measure of the priests who preceded Ferlo, and there have been only three in this century.
As he retells the church's story it is often in terms of the legacy of people such as Bishop John Henry Hobart, who went on to found Hobart College; or Father Edward Schluetter, who ministered for 40 years to the Anglo-Catholic working class who inhabited the neighborhood in the early years of this century; or Ferlo's immediate predecessor for 20 years, Ledlie Laughlin, who saw the congregation through the early devastating years of the onslaught of AIDS.
Another defining moment in St. Lukes' history was the 1981 fire that destroyed the church that had stood since 1822. Insurance paid $2 million toward the reconstruction. The neighborhood -- not just the parishioners -- raised the remaining $3.5 million to complete the modern, austere sanctuary that stands today within the original brick walls that were all that remained after the fire. "The neighbors' response revealed that it wasn't just a church for its parishioners," says Ferlo. Increasingly it is a church for the city.
Rebuilding the church "took incredible energy," says Ferlo, and he looks forward to the celebration of its 175th anniversary as an opportunity to refocus on the mission identified by a parish committee: worship, education, hospitality and social witness. "That pretty much defines what the church has been doing well for years," says Ferlo, who finds hospitality to be the overarching goal.
The Anglo-Catholic Episcopal tradition has been a constant at St. Lukes and continues to guide Ferlo's services today. Yet within that structured liturgy, he strikes his own themes. To teach he must preach, he feels, and he tries to do so at least three in four Sundays, in addition to daily eucharists and services for the school children. A parishioner observed that Ferlo "is always talking about crossing thresholds." That influence comes from his study of Spenser and Shakespeare. "I also tend to teach and preach about taking risks," he says, "which to me is what the gospel is about."
Clergy in the 1990s are in a continual struggle to define the boun-daries of their work, says Ferlo. "How to occupy the right kind of middle distance so that you can be of use and still not be used up."
The priest who ministers in this complex setting needs at times to find a personal center. Ferlo, his wife Anne Harlan and their daughter Liz find their own refuge in the rectory on the St. Lukes' block. "New Yorkers preserve people's privacy. This place, which is full of history and has always been a rectory, is like a haven."
He retreated there last summer, to the back porch, to write his book, Reading Scripture. Due out later this year, it draws on Ferlo's past as a literary critic, "showing people how to read scripture without the trappings of academic jargon or evangelistic bible thumping."
The discussions from his Monday evening bible studies influence the work.
And there is the music; two nights a week Ferlo heads around the corner to the Greenwich House Music School to practice and perform with his chamber group.
Roger Ferlo and a community in need chose each other. In providing a beacon and a sanctuary where hope must rise above chronic grief, he lends his strength to the strength of those who surround him. "Pastoral care is a great challenge for priests in any parish," he says. "But what I have done here is to become involved in pastoral care that is ongoing.
We are all committed to one another."