Revered Mott Haven church closes 

St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church parishioners hold their last pantry day, on Wednesday, April 3. Photo: Pamela Subizar

Pantry that served hundreds is also shutting down

After serving Mott Haven for more than 30 years, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church at 435 East 140th Street is being forced to close its doors. The food pantry that has fed local families from the church over the years is also shutting down.

Women, men and children lined up with shopping carts on the sidewalk in front of the church doors on an early April weekday, waiting for food from the pantry for the last time.

“They are cutting the lifeline of the community,” said Irma Parker, 76, who has lived in the neighborhood since the early ‘90s. “It’s not only the pantry; it’s also the church.”

On the busy sidewalk, volunteers distributed juice, pasta, rice, and other essentials from the church basement, to families who said they came every Wednesday. The pantry’s organizers say that some 200 families have visited the pantry regularly. 

Rachel Harper, who serves as president for the church, says that St. Peter’s has been running on a deficit that prompted her and others to crowdfund in recent years. In 2015, they hired a lawyer to keep the church from closing and raised $20,000 in community donations.

Parishioners say they have been fighting eviction in housing court since the buildings were foreclosed on in 2017. They add that they were locked out a week before Easter without an eviction notice or any other notification, after holding their last service.

“The judge decided that we could not take care of the property, but instead of them trying to help us keep the pantry and the church, they want to throw us out so that they can sell the property,” said Harper, 60. The service the pantry provides is urgently needed, she said, “especially when Trump [is] cutting back on food stamps.”

St. Peters is a member church of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It was built in 1911 by Louis Allmendinger, and stands at the end of a row of rare, historic brownstones. In 1994 it was declared part of the Mott Haven Historic district, making the building a protected landmark.

The Metropolitan Synod did respond to requests for comment for this story.

St. Peters’ financial problems extend back to the 1990s, when the Synod paid nearly $170,000 to vacate a foreclosure, but Building 431 remains listed on the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development’s website. Then in April 2005, an engineering firm determined that the building’s condition was “very poor,” and that repairs would cost up to $220,000.

Catherine Emmanuel, a St. Peter’s parishioner for 47 years, said she found that the locks to the church had been changed one recent Sunday afternoon after Mass. “They’re saying that we could not finance the church and that it needs repairs.”

According to a study by the New York City Food Policy Center, half of all South Bronx households receive SNAP benefits. Most recipients are children and single mothers.

The service has also been an important hub for young volunteers wanting to learn the value of community service, said Milton Pellote, a team leader at the Osborne Association.

“The pantry is an opportunity for the youth to participate in handing out food as well as to have access to it,” said Pellote. 

In a petition circulated by the church’s organizers, members counter allegations by the Synod that St. Peter’s is losing members, saying that records show that enough families attend services to merit keeping the church operational.

On March 26, New York State Supreme Court ruled that the Metropolitan New York Synod is entitled to ownership and possession of the properties at 427 and 435 East 140 Street. Additionally, the Court ordered that officers of the Synod execute, acknowledge and deliver documents required to transfer or otherwise confirm ownership of the property of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.