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Waldensians in New York City

by Paul Halsall

The Waldensians originated in Lyons in the late 12th century as a the "Poor Men of Lyons" under the leadership of a man called "Waldo". Although deemed "heretical" and persecuted the movement spread from France to various parts of Europe. In Italy it survived until the Reformation when it joined forces with the Reformation. In the 18th century, Italian Waldensians formed links with Methodists. With the great waves of Italian migration into New York in the 19th century, many Italian Waldensians were included among the largely Roman Catholic immigrants. They established a number of communities, in North Carolina (the town of Valdese, NC, established in 1893); Texas (Wolfe Ridge); and Missouri (Monett). [In Utah some Waldensians emigrated as converts to Mormonism!]

In New York there was a congregation established in the 1890s, and for a time two congregations met on the property of other churches: one in the Presbyterian church in Greenwich village, and another at a Reformed Church in midtown. In 1951 the two congregations united, bought a building and established a united congregation (First Waldensian Church in New York City) at 127 East 82nd St. For many years the congregation flourished, but in recent decades become rather small.

In 1994 the building, erected in 1883, was sold to a Jewish congregation (Congregation Or Zarua), whose members were surprised to discover that it had originally been a synagogue (Kehilath Jeshurun).

In an article in May 1998, The New York Times reported that the Rev. Gabriella Lettini, a Waldensian pastor ordained in Italy, was a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminary. The central organization of the American Waldensian Committee has moved, however, from New York to Pennsylvannia. In 1997 a dinner to celebrate the witness of the Waldensians in New York was held in Princeton, but their history here now seems to be near its end.


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