Founded in January 1835, in the then-fashionable Bowery section of Manhattan, St. Bartholomew’s began its life as part of the Evangelical movement in the Episcopal Church. Worship services were held in a plain church at the corner of Great Jones Street and Lafayette Place.
At first growth was slow, but by 1872 St. Bartholomew’s was large and prosperous enough to build a splendid new church at Madison Avenue and 44th Street. Designed by James Renwick, the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the building was later embellished with a triple portal by Stanford White.
It was from the Madison Avenue pulpit that David H. Greer, called as rector in 1888, inspired the parish to become a major force for social welfare in the city. During the enormous immigration of the late 19th century, St. Bartholomew's huge parish house on 42nd Street (built with the support of the Vanderbilt family), ministered to large numbers of the new arrivals, who lived in appalling poverty in the tenements of the East 40s and 50s. The parish house included a gymnasium, laundry, print shop, employment bureau, loan association, health clinic and social clubs. A chapel provided diverse forms of worship in several languages.
St. Bartholomew’s also began to be a force in the musical life of the city and the wider church. Under the leadership of organist Richard Henry Warren, a full choir of men and women became famous. Leopold Stokowski, who went on to a career as one of the great world conductors, was brought from Europe by St. Bartholomew’s to direct its choir.