On Wednesday, June 21st, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation attended a plaque unveiling at the Church of the Village to honor former gay clergymen. Reverends Clarence Edward Egan and Paul Abels were both pastors in the Village, very active in the neighborhood, and firmly rooted in fighting for civil rights and social justice. However, due to the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality, Egan and Abels were driven from their ministries. The Church of the Village is committed to rectifying this injustice.
Rev. Egan served at the Metropolitan Duane UMC (one of the churches consolidated in 2005 to become The Church of the Village) from 1971 to 1977. At Metropolitan Duane, Egan helped establish a basketball league for youths, a methadone clinic at St. Vincent’s, and even assisted in the founding of PFLAG at the church that would become the Church of the Village. Additionally, he was active in the Gay Rights movement, serving as an active participant and organizer of the Mattachine Society in the 1950’s, as well as a spiritual counselor for the Daughters of Bilitis. In 1977, due to his homosexuality, he was forced to accept a leave of absence from his church and ultimately went into retirement. Egan passed away in 1994.
Rev. Abels was the pastor at the Washington Square United Methodist Church (WSUMC), 133 W. 4th St., from 1973-1984. Before this, Abels served as the director of Westbeth from 1972-73. Abels was very involved not only in the artistic life of the neighborhood, but also helped spearhead and oversaw the restoration of the church, widely known as “Peace Church,” which, in addition to supporting LGBT groups and initiatives, also served as the home to other activist and advocacy efforts. In 1977, Abels came under fire for performing “covenant services” at WSUMC, the precursor to gay wedding services.
In 1978, the church attempted to force Abels into a leave of absence, much like Egan, for but Abels refused to accept it and he eventually received enough support from the clergy during the church’s Annual Conference to fight these pressures and have him reappointed to WSUMC. However, in 1984 the General Conference of the church passed an infamous resolution barring “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from candidacy, ordination, or appointment. Though the NY Annual Conference was opposed to this decision, Abels decided to retire from local church ministry that same year. He and his partner moved upstate, where Abels remained involved with social justice, especially AIDS activism, until he died in 1992 from complications from the virus.
The Church of The Village’s event was an evening of nostalgia and pride as clergy and lay members shared their own memories of these two individuals, their character, anecdotes, and what their recognition means for the church itself. Everything culminated in the unveiling: a facsimile of the future plaque to Rev. Egan was revealed, as the actual plaque had not yet been received from the manufacturer. Everyone was then shown the space in the room where the plaque will be affixed- right next to a prior plaque to Abels that had been donated by the congregation of the former WSUMC (the actual building having been converted to condos). The evening was followed by a reception where guests were able to chat, as well as pick up more materials about the deceased reverends. For GVSHP, this was an extra-special invitation, as four years ago we were able to help put a plaque to Jeanne Manford and the first meeting of PFLAG onto the church, so we were happy to be there to help further celebrate their history.
See more photos from the event here.