St. Luke’s Church sits on land that was once the home of the Lenni Lenape people. The land was taken from them by force. Metuchen takes its name from Metochshaning, a noted Lenape leader, whose name was heard as “Matouchin” by the Dutch settlers. We respect the tribe’s long association with this territory, aware as we are of the historical tragedy of the settlement and colonization of this land by Europeans.
Dutch settlers came here in the seventeenth century. They were followed by the English, who assumed the Dutch domains in North America in 1664. With British rule came a prominent role for the Church of England in the colonies. More than half the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglicans.
In the American Revolution, the land around Metuchen played a key role in the battle between American and British forces for control of the crucial New York-Philadelphia corridor. The British defeat in the Revolution raised obvious problems for Anglicans, whose roots were firmly planted in the Church of England! They regrouped after the war, forming the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America in 1789.
The nineteenth century saw the founding of several Christian congregations in Metuchen, including St. Luke’s. A small group of Episcopalians from Metuchen had been worshiping at St. Paul’s in nearby Rahway. The rector of that church encouraged the formation of a new parish here in Metuchen.. The nascent congregation of St. Luke’s, formed in 1864, worshiping in a private home, then in the buildings of other denominations and finally constructing its own church building in 1868. The building was constructed in the Carpenter Gothic style popularized by architect Richard Upjohn, architect of Trinity Church, Wall Street in New York City. This style expressed European Gothic in an American vernacular: wooden churches featuring pointed arches, a center aisle, lancet windows, choir stalls, a deep chancel suitable for Anglican worship, which emphasized Eucharistic liturgy as well as preaching. Upjohn created a catalog of church designs from which congregations across the country could choose. Many of these churches survive today, and St. Luke’s is one.
The first rector, Stephen P. Simpson, was called in 1869. Simpson was, however, found to be too much of a ‘Ritualist’ by the congregation – he was asked to leave for the crime of putting candles on the altar! The age of ecumenical politeness had yet to dawn – anti-Roman Catholic sentiment was not only acceptable in 19th century America, it was rampant.
The turn of the twentieth century was a peak era for Metuchen. The town enjoyed easy train access to New York City and a concentration of prominent residents, such as the writers Hester Poole and Mary Wilkins Freeman, the engineer Gustav Lindenthal, and the architect Lewis Nixon, gave the town a nickname: “The Brainy Borough,” which it still proudly wears today. Henry Mills Alden, managing editor of Harper’s Magazine, was a longtime vestry member of St. Luke’s. The poet Joyce Kilmer was married here. Helen Keller and Mark Twain attended services here on visits to Metuchen.
The twentieth century also saw the beginning of a long period of stability at St. Luke’s, Metuchen. John F. Fenton became rector in 1899 and remained until 1930. Fenton presided over a period of fiscal stability. This enabled both the expansion of cultural and community programs and the physical plant, including the construction of a new parish house. Fenton was succeeded by Harold Wall Dunne, who served from 1930 to 1955. Dunne steered the congregation through the difficult years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Dunne spent much time on mission in the broader community. Dunne was followed by the Rev. Dr. William Hugh Fryer, who served until 1970. The Fryer years saw a substantial growth of the parish’s population. Fryer’s background in both urban and suburban settings supported St. Luke’s first efforts in social and interracial outreach. Fryer also presided over the renovation of the parish house, which now bears his name.
E. Walton Zelley, Jr. who had been a curate under Fryer became Rector in 1970. Fr. Zelley’s tenure, which lasted until 1997, was characterized by an emphasis on social concern, interfaith efforts, and a preaching style that was Biblically based and accessible to a broad range of congregants. He presided over the renovation of the worship space sanctuary into its present form. He supported the election of women to the vestry, women’s ordination, and LGBT ordination at a time when both were controversial. Many social outreach efforts that characterize St. Luke’s ministry in the world began during his tenure.
Jonathan Percival succeeded Fr. Zelley. Percival served as Rector from 1997 to 2012. This period saw the growth of the parish’s music ministry. It also witnessed a continued broadening of the congregation and an emphasis on inclusive and affirming ministry. St Luke’s in the twenty-first century is a place of multiple ministries but one mission, expressing the saving love of Jesus Christ in many different ways.
Mo. Barbara Crafton, ordained at St. Luke’s in 1980, has had a long association with the parish as spiritual guide, educator and inspirer. This included service as curate, seven as honorary associate in the 1980s, and three years as Interim Rector between Percival and the younger Zelley. In her retirement, Mo. Barbara helps out as needed, leading the parish’s Facebook services on weekends and holidays.
2015 saw the return of the Zelley family to the parish when Walt Zelley’s son, Edmund W. Zelley, was called as Rector. When the COVID-19 virus upended every institution’s corporate life, he kept the parish safe and continued worship under very trying conditions. Fr. Ed was an early adopter of online services—conducting multiple prayer sessions a day on Facebook even before the start of the pandemic—and has cultivated a broad network of relationships within the parish and community, including significant activity with the ecumenical clergy association.
The parish’s longtime strengths have been a celebration of music and the arts as expressions of ministry and Christian witness; and a strong sense of community- which has never become narrow or sequestered. St. Luke’s is a parish which has always been willing to grow and welcome newcomers. Our history anchors us as we seek to move forward.