Celebrated on the first Thursday in June (if it falls in the same week as Memorial Day, it is celebrated on the second Thursday), it was the “Protestant Holiday" and it was unique to Brooklyn and Queens.
Anniversary Day was also a pretty big do for those of us who came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s. There were parades, floats, marching band, not to mention a day off from school. (At least public school. It didn’t become a legal holiday until 1959, and even then only in Brooklyn and Queens.)
So, what was the celebration all about? Sunday Schools, where Protestant children learned their Bible verses and “Jesus Loves Me.” The celebration began in 1829 with the founding of the first Sunday School in Brooklyn. It grew with the borough and spread to Queens by 1910, according to most accounts.
By then, Sunday Schools had established a Union at which Protestant churches of various denominations shared information, ideas, and most importantly, plans for a parade. Not only was it a first stab at the ecumenical movement, it was also a huge event. Hundreds of churches and tens of thousands of marchers participated along routes that traversed each borough.
“The parade and the spirit that inspires it constitute one of the genuinely worthwhile things in the city.” That’s how Governor Herbert Lehman described it in 1937. Although it was a Protestant holiday, churches included Scout troops and other organizations that met in their buildings, so there was a good smattering of Catholics and Jews among the marchers. And probably a few who joined for the cookies and ice cream that always followed the parade.
Emanuel’s route ran along 91st Avenue from Woodhaven Boulevared to 84th Street. It included a varying number of churches, at times from as far away as Cypress Hills and Far Rockaway. The “East End” of the march formed at “the hospital,” St Anthony’s between 89th and 91st avenues on Woodhaven Boulevard.
Churches included St. Matthew’s Episcopal, Christ Congregational, and Forest Park Reformed, all of them gone now. The march ran parallel to the “West End” that included churches from as far as 101st Avenue (United Presbyterian and Christ Evangelical Lutheran) before turning toward home and those cookies and ice cream.
By Macy’s standards, it probably wasn’t much of a parade. By Woodhaven standards, it was an event. There were floats to accommodate the kids from the primary grades, decorated for the theme of each year’s parade and pulled by “volunteers” from the older groups or the Boy Scouts.
Mothers of young children decorated baby carriages and strollers. Scouting groups carried flags and churches carried banners identifying themselves and the different groups represented. Bands were hired, hymns were sung. During World War II, churches proudly carried service flags with the names of their “boys” in service. Except in 1943, when the parade was suspended because of the war.
The reviewing stand was populated by local luminaries: state assemblymen and senators (Fred Schmidt was a regular attendee), city councilmen, local businessmen, and once, even, the governor.
By the 1970s the landscape had changed. If nothing else, your average teenager would rather die than march in a church event. And Protestant churches in Woodhaven were shrinking. As early as 1967, the question was raised about whether to continue the parade.
But from adversity came cooperation. Emanuel joined with United Presbyterian Church and Community Methodist in joint service. They marched together and shared the ubiquitous ice cream and cake. Marching bands came from St. Elizabeth’s and Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic churches. The Protestant holiday had become an ecumenical affair.
The year 1972 saw the largest parade in almost a decade with 1,400-plus marchers, some from churches in communities where parades had been canceled. Sadly, it was a matter of time.
In 1978, the parade in Woodhaven was canceled for unspecified reasons. However, it was revived and continued for another eight years. The last line of march formed at the corner of Woodhaven Boulevard and 91st Avenue on a bright Thursday in June of 1985, the last in a line that began more than 150 years earlier.
A Woodhaven Girl Scout troop preparing to march along 91st Avenue in the 1956 Anniversary Day Parade (St. Anthony's Hospital is visible behind the trees in the distance). The Brownies are accompanied by Mrs. Martin and Mrs. Helen Baessler, right rear, a long-time member of Emanuel United Church of Christ.
This photograph from the early 1950s shows the marchers along 91st Ave., as well as businesses long gone. The corner visible in this picture is 91st Street.