Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Death During Evening Service: The Shocking Death of Rev. Joshua Morsell of Grace Episcopal Church in the Town of Pelham

A sad chapter in the history of Pelham religious organizations is the tragic death of Rev. Joshua Morsell, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church on City Island in the Town of Pelham during evening services at the Church on Sunday, December 16, 1883.  The event was so tragic and shocking that accounts of Rev. Morsell's death appeared in newspapers throughout the eastern United States.  At the end of today's Historic Pelham Blog posting, I have transcribed a number of such articles and obituaries of Rev. Morsell recounting the events of that sad day.  

City Island once was part of the Town of Pelham before its annexation by New York City in the mid-1890s.  In the early 1860s, the family of Rev. Robert Bolton (who built Bolton Priory and Christ Church in Pelham Manor) developed a new Episcopal Church on City Island. I have written before of the early years of that important Pelham church.  See Fri., Jan. 5, 2007:  The Early Years of Grace Church, City Island -- Once a Church in Pelham.  

According to tradition, in the mid-19th century, perhaps as early as 1849, one of Rev. Robert Bolton's daughters who lived with the family at Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor, Adele Bolton, rowed a little boat across the waters off Rodman's Neck to City Island to bring the Gospel to inhabitants of City Island. Cornelius Winter Bolton, one of Adele's brothers, preached when he could to the City Islanders.  In about 1857, however, the City Islanders arranged for the Rev. M. M. Dillon to minister to their needs.

Adele Bolton, a Founder of Grace Episcopal Church,
in an Undated Nineteenth Century Photograph.

Grace Episcopal Church in an Undated Photograph Believed
To Have Been Taken in About 1904.

Undated Post Card View of Grace Episcopal Church, Ca. 1906.

According to a history of Grace Church City Island:

"The birth of Grace Church took place in 1849, when the Reverend Cornelius W. Bolton and Adele Bolton, son and daughter of the rector of Christ Church in Pelham Manor, New York, visited nearby City Island, which until 1895 was part of the town of Pelham. There he found a population of 800 souls "almost entirely neglected and destitute of the means of grace [and] offered them a Sunday afternoon service, every second Sunday, which was readily accepted and largely attended." The services were held in Union Chapel, a charming Picturesque cottage that still stands at the corner of Tier Street and City Island Avenue. 

Reverend Bolton subsequently moved to a parish in Maryland, and when he returned in 1855, he became rector of Christ Church, Pelham, following in his father's footsteps. He again visited City Island and renewed the offer of his services, but by then Union Chapel had become a Methodist church, so he had to look elsewhere for a location. In the meantime, Adele and her sister Nanette Bolton had remained intensely interested in the work of the church and in spreading the Gospel to Island residents. Adele is said to have been rowed to City Island from the mainland one Sunday a month to minister to the fledgling congregation, as there was no bridge at the time. 

In 1862 the Reverend M. M. Dillon, then pastor of Christ Church, reported that "a church is in the process of erection" on City Island (its total cost being $3,000, including contributions from the "young ladies of Pelham Priory" and City Island residents and $944 collected by Adele Bolton herself). The land was donated by G.W. Horton Jr., who served as church warden for 41 consecutive years, from 1866 to 1906.

The Bolton family was known for its artistic creativity, especially in the design and manufacture of stained glass. "The Adoration of the Magi" window at Christ Church (the first known figurative stained-glass window made in America) was designed and made by Cornelius’s brother William, assisted by their brother John. Grace's altar window, picturing "The Trial of Christ," was created by John Bolton, who was also an Episcopal priest, having been ordained at Christ Church, Pelham. John fashioned his window after a version made by William for the church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn. There has been much comparison of the two windows and opinions expressed as to which is of higher quality, but each has merit (although Grace parishioners tend to prefer John'’s version). 

If you look upward into the rafters at Grace Church, you will see evidence of craftsmanship of a different kind---that of ship building, for the church was actually constructed by carpenters from the nearby David Carll shipyard, the first yard of its kind on City Island. The architecture of the church is termed “carpenter Gothic,” a popular late Victorian style, but if you can imagine the church being upside down, you can see that the configuration of the beams resembles that of a ship’s hull. David Carll was a vestryman of the church for 24 consecutive years, from 1866 to 1889. 

In 1906 New York City began to widen City Island Avenue, and the church building incurred damages as a result of the project, which was completed in 1908. That year the church was wired for electricity for the first time, and the following year a church bell was installed in the belfry. In 1912 money was finally received from the city to pay for damages to the property, and some of these funds were used to raise the church building by five feet. Other improvements were made to the property over time, including the construction of a parish hall and the acquisition of a rectory. In 2007 Grace Episcopal Church was named to the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural and historical significance.

In 2008, during the replacement of the church roof, Grace's original wooden cross was removed and donated to the City Island Historical Society and Nautical Museum. In its place are two new handmade crosses, constructed of wood and copper, which will be enduring symbols of God's grace for future generations."

Source:  Grace Church City Island, The History of Grace, available at http://www.gracecityisland.org/#!__history (visited Mar. 22, 2014).  

*     *     *     *     *

Transcribed below as research notes are some of the many obituaries and articles about the death of Rev. Joshua Morsell.  


On Sunday night last the Rev. Joshua Morsell, rector of Grace church, entered the church as usual at the hour for service and passing to the vestry room, robed himself in his surplice and re-entered the church; as he did so he made a faint sign and feebly asked for some one to open a window.  The members of the congregation seeing that the rector was in distress, went to his assistance.  Messrs. Robt. Vickery and Jacob Ullmer being the first to reach him.  He had himself opened a window and was in the act of falling, when Mr. Vickery caught him and gently seated him in a chair, where he almost immediately expired, of heart disease.  The funeral took place on Wednesday last from the church, and the remains were interred on City Island.  A number of clergymen from the surrounding country attended the funeral."  

Source:  OBITUARY, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], Vol. XV, No. 744, Dec. 21, 1883, p. 3, col. 3.  


The Rev. Dr. Joshua Morsell, rector of Grace Protestant Episcopal Church at City Island, died suddenly on Sunday evening in the chancel of the church.  He had just begun the service, when he became pale and appeared to be faint.  He asked that a window might be opened.  These words were the last spoken by him.  Immediately afterwards he swayed backward and was caught as he fell by one of the persons present.  His death followed almost instantly.  

He was a man of learning and ability.  He was born in Calvert County, Maryland, and was descended from one of the oldest families of the State.  His education was received at Kenyon College, Ohio.  This institution conferred on him the degree of A.M.  He studied law and was admitted to the bar, but renounced that profession to enter the ministry of the Episcopal Church.  His title of Doctor of Divinity was conferred by the University of Maryland.  He was always a zealous and faithful pastor and a safe guide in his pulpit ministrations.  He leaves a wife and one son, the Rev. William C. Morsell, of Philadelphia."  

Source:   SUDDEN DEATH IN THE CHANCEL, New-York Tribune, Dec. 18, 1882, p. 2, col. 5.


The Rev. Dr. Joshua Morsell, Rector of Grace Church, City Island, died suddenly in his church on Sunday last when in the act of beginning the service, clad in his ministerial robes.  The congregation was shocked to see their venerable rector tottering toward a window which he wished to open; as he fell two of his parishioners were just in time to catch him in their arms and the good man died soon after in a chancel chair in full sight of a horrified and dismayed congregation.  

The Rev. Doctor Morsell was a man of rare qualities and attainments.  He was thoroughly a christian gentleman.  No higher praise can be accorded to any man.  A deep and thorough scholarship was joined with the manners of a born and bred gentleman of the highest school.  The Rev. Doctor, though a man of seventy years of age, was as bright and buoyant in disposition as any one in the community.  He was the light and cheer of every sircle; a man of sunshine to an eminent degree, and so genial and kindly was he that one could not know him without loving him, and it is safe to say that he had not an enemy in the world.  A native of Maryland, Doctor Morsell was rector of a leading church in Washington in the times of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, and many a valuable reminiscence could he bring forth of those exciting days.  After a life of the most exemplary activity in his holy calling, a noble, good and most lovable minister of the gospel has gone to rest in Euthanasia for the manner of his death, while it must have greatly shocked his congregation of witnesses was that which any faithful clergyman ought desire, a touching and fitting end to a long life of faithful [illegible] in the gospel of Christ his Master, whose departure from this world was staged in a striking degree [illegible] his disciples with uplifted hands, he was carried up into heaven.  The funeral services were conducted by the Rev. Mr. Higbee of Pelham Manor, assisted by the Rev. Mr. [illegible] of New Rochelle, the Rev. Mr. [illegible] of Westchester and the Rev. Mr. [illegible] of Easthcester.  There were also present the Rev. Mr. [illegible] of New York city, the  [illegible] Episcopal Bishop [illegible] and was very highly [illegible]."  

Source:  OBITUARY, New Rochelle Pioneer, Dec. 22, 1883, p. 2, col. 1.  

"Rev. Dr. Joshua Morsell, while conducting the services in Grace church. City Island, Westchester county, N. Y., Sunday, motioned for a window to be opened and sank down in the pulpit as if in a faint. He was found, however, to have died from heart disease."

Source:  [Untitled], Arkansas City Weekly Traveler, Jan. 2, 1884, p. 4.  See also [Untitled], Daily Charlotte Observer [North Carolina], Dec. 22, 1883, p. 4 (same); [Untitled], Shenango Valley News [Greenville, Pennsylvania], Jan. 25, 1884, p. 7 (same); [untitled], The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 18, 1883, p. 2 (same). 

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