Old Whalers’ Church Celebrates 250 Years

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Sag Harbor’s First Presbyterian Church, more commonly known as the Old Whalers’ Church, turns 250 this year.“We’re not only just celebrating our 250th but how we’ve been a part of the community for all those years as a congregation,” said the Reverend Christopher Mergener, who has been at the church since September.

The oldest known record of the congregation dates back to February 24, 1766. The congregation’s home has not always been its present building, a towering white structure with four long windows at its front. The first building was known as the “Old Barn Church,” but in 1818, a larger church was dedicated on the corner of Sage and Church streets.

The present Old Whalers’ Church, at 44 Union Street, was completed in 1844. It was designed by American architect Minard Lafever in the Egyptian Revival style. It has witnessed the village at the height of its whaling industry: Most of the parishioners who donated to its building fund were whaling officers, shipyard owners, ship owners, or ship’s chandlers and outfitters, according to a March 1949 article in The New Yorker.

The building endured such blows as the 1938 hurricane, which knocked the 185-foot steeple off its tower and into the Old Burying Ground. Remnants of the landmark steeple, including its weathervane, are on display inside the church, near one of its winding staircases.

“Our steeple wasn’t blown down by accident,” Donald Crawford, who was a minster at the church, told The New Yorker in 1949. “These people here had got so they were worshiping the steeple more than they did God. So He took it away.”

One witness to the hurricane said the steeple did not just fall off but popped off like a champagne cork, according to the book “Keeping Time in Sag Harbor.”

A steeple has yet to return to the building, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1994, acting as a reminder of the hurricane. There are currently no plans to build a new one, Rev. Mergener said.

“I like the fact that there’s no steeple,” said John Wickersham of Sag Harbor, who was showing the church to a friend as they rode by on bicycles. “It makes it stand out as a building. It’s almost like it’s half-completed in a way.”

The church holds other pieces of Sag Harbor history within its walls, with items made of whalebone and a watercolor by Annie Copper Boyd on display. Other pieces are literally on its walls, such as some second-floor spaces that are covered with signatures, dating as far back as the mid-1800s, of those who served the church as well as those who have painted it over the years. Tom Cartino, the church’s current sexton, said that is a continuing a tradition.

The church organ is also found on the second floor, up a spiral staircase running on two sides of the building. The organ’s sounds fill the room and reach the tall ceilings. It is the oldest organ in a church on Long Island, built and installed in 1845 by Henry Erben.

Today, the church is a self-proclaimed community center, Rev. Mergener said. A number of different groups meet there, including Weight Watchers, book clubs and Alcoholics Anonymous groups.

The church is also home to the Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry, which works to provide fresh food to those in need. Open every Tuesday, the pantry serves more than 100 people each week, according to its president, Diane Lewis.

In the height of summer, the pantry receives fresh produce from local farms and gets new volunteers—children who are on vacation from school. In winter, more people make use of the pantry, as there are not as many jobs available, Ms. Lewis said.

“It’s really been a wonderful experience not only to have food to give out, but also information,” she said. The pantry provides lectures on voting rights and health benefits, and also has a lending library of books in both English and Spanish.

“The church is all part of making that possible,” said Ms. Lewis, who has been a volunteer at the pantry for 10 years. “It’s more than just a place where you can get a loaf of bread.”

In 2013, the church became host to another group when the Long Island Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Services Network opened a temporary center there while it works to raise money for a stand-alone center.

“There’s a large population of people who say it is their church and have a sense of belonging here, members or not,” Rev. Mergener said. While the church remains an active part of the community, the congregation has seen a drop of in membership over the years.

“I think every church in this day and age faces challenges with membership,” the reverend said. “That’s been going on for several years and not just in this church.”

People are busier on Sundays than they’ve been in the past, he said, whether their children are involved sports teams that meet on Sunday or whether they have other obligations.

To try and attract new members, Rev. Mergener said, the church is looking into fresh ideas, such as a Sunday school program.

Last weekend, the congregation celebrated its 250 years with a series of events, including a movie night, fellowship and fundraiser party, homecoming worship service and an organ recital featuring Prince Nyatanga, a native of Zimbabwe who studied at the Aaron Copland School of Music and the Juilliard School.

“We’re happy to be celebrating with the community, with the entire community, and we look forward to serving the community for several more years to come,” Rev. Mergener said this week.

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