Westhampton Beach Church Welcomes New Spiritual Leader

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Despite what his friends and colleagues told him, the Reverend Michael Ralph was far from sold upon learning last summer that there was a job opening in Westhampton Beach.

The priest explained that he was not initially willing to leave his former parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Glen Cove, but could not quite shake the idea of applying for the open position at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, way out on the East End of Long Island. So, on a Monday last July, the reverend and his wife, Aimee, took a drive to the East End.

They were instantly hooked.

Rev. Ralph eventually was offered the job, accepted it in January and officially took over the position of rector last month.

“I have to say, my first impressions are much what they were before I even got here,” Rev. Ralph said. “The people are fantastic, the town is very welcoming. We’ve been very warmly received, and we look forward to being here a good, long time.”

Rev. Ralph spent the past five years in Glen Cove and the 13 years prior to that in Kentucky, where he attended the Asbury Theological Seminary and held his first two positions as a priest. He also met his wife in the Bluegrass State; they have two children, Patrick, 9, and Katherine, 6.

A native of Corinth, New York, Rev. Ralph said religion has always been a major part of his life and he knew from his teenage years that he wanted to hold a faith-based career, although he admits he was a bit reluctant at first to join the priesthood.

“I was probably the world’s most reluctant priest,” he said during a recent interview in his new office. “I never felt worthy, I never felt good enough and I fought it for a very long time.

“I actually finished seminary and thought there was no way I was going into ordained ministry,” he continued. “I was looking at doctoral programs in sociology of religion and then I converted to the Episcopalian church from a more conservative, evangelical upbringing, and I really took to the Episcopal Church very quickly.”

Rev. Ralph, who was raised in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, said the liturgy and worship are what drew him to the Episcopal Church.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church opened the search for a new rector last September, after the Reverend Mark Powell left during the summer. Jennifer Kast, a warden in the church’s vestry, said Rev. Ralph’s application quickly rose to the top because at age 43 when he applied, he was one of the younger applicants and because of his mission work at other parishes.

She said she also enjoys his self-deprecating humor.

“His first Sunday was April 27, after Easter,” Ms. Kast said. “He’s great, he’s really rolled up his sleeves and gotten to work. He’s gotten to know parishioners, he’s gotten to do a couple weddings and, unfortunately, a funeral service.”

The next step will be determining what direction to take the church’s mission work, Rev. Ralph said, adding that he hopes to maintain and build upon current mission work being done by parishioners, namely the Love in a Dish soup kitchen that they host in Riverhead.

Overall, Rev. Ralph said he wants to continue the church’s legacy and preserve its positive culture.

“I love to see churches that just love to be together,” he said. “That’s how you know you’re in a good church, because you can tell the people there just love each other and I’m happy to say that’s what I’ve seen thus far.”

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