April 12, 2006

Glorious Resurrection New Life For Historic Church

It is Palm Sunday and members of the North Fork Unitarian Universalist Fellowship are gathered after services, sharing donuts and coffee like so many other congregations across the country as they ready for Holy Week and the coming of Easter.

For NFUUF members, there is much to celebrate: Palm Sunday marked the second Sunday they met to worship in their new church home, the historic First Congregation Church of Jamesport.

And as, across the world, many communities rejoice in the resurrection of the Lord on Easter, the 30 members of the North Fork Universalist Fellowship are working to resurrect a historic landmark from the ravages of time and see it reborn as a vibrant community presence.

"Our fellowship is breathing new life into this historic structure, which was unoccupied and in a severe state of disrepair," said Mike Comando, president of the fellowship.

Built in 1731, the First Congregation Church is the oldest church in Riverhead and "arguably the oldest church still standing in the nation," said Comando.

He said the congregation moved to the Jamesport church, which had been vacant for 18 months, from their previous location at the Grange in Northville.

Faced with daunting repairs and needs such as a new heating system, new carpeting, and extensive repairs to the exterior of the structure, Comando said the parish has been "feeding a building fund" for over five years.

"We had a vision of being here," he said, adding that the hope is to purchase the church from its current owners, the First Parish Church.

Although Comando admits the purchase price is steep. "Every time I ask, it goes up," he said. He hopes the current owners will realize that "as stewards of the property, they have a moral obligation" to guide it lovingly into its next incarnation.

Signs of new life are sprouting forth, such as a newly painted and spackled meeting room where just two weeks ago, "the walls were crumbling down," said Comando.

Step inside the church and the can-do spirit reverberates as loudly as any hymn. Members echo the refrain of how the new space will allow their church to expand, to offer programs and services to the community that couldn't be accommodated in their former site.

Slated for the future, said Comando, are a parish outreach including a thrift shop and a food pantry: "This historic landmark will once again open its doors. We plan to be a vital member of the community," he said.

Steeped in North Fork history, the church itself has long been an integral component on the community canvas.

The original 1731 building still stands on the original foundation, on the original ground, which was given years ago "only for the purpose of erecting a house to worship God in," according to a history of the church.

When first constructed, all timbers were cut from the nearby forest, with total cash outlay at the time only $18.

First founded as a Presbyterian Church, under the leadership of Reverend Nathanial Mather, after Rev. Mathers' death, the Mattituck and Jamesport churches acted as one for over a century. On August 29, 1853, those ties were dissolved, and the Jamesport church became independent and Congregational. A plaque at the church entrance states that the church was repaired in 1830, and rebuilt in 1859.

The church's history is studded with local lore: Early congregations and the choir were divided, with men on one side of the church, women on the other.

Many who originally came to worship rode on horseback, with two to a horse or mule. Others came in a farm "box" wagon, with oxen, bringing neighbors. From Flanders, they came by boat.

But most congregates walked, carrying their shoes and socks until near the church.

But no matter what their means of transport, North Fork community members have gathered at the Jamesport Congregational Church for countless months of Sundays, sharing faith and friendship and their vision for a brighter tomorrow.

It is perhaps most fitting that the congregation who have made their new home within those hallowed walls is Unitarian Universalist, a faith that accepts and studies the teachings of other world religions. "I've always thought of Unitarian Universalist as the church of the open mind," said Comando.

The coffee hour ending, members of the congregation share last bits of conversation. Mary Ellen Tomaszewski said the future is "very exciting," and that she hopes the new space will allow for the congregation's growth, and for others to learn about their denomination.

Comando's wife, Nanette, points out the children's play space and the new kitchen, which will allow for pancake breakfast fundraisers. "This space feels so sacred and perfect," she said, full of rich history. "It's wonderful to give it life again."

As children run by, laughing, and the walls resound with laughter and conversation, Comando smiles. "It feels like home."

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