Around the Island

A major milestone for a community and religious institution

COURTESY PHOTO | The Shelter Island Presbyterian Church as seen in a postcard, circa 1910.
COURTESY PHOTO | The Shelter Island Presbyterian Church as seen in a postcard, circa 1910.

The Shelter Island Presbyterian Church has long stood as a testament to community involvement. The Food Pantry, 12-step programs, an early childhood education center — these are just a small sampling of the many organizations that use the church as a home base in order to serve the diverse needs of Islanders.

This tradition of service has been a hallmark of the congregation for a long time — a very long time indeed. 

The first house of worship was built on the site in 1743 — the same year Thomas Jefferson was born — on land set aside by Jonathan Havens. Brinley Sylvester II secured the services of the congregation’s first pastor and donated several thousands of dollars to establish a place of worship. In 1806, under the ministry of the Reverend Daniel Hall, a statement of faith and covenant to the Presbyterian Church was written and construction of a larger building was completed in 1817.

In the century that followed, the congregation and the church both grew exponentially. In 1826, a belfry was added and the church was expanded thanks to a bequest from Benjamin Conkling. The first parsonage was also built on what is now Baldwin Road. A notable pastor, the appropriately named Daniel Lord, came to helm the congregation in 1847 and membership increased dramatically as a result.

Then in 1895, Reverend Jacob Mallman arrived to lead the congregation for nearly a quarter of a century. He is the author of “Shelter Island and its Presbyterian Church,” a book that today remains a major source of church history.

But before there was a church, there was a meeting house on the site — a multi-purpose building that in the 17th and 18th centuries would have functioned as a place for community gatherings where Islanders could worship or discuss politics and other pressing issues of the day.

“I believe they outgrew the meeting house,” said Joy Bausman who has been a member of the congregation for more than seven decades. “As the congregation grew, so did the church. They built and added to it over the next 100 years.”

COURTESY PHOTO | The church and cemetery as seen in a historic image.
COURTESY PHOTO | The church and cemetery as seen in a historic image.

Ms. Bausman and fellow congregant Heather Reylek believe it’s no accident that the current Presbyterian Church, which was built in the aftermath of a devastating 1934 fire that destroyed the earlier building, stands on the site of the original meeting house. As they pointed out during a recent interview at the Reporter’s offices, many of the structures and tenets of the church closely resemble that of government.

“From what I’ve seen, our government was patterned after the Presbyterian Church democracy,” said Ms. Reylek. “The church committees are elected to terms of office. This structure of an annual meeting includes oaths of offices, patterned after being sworn in.”

Ms. Reylek and Ms. Bausman have been doing a lot of digging into church history of late. That’s because 2018 marks the 275th anniversary of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church. To celebrate the milestone, throughout the year programs will be offered highlighting the history of the congregation, the building and even the cemeteries that surround it.

“We’re trying to do something every other month throughout the year,” explained Ms. Bausman.

The first program marking the 275th anniversary will be on Tuesday, April 3 at the Shelter Island Women’s Community Club luncheon. Ms. Bausman and Karen Kiaer, members of the Shelter Island Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), will offer a PowerPoint presentation about the elite 18th century “One Percenters” buried in the church’s cemeteries.

Ms. Bausman explains that the burying grounds surrounding the church are unique in that they contain the largest number of tabletop monuments on the East End. Tabletops, she explains, consist of large brownstone or marble slabs that are supported by four legs. Ms. Bausman adds that only the wealthiest and most important land-owning families could afford them, which may explain why there are only eight in total to be found locally — none exist in either Southampton or Southold, and East Hampton has just a few. The remainder can be found right here on Shelter Island.

“We also have the only one devoted to a woman by herself,” added Ms. Bausman. “A lady in the Havens family.”

During the April 3 presentation, which marks the completion of the DAR Chapter’s five-year gravestone restoration project, Ms. Bausman and Ms. Kiaer will share the stories of these “One Percenters” from another era. Ms. Bauman notes that also buried in the cemeteries are eight Revolutionary War Patriots as well as several men who fought in the Civil War.

While some of the 275th anniversary events this year will focus on honoring the history of the Presbyterian Church and its congregants, 2018 is also a year to celebrate the present — including the individuals and non-profit organizations that expend a great deal of time and energy to serve others.

“It’s a building that’s more than a church,” offered Ms. Reylek. “Most of the churches we know of have also built fellowship halls and they offer something for everyone in the community. It’s welcoming to all.”

“It really is still a meeting house. The structure of the church is important for this community,” said Ms. Bausman, who pointed out that many of the Reporter’s “People of the Year” recipients have been members of the church.

“The strong point of this church and why it’s lasted so long, is that it’s a very open society,” said Ms. Bausman. “It’s a democratic and welcoming place.”

Stay tuned … throughout the year, the Reporter will run notices and stories about upcoming events related to the anniversary of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church’s founding.