This is the first in a series about religious institutions on Shelter Island.
Every Sunday, members of the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church community gather to sing, pray, catch up with each other and hear the pastor, Father Charles McCarron, reconcile Jesus’s teachings with modern life on the Island — a uniquely Episcopalian approach to faith that he calls “the middle way,” where “newness is held in tension with tradition.”
The church itself, located on St. Mary’s Road, has the sense of a beautified underbelly of an old ship; creaky wooden pews and rafters give the space a cavernous feel. A Tiffany stained-glass window at the front of the church bears the names of several members of the Nichols family.
The former owners of Mashomack Preserve, the family gave the land for the first St. Mary’s church in 1871, which burned down in 1896 when struck by lightning.
Though the church was re-built a year later, the Island’s year-round population was only in the hundreds, so it was difficult to sustain a steady congregation. In 1929, St. Mary’s closed, opening only occasionally for baptisms and remained shuttered for nearly 30 years. But in 1958, a group of women led by Alma Ryder, who passed away in June, pushed to get the church back in operation again.
Today, St. Mary’s serves about 120 households, 50 percent of whom you see on any given Sunday. There are three services — 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and a more informal service at 5:30 p.m., which is sometimes held on the beach. The congregation is largely made up of senior members, but six or seven teenagers were confirmed this year.
All the Island’s churches have lines out for younger people; St. Mary’s partners with Our Lady of the Isle Roman Catholic Church and The Shelter Island Presbyterian Church to organize the All-Faith Youth Group at Camp Quinipet and the Vacation Bible School, an ecumenical, faith-filled children’s camp in late July.
St. Mary’s has had its ups and downs in the past few years, and some of the “downs” have made the front page of the Reporter. Father Joel Ireland, who served as rector from 2012 to 2014, resigned from the church in lieu of being removed by its Vestry for reasons relating to personal issues and his “dictatorial” ruling style, according to what sources told the Reporter in June of 2014. Father Charles McCarron took over as rector in January 2015, and “is a much better fit for Saint Mary’s,” according to longtime parishioner Linda Holmes.
Raised Roman Catholic, Father McCarron spent 18 years as a Franciscan Friar and was on track to becoming a Catholic seminary professor before the AIDS epidemic broke out in the 1980s and re-routed his spiritual life. While working closely with those with the disease, he became frustrated with Catholicism’s hierarchical ruling structure and inflexible views about sexuality.
He gravitated toward Episcopalianism because it offers people a path that is more democratic, he said, adding, “People are free to disagree and wrestle with issues. We [Episcopalians and Catholics] all believe in the Eucharist, but [the Episcopalian] church allows for more leeway.
The people of our congregation have real authority. Same-sex weddings have been celebrated at Saint Mary’s and women can be priests and church officials.”
Since arriving on Shelter Island, Father McCarron has hosted foreign exchange students and baseball players, served on the Shelter Island Educational Foundation, worked with Rural Migrant Ministries, and contributed to several boards dedicated to securing affordable housing and medical care to people here.
Father McCarron is enchanted by the Island’s natural beauty, the “close-knitness” of the community and the partnership between congregations of different denominations. “More than a lot of places, we work together,” he said.
However, he admits that the year-round community has real issues that are often masked for the sake of “keeping up appearances.” Problems like domestic violence, substance abuse and financial hardship are often kept secret because people don’t want to ask for help.
For example, when a survey was put out to find out how many people on the Island were eligible for Medicaid, very few residents were willing to come forward. “We know people who need Medicaid,” he said. “But nobody wanted to reveal their situation.”
Another point of tension he’s observed stems from the Island’s transition from an agricultural and fishing community to a summer resort town, where real estate is the big business.
“People are starting to refer to “community housing needs” rather than ‘affordable housing needs,” because affordable housing, for some people, sounds like government subsidies, some kind of welfare — it’s associated with poor people. Everyone is worried about their property values.”
A PLACE TO GRIEVE
Father McCarron is candid about a traumatic incident for the Island at large and the St. Mary’s community in particular. Reverend Canon Paul Wancura, an 87-year-old colleague and friend of the pastor, died in Stony Brook University Hospital on April 16, a month after suffering wounds inflicted during a home invasion and burglary in his Silver Beach residence.
He had been left alone, bound by his wrists, for more than two days.
Father McCarron discovered his friend at his Oak Tree Lane residence midday on March 19 after checking on him.
The elderly minister had missed Sunday services at a church in West Islip the day before where he assisted most weekends. Father Wancura was found lying between a bed and a bedroom wall.
Airlifted to the hospital, he was in the intensive care unit for almost a month before his death. His left hand had been amputated from the injuries he suffered. A visitor to the hospital, a veteran of Vietnam, said he had never seen such serious wounds since his service in the war.
Father McCarron was a frequent visitor at the hospital, and told the Reporter of his admiration for Reverend Wancura, who never lost his humor or his courageous spirit. Father McCarron said the “randomness” and “shock” of his death has greatly affected people’s sense of the Island.
“Maybe a somewhat unrealistic sense,” he said. “It was the first time something like that had happened in 350 years. I think that was part of the grieving — there was a sense of grieving for him but also a grieving over the notion of a Shelter Island that was lost as well.”
Still, he believes that the St. Mary’s community will, in time, reconcile with Reverend Wancura’s loss. “I think in the end, this is a community of faith,” he said. “That kind of grief is something you have to live through, and I think we are.”