Old Whalers’ Church Celebrates a Major Milestone

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By Stephen J. Kotz

Sag Harbor was little more than a swampy backwater in 1766 when a handful of its inhabitants got together to build a community church. That congregation, now occupying its third building and known as the Old Whalers’ Church, is celebrating its 250th anniversary this weekend with a series of events from a family movie night, fundraising party, and organ recital. (See accompanying schedule for more information.)

To say things have changed a bit from those early years when congregants were called to worship in a simple building known as the “Old Barn Church” by the beating of a drum and services consisted of members reading from Scriptures and a prepared sermon, would be an understatement.

Today, besides being the spiritual home of about 125 members, the Presbyterian church plays the unofficial role of Sag Harbor’s community center, with the Sag Harbor food pantry, the Hamptons LGBT center, Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers, and other groups finding a home in its large building on Union Street.

“So many people tell me this is their church,” said the Reverend Christopher Mergener, who came to Sag Harbor last year from Chicago. “We are reaching people in a number of different ways.”

According to Dorothy Zaykowski’s book, “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty,” there was “a meeting of the inhabitants of Sagg-Harbour, Hog Neck and adjacent places, Feb. ye 24th, 1766, in order to consult upon the affair of erecting a house of publick worship at Sagg-Harbour.” They chose a site at the northeast corner of Church and Sage streets, which became known as Meeting House Hill, for the new building.

Despite having a church building, it took the congregation another 23 years to find a permanent minister when John Taylor arrived in 1789 and alternated preaching between Sag Harbor and Shelter Island.

Like other congregations, the Old Whalers’ Church has seen its membership fall off, as regular Sunday church attendance, once a staple of American life, has declined, Reverend Mergener said.

“But we’re still reaching people in a number of different ways. There are a lot of people who come through the building,” he said.

Nonetheless, he said the session, the church’s governing body, is continually searching for new ways to augment its programming.

As the congregation grew in the early 1800s, its members tore down the “Old Barn Church” in 1816 and used much of the remaining lumber to build a second church, which stood on the same site as the original one.

That served the congregation until the early 1840s when, in the midst of a great religious revival across the country, whaling ship owners and captains and other wealthy Sag Harborbites raised the money to build the current church on Union Street. The property for the church was purchased for $2,000, and the building itself, which was designed by the prominent architect, Minard Lafever, cost an additional $17,000 to build.

Once dominated by a huge steeple that could be seen by returning whalers far out in Gardiner’s Bay, the church underwent unintentional facelift during the hurricane of 1938 when the steeple was toppled by the wind.

The building was named a national historic landmark by the federal Department of the Interior in 1994.

Meanwhile, Reverend Mergener said one of his jobs is to make sure the congregation does not become a relic itself. To that end, he said efforts will be made to reach out to young people in the community, something that is much more difficult than it was two decades ago when youth groups were ubiquitous.

“Back then, kids didn’t have cellphones and social media and sports on Sunday,” he said. “Those are the challenges we face.”


250th Anniversary Homecoming Schedule

Friday, July 15

Family Movie Night: “Finding Nemo,” dusk, front lawn of the Old Whalers’ Church.

The screening is free, and refreshments will be available for purchase. Moviegoers are encouraged to bring chairs and blankets in order to make themselves comfortable on the grass.

Saturday, July 16

Self Guided Tours, 4 to 6 p.m.

The church will be open for self-guided tours leading up to its “Fun Raising” raffle on Saturday. A docent will be present to answer questions

“Fun-Raising” Raffle, 6 to 8 p.m., Old Whalers’ Church Social Hall

The first prize will be $1,000; second prize, $500; third prize, $250. Only 250 tickets will be sold. Each ticket admits two to the party and includes two drink tickets and food. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased in advance by calling the church office, (631) 725-0894, or e-mailing oldwhalers@optonline.net. Any tickets remaining on the day of the party can be purchased at the door.

Sunday, July 17

Worship Services, 10 a.m., Old Whalers’ Church Sanctuary

The service will feature the choir, led by church music director Dominick Abbate, and bell choir, led by Walter Klauss. Fellowship Coffee Time will follow the service, at 11 a.m.

Self Guided Tours, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The church will be open for self-guided tours. A docent will be present to answer questions.

Organ Recital, 3 p.m.

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Prince Namatai Nyatanga.

Prince Namatai Nyatanga from Harare, Zimbabwe will perform the organ recital. In 2011, Mr. Nayatanga won a scholarship given by the Queens-Nassau County chapter of the American Guild of Organists. He was also appointed as organ scholar and conductor of the Boys’ Choir at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City. He led the Boys’ Choir at Canterbury and Winchester cathedrals in England. Mr. Nayatanga has also performed in Africa and North America; in 2014 he was the featured guest soloist at the Martin Luther King celebration concert in Los Angeles. He founded Music Inspire Africa, an organization aimed at inspiring young musicians in southern Africa. Among his previous organ teachers is Walter Klauss, artist-in-residence at Old Whalers’ Church. A free-will offering will be accepted.

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