Reverend Phillips Leaving Sag Harbor

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Reverend Mark Phillips, who is leaving the Old Whalers’ Church this week, was honored by the volunteers at the Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry on Tuesday, May 12. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz. 

By Stephen J. Kotz

The Reverend Mark Phillips, who has served as pastor of Sag Harbor’s First Presbyterian, or Old Whalers’ Church, for the past five years, recently informed his congregation that he had accepted a new post, at the Cherry Hill Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, Michigan. This Sunday, May 17, will mark his last day in the pulpit.

“It will be a source of great joy to me to know that long after I have left this place you will not remember me but that you will remember Jesus” is the last line of the final sermon he will preach.

“This church has a tremendous history,” he said of the congregation which dates to 1766 and which has been meeting since 1844 in its landmark building on Union Street  designed by the architect Minard Lafever. “It’s a privilege to be part, however small, of its history.”

Rev. Phillips was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and served for 16 years in a church in Youngstown, Ohio, another Rust Belt city that was hit hard by the shift in the American economy away from manufacturing, so should come as no surprise that he has accepted a post in Dearborn, the Detroit suburb where Henry Ford based his automobile manufacturing business.

“I look forward to Dearborn and the possibilities it offers,” said Rev. Phillips, noting that the church, with about 300 members, “is very involved in the community, both in Dearborn and in Detroit too.”

Coming to Eastern Long Island, then, was a change of pace for Rev. Phillips. “I’ve learned a lot in these five years, and I’ve had some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” said Reverend Phillips, admitting that he was a bit star-struck when the violinist Itzhak Perlman performed at the church or when the two surviving members of the Who, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry, attended a memorial service for their former manager and producer, Chris Stamp.

“But I’ve also gotten to see the food pantry in action—everyone has this idea of what the Hamptons are—and you see people lined up in the cold at 6 a.m. to get food, waiting for the doors to open at 10. And the volunteers who are so willing to help out.”

Although the Old Whalers’ Church has about 125 members, representing a broad slice of local Sag Harbor, the church is something of a community hub, Rev. Phillips said, with as many as 500 people passing through its doors on a weekly basis to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, come to the food pantry, visit a center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth at the church, or attend Monday night Bible study classes Rev. Phillips  leads.

“There are many people who think of this as their church,” he said, “even though they have no affiliation with it.”

Despite its place at the heart of the community, the church, built largely by donations from prosperous whaling captains, was on hard times just a few years ago. Rev. Phillips said in the summer of 2011, the congregation’s secretary told him there was enough money on hand to keep the doors open for perhaps another three months. “The threat was very real,” he recalled, noting that the congregation made drastic cutbacks and then became the beneficiary of a generous outpouring from many members of the community.

It was the generosity of congregants who underwrote the renovation of the trompe d’oeil painting on the rear wall of the sanctuary and paid to paint the church’s exterior.

“Ministers come, and minister go. It is the congregation that remains,” he said. “I’d like to the ink I’m leaving behind a little bit stronger, a little bit healthier congregation, and I’m confident those core members will see to it that it survives.”

“We always say this is a church where all people are welcome, where the doors are open to all people,” he added. “I hope in the past five years we have been able to open them a little wider.

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