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Oldest Church is at Setauket

Footnotes to Long Island History

OLDEST CHURCH IS AT SETAUKET

NOV 9 1950

by

Thomas R. Bayles


       The oldest church now standing in Suffolk county, or in fact on Long Island, is the Caroline Episcopal church at Setauket on the north side of the Green around which the first settlement of Brookhaven was made in 1655.

       This ancient building lifts heaven ward its grand old tower, while its windows look silently out upon the graves of generations of the former worshipers who have come to rest within shadow.

       The earliest notice on the books of the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts," is of the appointment of the Rev James Wetmore as missionary in the Town of Brookhaven in 1723. It is supposed that services of the church of England were conducted here before that date, but it is not known that the church had a building of its own before the present one was erected in 1729.

       The Rev. Alexander Campbell was appointed rector at Setauket in 1729, and it was his leadership that inspired the building of the present church. The original name was Christ church but this was changed to the present one in honor of Queen Caroline, Queen of George II of England, who had presented to the parish in 1730 a silver communion service and embroidered alter cloths. The communion service is still in possession of the church.

       On the east side of the "Green," stands the Presbyterian church, adjoining the site of the Old Town Church, which was erected in 1671. During the early years of the history of Brookhaven town the church was supported by the town, and in the divisions of land to the early settlers a share was reserved in many cases for the support of the church. As the Episcopal denomination had been gaining ground for several years in 1741 a committee was appointed by the town to arrange a division of the property reserved for church purposes. This committee consisted of Isaac Brown, William Smith, James Tuthill and Richard Woodhull, who on October 5, 1741 decided that the various parcels of land and property that had from time to time been set apart by the town for religious purposes should be divided between the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, and thus the matter was settled.

       In 1938 the interior of the church was restored to its original Colonial design as a gift by Mrs. Frank Melville and Ward Melville, in memory of the late Frank Melville Jr. who was a vestryman in this church, Through their efforts this historic old church takes its place in historic beauty and interest with the foremost Colonial churches of our country.

       In the work of restoration every efforts was made to save such Colonial features as were left and to restore the church as it might have been. The huge hand hewn timbers as solid as the day they were put in were restored to their original exposed position. Wide pine boards covered the floor. In the vestibule, columns and beams were uncovered as were "ships knees" in the corners a reminder of the days when Setauket was famous for its ship building.

       The gallery at the rear was the only visible part of the old interior before the restoration. This gallery added in 1744, furnished pews for the slaves. The narrow benches and forward slanting backs of the seats were not made for comfort. This still retains the name of "slave gallery."

       The old organ, now in the parish house, was in service in the church for many years, and came from St. Ann's church in Brooklyn. It was probably brought over from England before the Revolution.

       The exterior of the church is much as it was originally, to which the warped walls and the bullet holes in the belfry bear testimony. The shingles, cut out by hands that have long since gone to rest, were fastened with huge, roughly fashioned nails, hammered out by the village blacksmith long years ago.

       During the revolution the Caroline church must have been officially favored by the British troops of occupation, and it was during this period that tradition has handed down the following incident.

       One hot July Sunday the church was full of British officers, and the Rev. James Lyons was preaching. In the midst of his sermon he happened to look out of the window and saw a sight that caused him to inject some remarks not in his sermon, which he addressed to the British officers.

       "Here am I preaching the famed gospel to you and there are your d.......... redcoats in my garden stealing my potatoes." Having thus relieved his mind he returned to his sermon.

       Among the relics of the church is the original subscription list that was circulated over two hundred years ago to raise the money for building a gallery. The document yellow with age, reads as follows; "We, the subscribers, do promise to pay the sum annexed to our respective names for the building and furnishing a gallery at the west end of Caroline church in Brookhaven," It was dated March 26, 1744, and bears the signatures of 36 men. The Rev. Isaac Brown heads the list with 14 shillings.

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