by Krista Madsen
Borrowing a Celtic reference, Pastor Jeff Gargano refers to the Old Dutch Church as a “thin place,” where Heaven and Earth almost touch. This thin space where the spiritual infuses a great variety of life-and-death celebrations is actually very thick of wall – three-feet at the base, in fact, thick enough to withstand over 300 years of history as New York’s oldest, and, perhaps, most iconic church.
The trio gathered for this fact-filled Warner Oral History session had two major things in common: a profound connection to/obsession with this legendary chapel and an amazing capacity to rattle off centuries of names and dates. Please take the time to listen to the full audio at www.SoundCloud.com/warnerlibraryoralhistories – you’ll learn plenty from this group and surely develop your own love affair with the ODC if you haven’t already.
As fascinating as this history is – which began even before Frederick Philipse’s slaves built the church in 1685 at what was previously a Native American stomping ground – it’s also amazing to hear how this group grew such a relationship with it.
Aubrey Hawes’ American ancestors date back to the colonists, but though there are still Hawes around here, they aren’t his direct family. He’s been in town since 1974 when he joined what was then the Second Reformed Church of 1836, which had branched off from the First Reformed Church (now the ODC) when people didn’t want to travel that far up the road. In 1851, the congregations officially separated with their own pastors so one pastor no longer had to travel between both. They returned to their roots, combining congregations again in 1991 when church attendance across the country had dropped dramatically. Gargano, “an incredible find,” said Hawes, was hired in 2009, just in time for the 325th anniversary of the ODC in 2010, for which they pulled out all the stops.
Gargano immediately recognized what a special thing the Reformed Church had in the then underutilized ODC. “’This is a treasure, you really must pay more attention to it,’” he said. He got us recharged about Old Dutch,” Hawes recalled. The newly formed Friends of the Old Dutch Burying Ground took up the cause of tending to the old broken gravestones and fallen trees of what is still an operational cemetery with about 20 remaining plots, including one reserved for Hawes and his wife. Recently, the church celebrated a groundbreaking for the complicated and expensive task of making the historic building accessible, a project they started talking about a decade ago.
Deb McCue doesn’t live here, but “stumbled upon” the ODC for an organ concert after Gargano just got installed. She got pulled in by the choir, for which she sings alto. Two years ago, she started her own mission of hospitality here, serving as a docent on Saturdays to welcome visitors with some of the many stories of the place and its people.
“I feel this attraction to this congregation and the history here, the deep history of this place,” McCue said. She also answers a lot of questions about Washington Irving, buried on the slope of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery overlooking the church that he made famous in the “Legend of the Sleepy Hollow.” “They know Irving because of the ‘Legend’ but they don’t know a lot about him. He was a real American; he really ushered in an American age. And I think the ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is just his calling card,” McCue said.
Finally, there’s Janie Allen, who used to live here in 1999 and found the Reformed Church very convenient to attend. But when she moved, first to Chappaqua and then to Yorktown, she found herself still pulled back despite the commute. “I just couldn’t leave this church. The people I think drew me here and helped keep me here.”
With a background as an editor at Reader’s Digest, Allen was commissioned with a colleague to write a history of the ODC on time for the anniversary, an involved project she spent a year on. For the celebration, she recalls the outdoor screening of the 1922 silent black and white “Legend” film starring Will Rogers to about 300 people among the cemetery stones. A reception across the street at Philipsburg Manor, the smaller version of the estate that once stretched 50,000 acres, showcased the Philipse’s original “glittering” collection of silver bequeathed to the church. Two engraved communion beakers and the original baptism bowl are still in regular use.
Allen found ample documentation to write from, but didn’t necessarily trust Irving’s version of things, a man who famously blurred the line between fact and fiction. “Washington Irving himself said, ‘I don’t believe a word I say myself,’ so we took that to heart.”
Among the notable visitors here, besides Irving of course (who actually was a member of Christ Church in Tarrytown), was Theodore Roosevelt, keynote speaker in 1897 of the ODC’s 200th anniversary. Before that, there was George Washington, Irving’s namesake, who led the Continental Army through the area.
The question always comes up for McCue of who’s buried here. “They’re people like you and me,” she tells visitors. “They are the regular people who were living in the area at the time the Revolution broke out. At some point, they had to choose a side. I’d say we have Patriots buried in our burial ground. But they were your regular folk that took on extraordinary tasks of commanding militias…the Liberty Boys that would go and harass the British, all of the Van Tassels… They weren’t the most famous but they were a part of this community and fought for this community. We have citizens there.”
The earliest stone is a child’s from 1755. And after the Revolution, these experts note a rush of baptisms.
Despite the ravages on the ODC through the years (fire in 1835, powder post beetle infestation in the 1980s), the original structure remains remarkably intact, with a few new roofs needed along the way. Though the church only conducts services occasionally (summertime, Christmas), it is alive with all sorts of events, lectures and weddings of all denominations.
“We want to keep it in shape for the community and more accessible to programing year-round,” McCue said.
Finally, you can’t help but ask, are there any ghost stories? (Besides that Headless Horseman trotting through the Old Dutch Festival every October, of course). “I do feel a presence in our cemetery,” McCue said. “I don’t know how much of that is my projection. When you think of all of the weddings, all of the prayers, all of the baptisms, all of the burials, the highlights of life that have happened on that hill, they leave an echo. When people come up there they walk into it and they feel it.”
“We’ve each learned our stories. We each have our own reason why that space is so significant to us, so sacred,” McCue added. “And why we want to keep it in perpetuity for the whole community, if not internationally. That little church is known not just here in New York but around the whole world.”