by Linda Viertel –
One congregation and two churches: The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns and the “Old Dutch,” the oldest church in New York, possess a rich history and cultural heritage in the rivertowns. Expanding from this storied past, the Church’s current vision brings worshippers into the 21st century with a spiritual and social justice commitment at the heart of its mission: “…a community church filled with people gathered for worship, spiritual growth, and fellowship – people ready to share their talents and gifts, to celebrate what is good, and committed to reach out to help make our world a place where violence ceases, hunger is no more, the oppressed are liberated, resources are respected and shared, and peace embodies justice.”
The Old Dutch, built by wealthy landowner, Frederick Philipse in 1685 (with the first congregants celebrating a service in 1697), was rooted in the reformed branch of Protestantism stemming from the European Reformation in the 1500’s. Spreading to the Netherlands, it became the Dutch Reformed Church, which traveled with Dutch settlers to North America and is now the Reformed Church in America (RCA). The RCA was established in New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1628, a small denomination with approximately 1000 congregations across the country.
By the mid-19th century when the founding church congregation outgrew the Old Dutch, the nearby South Church was built, and was eventually supplanted by the current Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns in the center of Tarrytown, referred to as “The Clock Tower Church.” Services are held here from Labor Day to June when summer services travel to the Old Dutch, since there is no electricity to heat the interior during the colder months, and it is lit only by candlelight. Special holiday services, however, are also held at the Old Dutch year round: four services on Christmas (including a children’s service), an Easter sunrise service, an October celebration of reformation, and, of course, multiple October events related to the famed, ”The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” whose author, Washington Irving, enjoyed roaming the Burying Ground in his teenage years.* When the Old Dutch Church’s organ was installed in 1998 (a project initiated by then Rev. Gerald Vander Hart’s wife, Church Organist and Music Director Barbara), electricity was installed specifically for the organ; otherwise 3 people would have to keep pumping the organ to keep it going!
Now, the Church’s thriving music program features an innovative series entitled “Seven Sundays: A Celebration of Worship and Music,” when everything from jazz, to Bach, to Indie Rock and Broadway tunes are integrated into the service. The Cherubs Choir, an after-school music program, is open to children in the community ages 6-12, and performs four Sunday concerts a year. A thriving nursery school has a music program as well. Multiple adult choirs enhance the Church’s music ministry not only for services but to reach beyond the church into the community.
Foundational to the Church’s mission is the idea of outreach supporting local non-profits, and providing care for those in need; its Benevolence Budget, 10% of the Church’s overall budget, includes support for local, national and international organizations. The Church sponsors our local Halloween Parade and the TaSH farmer’s market; institutional space is provided for ITAV (It Takes A Village), AA and Boy Scout troupe #22 – a presence at the church for 75 years; first Sunday brunches welcome YMCA residents to attend; Sunday School students are active in The Midnight Run which provides food and clothing for Manhattan’s homeless; and teenagers participate in mission trips, such as installing concrete floors in Haiti after the 2018 earthquake.
Reverend Jeffrey Gargano, the Church’s inspirational spiritual leader, celebrated his 10th anniversary as pastor in late September. He has grown the congregation, brought in young families, inspired two fathers to teach Sunday school, all while creating a vibrant community of worshippers. He has officiated at multiple weddings, not only for congregants, and has been witness to a Bat Mitzvah at the Old Dutch. “The congregation at the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow sees itself as having a unique opportunity to welcome the thousands of visitors to our villages,” said Rev. Gargano. “Opening the doors of the church for simple tours, various programs and, of course, worship, is a special privilege that we don’t take lightly. Indeed, it is our way of extending Christian hospitality to all.”
“All are welcome,” emphasized Renee Chillemi, Vice-President of the church’s board, “And we really mean that.” Under Rev. Gargano’s socially committed spiritual leadership, the congregation has maintained an active cultural, spiritual and public-spirited calendar. As church treasurer, Aubrey Hawes stated, “ It’s a very busy place.”
For more detailed historical information on the Old Dutch and The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns, please read: The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow; Legends and Lore: The Oldest Church in New York by Janie Couch Allen and Elinor Griffith.
If You Go:
42 North Broadway
Sunday Services at the winter “Clock Tower Church” at 10:30 (after children’s service)
*During the last three weekends in October, the Church hosts The Old Dutch Fest on the property from 12 to 4:30, when Dutch food and brew will be served, tours of the Burying Ground will be given with a children’s scavenger hunt and prizes, souvenirs sold and, naturally, The Headless Horseman will make an appearance. Wednesday showings of the silent movie, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” will be accompanied by John Keyes playing the organ starting October 9th at 5:30.