by Barrett Seaman –
A visitor to this bucolic, pin-neat hamlet would find it hard to believe that the official population of Pocantico Hills is as many as 23,000. In the village center, there are no commercial establishments but instead clusters of charming houses, a fire department, public school and two churches. One of them, the Union Church, carries an outsized reputation because of its stained glass windows and its ties to the Rockefeller family, which is as close to the church as the rolling hills that surround it.
Union is a non-denominational Christian Church. According to its constitution, it is “independent in government, doctrine and discipline…amenable to no other church or organization, but shall be in full sympathy with every church existing for the same great end…” The liturgy follows the standard Christian lectionary. There are hymns but no bells or incense. The simple nature of the services has drawn people from other Christian faiths, notably Catholics, as well as Jews.
Union is now in transition, following the retirement of Rev. Paul DeHoff, who was its pastor for 27 years. As was DeHoff, the interim pastor, Dr. Lindley DeGarmo, though raised as a Methodist, was ordained as a Presbyterian. A former Exxon and Salomon Brothers executive who left Mammon to follow God, DeGarmo, 66, had retired from the ministry in Towson, Maryland and was spending his time travelling with his wife when he got a call from a former church colleague suggestimg he apply for the interim position at Union. “I was intrigued by the church,” says Rev. DeGarmo. “I thought I was inheriting a neighborhood church.” But it turns out that less than half of Union’s parishioners are truly local, while the rest come from as far away as New York City and Connecticut.
There are two services each Sunday—at 9 and 11 a.m., followed by a Fellowship Hour. According to Carla De Landri, president of the church’s board of trustees, attendance averages between 25 and 50 per service, though like all churches, those numbers swell at Christmas and Easter. Choirmaster and organist Richard Coffey leads a group of singers that has dwindled to six—and could use more male voices. Still, there are those who are somewhat surprised that there is a functioning church at all. “Many see us as a museum,” said De Landri, who lives in the city, “but what is often overlooked is that we are a vibrant, fully functioning Church.”
That vibrancy sits on a solid financial foundation, thanks in large part to the Rockefellers, and in part to the presence of nine stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall and one large window that was the last work of Henry Matisse, who died within days of completing it in 1955. All of these works were commissioned by the Rockefellers: Nelson arranged for the Matisse window, which is dedicated to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, his mother. Led by David, the other brothers acquired the Chagall windows.
John D. Rockefeller Sr. was involved with the founding of Union Church. His son John D. II, stayed involved for sixty years. The bell tower and chimes, donated by David, are dedicated to Laura Spellman Rockefeller, John Sr.’s wife, and there are plaques in the church’s nave to all these, plus Laurance and Michael. When a search committee was formed in 1990, Mary Rockefeller provided her private plane to whisk committee members around the country in search of a new pastor.
In 1981, the professionally managed Rockefeller Brothers Fund informed the church elders that they would cease direct annual contributions, but they then crafted a nifty scheme whereby the church’s considerable properties, including the church itself, the pastoral residence called the Manse and the school buildings, were sold to a non-profit entity called Sleepy Hollow Restorations (SHR), which then leased the holdings back to the church. Restricted funds were then set up to pay for upkeep of all property as well as the pastor’s salary and benefits. Today, Historic Hudson Valley, successor to SHR, maintains all the holdings and makes improvements, such as an expanded parking lot to handle the thousands of tourists that come to see the windows.
Some who came to see the windows stayed to hear the sermons. A year ago, Lou Calogridis of Weston, Connecticut and his partner Pam Whittemore stopped by the church on a weekend jaunt through the Hudson Valley. They caught a tour, liked the feel of the place and started coming back regularly, even though it meant driving an hour and a quarter each way. “People are so embracing,” says Pam, a Catholic for 30 years, now divorced. “There’s no pressure, no judgment. I never felt that way going to Mass.”
Not every parishioner comes from afar. Ruth Vedder lives right there in Pocantico Hills and admits that there is “a convenience factor.” Now a soloist in the choir, she and her husband knew of Union before they moved there but were “holiday-only churchgoers” until the “traditional but incredibly welcoming” nature of the church drew them in.
For three years, Todd Rhoda has been coming from Millwood, 20 minutes away, drawn by the depth and balance of the sermons, as well as the thrill of worshipping amidst so much great art. “You’re sitting there, your head 18 inches from Chagall’s signature,” he enthuses. Whether in spite of or because of the Rockefellers, he calls Union a “humble stone church.”
“In such a fearful world,” he said, quoting C.S. Lewis, “you need a fearless church.”