OK, so I’ve heard that it’s considered “not cool” to blog or tweet about religion. This post isn’t really about religion, as in–convert to mine! But it is a fascinating snippet about the founding of the oldest church in Rockaway Beach, and the surrounding community.
In April, 1858, the Holland family arrived in Rockaway on the Schooner Virginia, which docked near today’s Beach 90th Street and the bay. There were only 10 houses on the peninsula at the time. Michael P. Holland, Sr. and his wife, Fannie R. Holland, had purchased the land from beach to bay, between present Beach 91 and Beach 94 Streets. This included an old hotel, a primitive dock and sand dunes 30 to 50 feet high. There was a pond with eel pots where The Wave now sits.
The family planned to farm, so they carted soil from Far Rockaway and placed it along both sides of the four blocks of Rockaway Beach Boulevard they had purchased. Remember, there were no train tracks at the time, no Shorefront Parkway, no Beach Channel Drive. In fact, the bay waters lapped all the way up to the present site of the A train trestle!
The Hollands got the old hotel cleaned up and started renting it to visitors right away. They dubbed the area, “Oceanus.”
The work must have been too much for Michael, Sr. He died the following year, leaving Fannie alone to raise their nine children among the dunes, renting the hotel and farming the land. She must have been one tough cookie! I felt an immediate connection upon hearing the story of Fannie Holland. My own paternal grandmother ran a rooming house for coal miners in a company patch called Ronco, Pennsylvania, after my grandfather died in an accident in 1940.
Others moved to the area in the ensuing decades. A school and a post office were built, and Fannie’s son, Michael P., Jr., became the first postmaster. Church services were conducted in the neighborhood by a visiting preacher from Woodhaven, and Fannie and her neighbors began operating the peninsula’s first Sunday School.
In December, 1885, these families met and formally voted to organize a church and join the Congregationalists, a fiercely independent, outspoken and democratic Protestant group (spiritual heirs of the Pilgrims) that had, since arriving in the colonies, reformed the justice system and laid the foundation for the separation of church and state.
Congregationalists rejected all forms of hierarchy, transferring authority from the clergy to the people of their congregations. They had fought against slavery and for women’s rights. Although there were some votes among the 1880’s Rockaway group for affiliation with the Methodist and Episcopal churches, Congregationalism won out. A similar effort was being made at the same time among the Catholic settlers on the peninsula, which resulted in St. Rose of Lima and St. Camillus churches being organized shortly thereafter.
One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, February 22, 1886, Fannie Holland and her group were formally recognized as The First Congregational Society, and seven decades later, the church body voted to affiliate with the Progressive Protestant United Church of Christ, a connection that continues to this day.
The members and supporters of the church celebrated this big anniversary at a service held on Sunday, February 20 that included two guest ministers, the Rev. Jan Powell (former pastor from 2001-06), and the Rev. Freeman Palmer of the Metropolitan Association of the UCC. Rev. Joseph Medlin, Pastor of First Congregational, led the service. There was a joyous praise dance group presentation and an over-the-top potluck dinner in the John C. Green Chapel, where the church members worshipped in the 1930’s during the construction of the present church edifice at 320 Beach 94th Street. A photo of the earlier church structure, which was demolished to make way for the Cross Bay Bridge parking plaza, is shown below. Today, it’s the site of the Doughboy Monument on Rockaway Beach Boulevard.
As a member of the history committee of First Congregational, I have been helping, together with other volunteers, to review the trove of historical photos and artifacts of the church. Through these photos and additional research now made much easier by virtue of electronic databases, the stories of the founders and patrons are becoming more vivid.
The easiest to discern is the well-documented story of John Jamieson, called the “Father of the Rockaways,” who died in the 1920’s before achieving his dream of seeing a bridge built to connect Rockaway to the mainland. His Jamieson Bond Company was one of the earliest patrons, donating both land and money to the church. Jamieson’s portrait hangs in the church today.
Another individual whose name is remembered in stained glass, Dr. William Werner, also made it into the pages of a long-forgotten “Rotarian” newspaper, which tells of his amazing, cutting-edge obstetrics practice out of the Rockaway Beach Hospital. The “beloved doctor” of the church delivered hundreds of babies, using hypnosis instead of anesthesia to ease the pain of delivery in the early 1950’s, several years before the Lamaze method was first introduced to the United States.
The names of members of the church governing bodies reads like a “Who’s Who” of Rockaway government and business executives of the Protestant variety–Charles Schilling of Schilling’s Roadhouse (now the Irish Circle); August Bellon of Bellon’s Iron Works, a major Rockaway business located on the bay in Arverne; Henry Schoncke of Schoncke Lumber, which had its place of business where Madelaine’s Chocolates now operates; the long-time Principal of P.S. 44, Walter Gilmore; and of course, Fannie and Michael P. Holland, Jr. Catholics and Jews have also been long-time friends, supporters (and even spouses) of church members! The Joint Interfaith Thanksgiving Service conducted each year with Temple Beth El of Rockaway Park dates back to the late 1920’s.
The pastor for 39 years, Rev. John C. Green, who had come to First Congregational after immigrating from England, retired to Florida, and his wife Della passed away soon thereafter. Yellowed newspaper clippings from the 1940’s tell how Rev. Green remarried a young, vivacious and independent “authoress” several years later, in a May-December romance that reminds me of the one depicted in the movie “Shadowlands,” involving English writer C.S. Lewis and a young American woman who became his soulmate. Rev. Green’s second wife very much resembled Debra Winger, the actress who played opposite Anthony Hopkins in the film.
This fascinating social history project is in full swing, and while details are sketchy, I hope that it will conclude in Fall, 2011 with a grand educational and entertainment event open to the entire community.
The committee would love to be contacted by friends, relatives, and neighbors of the families mentioned above, who played a prominent role in the history of the church. A full summary of the names, businesses, and titles of those we are researching will be published in The Wave soon. Please watch for it and spread the word. We want your stories! You can call me or leave a voicemail message with your contact information at The Wave, 718-634-4000, extension 32. Or send an email to VCarter@rockawave.com. I look forward to hearing from you!