Zion Church – A History
The shade of an apple tree was the birth cradle of Zion Parish. Under this tree, on the brow of the hill overlooking the falls in Wappingers Creek, Joanna, wife of Matthew Mesier, began a Sunday School in 1820. There were only seven or eight families living in the area at the time.
The Mesiers attended Trinity Church in Fishkill, the nearest Episcopal Church, but felt the need for a church less distant for the farmers of the area and their families.
The little group, meeting under the apple tree, was the beginning of what we know as Zion today. The class was subsequently moved into the corn barn near the Mesier Homestead (shown below) where the village flagpole now stands.
The homestead was, until a few years ago, the home of the Village Police Department. It is currently the location of the Wappingers Falls Historical Society. The park is used for many village functions, including Art in the Park, the farmers’ market and a summer concert series.
Steps were taken to erect better shelter than the apple tree for this little flock. In December 1833, Matthew Mesier gave a small tract of land between the burial ground and the turnpike (now Main Street) in front of what was then Mr. Givens’ place.
On January 11, 1834, a subscription of funds for the new church was made. Sixty-four subscribers raised $1,021.50 towards a proposed cost of $2,000.
The subscription paper with the 68 subscribers appears as follows:
"It is proposed to erect in the town of Fishkill and the County of Dutchess, New York, a suitable building for a church to be consecrated to the Worship of Almighty God, Agreeable to the usages of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
The site on which it is proposed to erect said church is that between the burial ground and the turnpike on the hill in front of Mr. Givens.
It is estimated that a building of stone or brick say fifty feet by forty feet and every way suitable can be completed for the sum of two subscribers therefore to carry the above plans and highly desirable object into effect do mutually agree to pay to the building committee that shall be chosen at a meeting of the subscribers, to the erection of said church, the sums affixed to our names respectively, at such times as these shall be required in the progress of the building.
We, the subscribers therefore to carry the above plans and highly desirable object into effect do mutually agree to pay to the building committee that shall be chosen at a meeting of the subscribers, to the erection of said church, the sums affixed to our names respectively, at such times as these shall be required in the progress of the building.
A meeting of the subscribers shall be called to choose a building committee for the erection of said church, when the sum of one thousand dollars shall have been subscribed for said purpose, and Doct. P. D. Schenck and Henry Mesier are hereby empowered to call said subscribers meeting, whenever said sum is subscribed, at such time and place as they shall deem most expedient and proper.
Fishkill, 11th January 1834."
One month later, February 20, 1834, the parish came into being legally and elected a Vestry, Senior Warden – Matthew Mesier, Junior Warden – Benjamin Clapp, Dr. Peter D. Schenck, Henry Mesier, William J. Hughson, James Ingham, Daniel S. Cox, Emery Low, Edward D. Sweet
The stone for the church came from the property of Benjamin Clapp, Much of it hauled by the churchwarden himself.
The Mesier/Reese Gravestone in the Columbarium Garden. This monument stands just above the underground vault containing the remains of the family.
When the time came to choose a name for the church, the congregation was asked to submit names. As it developed, the name was not chosen from those suggested by Episcopalians. But rather that suggested by Mrs. Benjamin Clapp…a Baptist. She commented, “It is a reminder of that grand old hymn, ‘Marching to Zion’. Truly the church edifice is exemplified by the congregation of each generation as they strive individually and concertedly to strengthen and otherwise improve the spiritual and physical body of the church.”
During the period of construction, services were regularly held in the new schoolhouse, at the corner of Fulton and Market Streets. According to the Bishop’s journal, Mr. Andrews served as pastor, not only to the church in Wappingers, but often found time to row across the Hudson to conduct services in Marlboro.
In this very busy year of foundation, the Bishop returned to Wappingers again, before the winter snows, to lay the cornerstone of the church on November 15th. The church, as it emerged was in the newly fashionable style of the Gothic revival. An attempt was made to break away from the sterile and rational precepts of Georgian buildings that had held sway through the colonial period and the early years of the republic. A return to the style of the great medieval architecture of the English church was the “modern thing to do.”
The result at Zion was a building that was a quaint blend of the two traditions. The warm brown stone came from the quarries on the Benjamin Clapp property. Local masons built the solid walls, but the designs of the elaborate balustrade surrounding the then flat roof at the top of the tower undoubtedly came from New York.
Although physical comforts were scant, the spiritual comfort of owning a house of worship no doubt compensated for bodily discomfort. Chilled toes and strained eyes seemed of no consequence to those worshippers, for there was no light other than candles, and no heat. The congregation sat in pews arranged so that there was no middle aisle, only side aisles. The bare wooden floor was noisy and cold.
Such was Zion Protestant Episcopal Church, which was dedicated by Bishop Onderdonk on May 6, 1836.
The letter that follows is a transcribed copy of the hand-written letter from Bishop Onderdonk regarding the visit.
Rev. and Dear Sir:
Your favour of 18th inst. is just received. I purpose, God Willing, consecrating your
church on Friday, May 6th, in the morning, and holding confirmation, if there
are any subjects, in the afternoon. The great pressure of engagements prior to my
leaving on my long visitation, renders it necessary to be as economical of time as
possible. I propose, therefore, leaving here on Thursday, 5, by the evening boat, for
the landing nearest to your residence, and shall expect to leave at the same landing
on the evening of the consecration.
I enclose a copy of the instrument of Donation, to be filled up, and executed by the
Vestry, and remain, with kind regards to Mrs. Andrews.
Your affectionate brother,
Benjamin T. Onderdonk
Inside the church were high pews, aisles only down each side, a flat plaster ceiling, plain colored glass windows, and a high wine-glass pulpit towering over a tiny altar against the flat west wall. The pulpit was reached by a winding staircase.
The final cost of the building was $3,810, well in excess of the money subscribed, and funds had to be borrowed to pay the builders. Trinity Church, Wall Street, reduced the debt with a donation of $750. St. Marks in the Bowerie furnished a marble baptismal font for the infant Christians of the infant parish.
George B. Reese, of Philadelphia, sent a bell for the tower. As generally only Episcopal and Roman churches used bells at this early date, and since Zion was the first church in the village, this precursor of many to ring across the valley must have made quite a sensation among the local folk. Tubular chimes were added in 1896.
During these years the rector received no stipend. Expenses for the years 1836 and 1837 totalled $295.02, so the debt was slowly paid.
Music for the early church was provided by a small orchestra and in 1838 a small organ was installed.
The first diocesan report of the parish, in the year 1836, boasted thirteen communicants. There had been six marriages, eleven baptisms, and the first confirmation class, presented in September 1837 numbered 10 persons. The opening of factories in 1851 brought many people (and new churches) to Wappingers Falls. Shortly, Zion was able to count 156 families and a large thriving church school which met in the basement of the church.
This burst of growth probably stimulated the first modernization of the church. In 1854 the chancel was added. It housed an elaborate carved altar raised a number of steps above the floor of the nave. The pulpit was moved to the side. Stoves were added to heat the interior, and the small chimneys still sit proudly on the roof today.
During these years the spiritual father of the parish was the Reverend Dr. Andrews. Born in Boston on July 9, 1786, he was for a time a teacher in the Livingston family in Red Hook. On October 20, 1818, at the age of 32, he was made Deacon by Bishop John Henry Hobart, and advanced to the priesthood three years later by Bishop Brownell of Connecticut. He shepherded the flock for 42 years, and in addition to preaching in Amenia, Lithgow, Pleasant Valley and occasionally Marlboro, he and the parishioners of Zion helped by gifts and labors, to erect churches in Amenia, Rhinebeck, Milton and Piermont.
Mrs. John Goring, in a letter, described Mr. Andrews as a “small man, very frail, but filled with energy.” He wore a wig, until, as Mrs. Goring relates, “he lost his wig one morning and clapped it onto his head backwards. The reaction of the congregation persuaded him to give up the wig. In winter he always wore a very large red fox collar which reached above his ears giving the impression of a child’s face enveloped by this fur.”
For all his travels, Mr. Andrews’ great love was for Wappingers Falls. Here he preached what proved to be his last sermon, on April 20, 1872, and one week later for the last time dispensed the Sacrament to his beloved people. Severely injured by a drunken servant, for the last three years of his life he was confined to his home.
Evidence of his continuing influence over the village people and their love for him was their regular custom of traveling by sleigh each Christmas Eve to serenade him with carols. Mr. Andrews died on August 20, 1875, at the great age of 90, and in the 57th year of his ministry.
The portrait above hangs in the conference room and was lovingly restored in 1980 by Mr. Robert Kahl, a parishioner and art conservator.
The grave of the Reverend Dr. George B. Andrews
in the Wappingers Rural Cemetery.
In 1865, Henry Yates Satterlee was called to the parish as curate to assist Dr. Andrews at a stipend of $500.00 which was raised to $750 upon his marriage. As the parish owned no residence, Mr. Satterlee was given the use of a cottage on the place of Irving Grinnell. This was the beginning of a friendship that bore great fruit in two great lives of service to the church and community. Mr. Satterlee soon became the source of great energy and new life in the parish. In a few years the parish burgeoned so that in 1869 there were 200 communicants and 250 church school children.
Mr. Satterlee then announced that the congregation had entirely outgrown the church. A subscription was taken in early 1869 for the second “modernization” and enlargement of the church. The last service in the old church was held on the feast of St. John the Evangelist and the parish worshipped for six months in the basement.
Thirty pews were added to the nave. Three stone arches pierced the west wall. Beyond, a newly-fashionable Cathedral style choir was added. Smaller separate pulpit and lectern were placed before the arches. The old ceiling was removed and the present roof installed. The new pews made possible a center aisle.
The church was opened and re-dedicated on July 18, 1869 by the Rt. Rev. Horatio Potter, Bishop of New York.
This imposing bust of Henry Yates Satterlee can be found in the Rector’s office.
When the chancel was added to the church, it partially covered the graveyard. Most of the stones were moved to other sections of the property. This one, however, was built into the wall of the church. It marks the graves of William and Joseph Fresh, who died May 1, 1844 and May 6, 1844. They were the children of William and Mary Fresh. There is no indication of the cause of death, in the church records, but there were four other minor children who died in the first six months of that year.
This was the heyday of unfettered wealth. The Hudson Valley was the favorite country residence of many wealthy New York City families. During this period Zion Church reflected the almost two-class structure of local society. The church was primarily supported and governed by the “river folk” from the great estates along the Hudson’s shores. Old timers reported how the village youngsters stood by, thrilled, while these handsomely garbed people arrived in the beautiful carriages to take their places in family-owned pews.
The parish was an “institutional church,” run by the magnates for the village folk. So Zion ministered not only to the spiritual needs of the village, but to its more material needs as well. A sewing school, teaching young local girls this art, was a prominent part of this program. A network of choirs taught music and music appreciation. The Knights of Temperance taught boys and young men discipline and clean living through a semi-military program. The ladies from the estates were involved in an endless round of collecting clothing, food, and other necessities for families in straightened circumstances. Zion ministered not just to Episcopalians, but to the whole community.
There were many heroes in this work. But one of the greatest was Irving Grinnell of “Netherwood,” just north of New Hamburg. In giving, Mr. Grinnell never patronized. He was a familiar sight on the streets and in the poorest homes. After his wife’s death, the young widower spent most of his time working with his friend, the young Mr. Satterlee, in and for Wappingers Falls. He loved to entertain groups of village children on his sailboat, in sledding parties at his gracious home or for story hour on the church lawn. He was the prime mover behind the amazing organization of six separate choirs that gave joy to old and young alike. Typical of him is his reason for organizing a funeral choir: that the poor as well as the rich may have the dignity of music at their burial.
The work of Irving Grinnell and many like him at Zion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did much to soften the blows of the rough and tumble economy on many Wappingers’ families. Mr. Grinnell was a member of the Unitarian Church and the son of a very wealthy New York City family. He became a devoted Episcopalian after meeting Henry Yates Satterlee and was confirmed at Zion on April 16, 1872.
Zion’s amazingly broad, community-directed programs led to the building of the Parish Hall. This building was one of the very earliest examples of a building erected especially to enable a parish to provide adequate recreational and educational programs. Part of the building extended even further over the old burial ground and most of the stones were moved.
The building was the dream of Henry Satterlee. Funds were collected and plans drawn during 1881, while the new rector took a leave of absence. It was presented to him as a surprise on his return, and was completed in January the following year. It was immediately pressed into service to house Mr. Satterlee’s many projects. In the years ahead it became a home of many activities that enriched the life of the village. Zion’s basketball teams were legend. The dramatic productions on the fully equipped stage, were the only of their kind in the area. Various educational projects, notably the Weekly Free Night School, the Sewing School, and arts and crafts classes broadened the public education. An Aid and Employment Society operated in the building for years, an attempt by Zion to prevent hardships of unemployment in the village. The hall also housed the offices of Mr. Satterlee’s Church Home for Factory Girls, which looked after the many girls from nearby farms who came to work in the local mills.
The story of Henry Yates Satterlee’s ministry at Zion has been beautifully described in his biography called “The Master Builder,” by Bishop Brent. Mr. Satterlee accepted a call to the rectorship of Calvary Church, New York in 1882, and in 1895 was elected the first Bishop of Washington where he founded the Washington Cathedral. Bishop Satterlee died on February 22, 1908 and his remains are interred in a mausoleum in the Bethlehem Chapel.
In 1905 the Bowdoin family replaced the tubular chimes with a set of 11 bell chimes, and the tubular chimes were sent to Bishop Satterlee at the National Cathedral. They still ring today from the tower of the St. Albans School.
J. Nevitt Steele succeeded Mr. Satterlee in 1882. As a Doctor of Music and former lawyer his priesthood at Zion began another facet of our great tradition – that of fine music. He began to work to break the parish away from the trite, commonplace music and to introduce the finest of liturgical and recital music. The choirs were carefully built up, until, during Dr. Steele’s time they reached a peak in a seventy voice double chorus.
Dr. Steele led Zion to embark on the building of a rectory whichwas completed in 1887. It was built large – 18 rooms, 10 fireplaces, and 54 windows on the three principal floors
Dr. Steele resigned to become vicar of Trinity Church, New York, in 1889.
The next occupant of the new rectory, the Reverend Prescott Evarts, took up the rectorship of Zion in 1889. Under his leadership a significant outreach of the parish was achieved when the chapel at New Hamburg became a serious outreach of the parish.
The chapel had begun in 1876 as a Bible class conducted by Irving Grinnell with 36 scholars. They met in the afternoon in a rented room in the hamlet. Eventually services of worship came to be conducted there, for the distance between Wappingers Falls and New Hamburg was then harder to bridge and many were loathe to use horses on Sunday.
These services and the growing Sunday School served not only the townsfolk, but became a “chapel of ease” for the residents in the country places along the river. The building which housed this congregation was plain, unattractive, and incredibly hot during the summer. William Henry Reese, then warden of Zion Parish, and a New Hamburg resident, began a subscription among his neighbors to erect a suitable chapel building. President William McKinley had recently been assassinated, and part of the funds were given as a memorial to him.
The building rose above the riverbank, a quaint Victorian structure with Gothic overtones. It was dedicated in 1901, the first year of the rectorship of the Rev. W. H. Pott. The association began in the erection of the building and was continued by Mr. Reese, who served as lay-reader in charge for a total of 16 years.
Although New Hamburg has decreased in population and the area has become an adjunct of Wappingers Falls, the little chapel, now an active mission of the diocese and named St.-Nicholas-on-the-Hudson, continues in the service to our Lord.
Beginning with Dr. Satterlee, Zion worshipped in the old-fashioned “high church” tradition of New York and Connecticut which was started by Bishop Hobart. With the advent of her sixth rector, Gerald Cunningham, a change came into being. This young priest was a popular and winning character, but his theological position was less popular in some circles. He was influenced by the new “liberal” tradition which was then powerful in Protestant circles and making itself felt amongst some Episcopalians. The historian of the diocese at the 100th Anniversary celebration characterized Mr. Cunningham as a “theological revel Bolshevist,” set upon the overthrow of traditional religious thinking. His great dream was the union of all the churches in Wappingers Falls into one village church. His dream was never realized, but he instituted the low-church tradition of the parish.
The next rector, Maxwell W. Rice, enjoyed a tenure second only to that of Dr. Andrews in length, some 27 years. Max Rice, as he was known to so many, saw Zion through the close of World War I, the hectic twenties, the Great Depression and World War II. During the austere days of the depression, Mr. Rice’s charitable activities blessed many Wappingers families. A man of private means, Mr. Rice made no distinction in faith or creed in his ministrations and recognized no taboos or dogmatic limits to his ministry on the Lord’s behalf. His great love led many of widely differing allegiances to look upon him as their true spiritual father.
In a lighter vein, he is also remembered for his zeal in the tennis club upon the courts in Zion Park, and his good fellowship there with the young men of Wappingers. Yes, folks, the parking lot used to be tennis courts!
After the war, in 1945, the Reverend Oliver Carberry succeeded Mr. Rice as rector. He saw to much needed repairs to the fabric of the parish buildings and the re-modeling of the rectory. Although he was here only briefly, he began the great tradition of the annual fair. This is particularly significant for it signaled a change that had been gradually occurring in the life of the parish. For some time, the economic and social patterns of America had been changing, with the elimination of great wealth and the betterment of the common man. Also, Long Island replaced the Hudson Valley as a fashionable country residence for the wealthy. The War rang a death knell of the old way. Mr. Carberry led the people of Zion to a realization that they could no long rest upon the patronage of the disappearing “river folks.” The fair stands out as a kind of symbol of the average parishioner’s awareness that he must, of his own means, provide for the Church if his children were to enjoy her benefits.
The work of adjusting to a new pattern was carried on by the Rev. Richard L. Harbour, who succeeded Mr. Carberry. Both he and Mrs. Harbour were zealous in replacing the vestiges of the “departments” of the old institutional parish. They labored as a team at establishing a modernized program of religious education for the children of the parish.
In 1950, the Rev. J. Jack Sharkey took the reins following the brief tenure of the Harbours. He found a parish which had recovered in many respects from the crippling nineteenth century patronage, but had never gotten to the point of thinking beyond its own needs and had not for a long time supported its share of the missionary work of the church.
Fr. Sharkey (the first to be called Father in many years) met the Rev. Octave LaFontant, a priest of Darbonne, Haiti, and Zion, along with the parish at St. Andrews Church in Poughkeepsie, adopted the school there as its mission. Over the years several groups from Zion have visited the school, and Fr. LaFontant visited Zion several times, as have the current priests of Darbonne.
All this gave birth to a new phenomenon: an interest in the work of the Church beyond the limits of the village. Zion not only met its missionary quota, but organizations and individuals began a stream of gifts to Haiti, as well as gifts from Haiti to Zion.
This “Christus Rex” was hand carved in Haiti, and hangs in the sacristy. Christ is depicted wearing Eucharistic vestments and reigning from the cross. This is referred to as the cross of Christ the King, symbolizing the kingship of Jesus and his reigning triumph over the powers of darkness.
Another example of Haitian art, this statue of St. Margaret of Antioch is located on the windowsill in the rear of the church. St. Margaret is the patron saint of women in childbirth. She was the daughter of a pagan priest and incurred much persecution for her faith. One legend relates that when she was confronted by a dragon (Satan) the cross she wore grew so large the dragon could not devour her. She was martyred in 306 AD.
In June 1959, The Rev. Alfred Harold Whisler, Jr., took up residence as the eleventh rector. He found a growing parish in an expanding community. New industry brought many new members to Zion’s doors.
Fr. Whisler was an engineer who had become a priest. As had happened so many times in the past,. Fr. Whisler’s talents met Zion’s needs. Zion’s structure was in need of renovation, so Fr. Whisler motivated the Men’s Club to become a working party. The kitchen was moved (a necessary action since the clock weights in the tower gave way and fell to the undercroft destroying the old kitchen) and the general structure was refurbished. The “every member canvas” was instituted as a means of sustaining the parish.
In 1964, the Rev. Robert MacGill became rector of Zion. His stewardship was marked by a focus on evangelism and an increased involvement in the mission in Haiti.
The Rev. Richard Donnelly became rector in 1971 after Fr. MacGill had moved on to Indianapolis. His short term was marked by a consolidation of past advances made by the parish.
1978 saw the installation of the Rev. Michael B. Webber, who continued to build in the traditions of the parish. Mission was emphasized as was stewardship and a strong sense of family and “ownership” of the church and the Gospels. In 1984 Zion marked its 150th Anniversary. In that celebration year, construction of the columbarium, the memorial garden and the Chapel of the Resurrection was begun. The Rt. Rev. Paul Moore, Bishop of New York, presided at the dedication in November of that year.
The Chapel of the Resurrection – Columbarium
The Memorial Garden and Columbarium
Zion’s next major undertaking was the construction of the Crossway, making the church totally handicapped accessible. After about 10 years of planning, part of the original cloister was removed and a new access was created through the tower.
In June of 1996, Michael Webber retired and moved north. His successor was the Rev. Jerry L. Miller who preached his first sermon on January 3, 1998. He and his wife, Betty, moved from Missouri to Wappingers Falls.
The major changes that occurred to the church proper during his term were mainly decorative. A new brass tabernacle now sits behind the altar, flanked by 6 tall brass office lights. The east and west walls of the nave are the home of the lovely Stations of the Cross, given by Bob Fox in memory of his wife, Ann.
High above the nave hangs the Christus Rex, given by Virginia Page in memory of her father. Several of Virginia’s hand painted icons also grace the walls, windowsills and the chapel.