2016-03-31 / Columnists

Good Ole daze

Babylon’s First Presbyterian Church-Part II by Stanis Beck

Hearing in Part I about this second Presbyterian church in Babylon, or Huntington South as our area was then called, one may wonder whatever happened to the very first meeting house/church, referred to back then also as the Presbyterian Church of Islip and Huntington Station.The very first church, which was constructed in 1730, no longer exists and was actually closer to the border between Babylon Village and West Islip on what was then called “South Country Road,” now Montauk Highway.This meeting house/church (used as barracks by the Brits) was later destroyed by local British soldiers in 1778 and the wood was then brought to Hempstead and used there to create additional barrack’s for the occupiers.The first church was described as small and simple and not used much as there were only a few members, often operating at that time without the services of a pastor. There was no new Presbyterian church building constructed again in the area until the end of the Revolutionary War when the two-storied church/meeting house, described earlier, was built.

The third Presbyterian Church, built in 1839 and now known as Fellowship Hall. Source: History of the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, 1912, James W. Eaton. The third Presbyterian Church, built in 1839 and now known as Fellowship Hall. Source: History of the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, 1912, James W. Eaton. Now lets take a look at the third church meeting/house structure built here, just to the right of the beautiful current steepled church, still sitting in between the other two churches on the same piece of property, and what is now known as Fellowship Hall. One notes a hint of federal style, with its low-pitched roof. It was built in 1839 and utilized as the new church to accommodate the growing congregation. It cost $3,410 for this building and the land together and it actually remained the meeting house/church for the Presbyterian congregation for 32 years.The woodwork was said to be less ornate than on the second church, described above as the house, and it was said to have been nicely carpeted with small doors at the end of each pew for entering and exiting. In 1859 its name changed to the Presbyterian Church of Huntington South. It was moved a bit east in 1870, later utilized as a Sunday school, remodeled in 1969, and is now known as Fellowship Hall. So, the Sammis house and Fellowship Hall were both Presbyterian churches, back in the day. (Where else would three Presbyterian church buildings, one by one succeeding each other, still sit side by side from 1783 to the present?This unique situation alone would probably make these buildings eligible for the historic registers!)

The fourth Presbyterian church building , a steepled church, erected in 1870. Source: The History of the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, L.I., 1912, James W. Eaton.

The fourth Presbyterian church building , a steepled church, erected in 1870. Source: The History of the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, L.I., 1912, James W. Eaton.

As time marched on, in 1870, the new, elegant, aesthetically pleasing steepled church was constructed for the local Presbyterian community.The lovely structure we see today on Main Street is actually the fourth of the Presbyterian churches which had served this area since 1730 though, as mentioned previously, the first one was destroyed by the British. In 1872, after the incorporation of the Town of Babylon, its official name changed to the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, Long Island.The towering belfry, 250 feet above the ground, has served as a landmark for seaman since 1871 and is listed as a marker on nautical maps. “The tower also houses a four-faced clock, in addition to a modest flock of pigeons!” “On …Jan. 12, (1871) a grand promenade concert and reception was given at the American Hotel, in Babylon, for the purpose of raising funds for the purchase of a village clock to be erected on the new Presbyterian Church.The ‘Reunion’ was a great success – mainly through the efforts of our enterprising neighbor, D.S.S. Sammis, who originated the idea of procuring a village clock by means of a social entertainment that would afford not only pleasure for a time, but furnish a reminder of the occasion for all time in a faithful public timepiece surplus money was applied to the purchase of a new 1,000-pound bell for the new church.”The clock was installed on April 1, 1871. Back in the day, the village fathers believed that it would be useful to support a clock that everyone could see. “In the 19th century, with few watches carried by the citizenry, the village clock was a point of pride and a symbol of civic achievement.” “From the very beginning, there was always the understanding that the clock was to be in the church but the responsibility of the Village.”

The Village itself owned and maintained the clock up to 2015, when it ultimately turned the clock over to the church.The clock is caste iron and oak, 150 years old (one of the oldest on Long Island) and has never been accurate to the minute as it is affected by the wind. It has intricate mechanisms, is probably historic in itself, and is now backlit from dusk to 10 p.m. In the 1950s, Village Trustee J.Thacher Morris termed the clock an “institution” in Babylon and that ‘by all means’ the Board would see to it that somehow it would not be allowed to stop running.“ “It was this building that housed the first church bell that ever gave voice in our Village,” according to an account in a local newspaper in 1900.

The original bell was made in Malaga, Spain, in 1708 and brought to this country as ‘ballast,’ in 1838 by an enterprising ship’s captain who had purchased several of them. It was damaged in 1872…and eventually sold.” Bells toll on the hour and since 2007, musical tunes are played as well via the use of an electronic carillon, with about 1000 tunes to choose from, by remote.  (Good thing as it requires a ladder of 5 stories to reach the bells and/or clock and, no, there is no elevator!)  Four huge speakers (gift of trustee Gerald J. Skillen) support the clock which was placed in the steeple by the village fathers and until around 1980, it had to be wound weekly by a local clock maker.  In 1976, the top 15 feet of the steeple were blown over by hurricane Belle, but was quickly repaired. (Two of the clock hands were also blown off during recent hurricane Sandy.)  Observing this church, oneself is also easily blown away by the magnificently framed two storied windows in the front of the church which were made in Munich, Germany around 1907.    The lovely windows on either side were created as memorials to early pastors and church members and some go back to the mid 1800’s.  (The colors are reminiscent of Tiffany and there was a Tiffany studio ON Long Island at the time, though no association has ever been proven, but they are all truly works of art!) Refurbishing and replacing windows, it took at least seven hours to remove just one, very, very carefully.The windows on the east side reflect more about the New Testament while the ones on the west reflect the Old. One of these lovely windows was donated by David Smith the second, in honor of his father, our very own renowned David Smith, who served in General Washington’s Revolutionary War for seven years, is honored by a plaque given by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the local rural cemetery, and whose historic house, built in 1790, is still located at 527 Deer Park Avenue. (The Babylon Village Heritage Conservancy has been working towards facilitating the preservation of this historic house for our community, recently deemed eligible for listing on the State and National Historic Registers!)

A side note in the Southside Signal, Oct. 1, 1870 reported that the “remedy for the bite of a mad dog – Pulverized charcoal made into paste by mixing with lard and applied to the spot bitten by a dog, or an insect of any kind, will draw out the venom and cure the patient.”

Most of the information in this article has been gleaned from materials shared by the Babylon Village Historical Museum; History of the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, L.I by James W. Eaton; By the Waters of Babylon, A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, Long Island, 1730-1980, by Marilyn Schou; and, especially, many thanks for the very generous interview and walk-through with church trustee Judy Skillen. Stanis Beck, Director, Babylon Village Heritage Conservancy, stanisbeck@optonline.net P.S. If you are an owner of an Argyle Cottage in Argyle Park, please email stanisbeck@optonline.net or write to Stanis Beck at 534 Deer Park Aven

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