New life for historic church on Sound Avenue

04/12/2013 8:00 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | With parishoners Mary Ann Musumeci of Middle Island (left) and Rita Allen of Jamesport, Pastor Dianne Rodriguez lights altar candles during First Parish Chruch’s first service at Grange Hall.

First Parish Church in Northville is getting a new lease on life thanks to a new tenant dedicated to preserving the building’s rich history.

On Sunday, April 7, Community Baptist Church began holding services at the 109-year-old church. The congregation finalized a lease agreement last week with United Church of Christ, which owns and maintains First Parish Church, located at the corner of Church Lane and Sound Avenue.

Dwindling membership and finances almost caused First Parish to shut its doors for good.

The lease agreement gives the small UCC parish the freedom to hold services without the financial burden. The UCC congregation now meets at Grange Hall, another historic First Parish-owned building, directly across Sound Avenue.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | The outside of First Parish Church in Northville.

Community Baptist Church Pastor Joshua Fryman called the lease agreement a blessing. He described the two-year-old congregation as an independent group unaffiliated with any religious organization. Before renting First Parish Church, Community Baptist didn’t have a house of worship to call its own. Instead, members gathered for services in the basement of Polish Hall in Riverhead and later moved their Sunday services to Grace Episcopal Church in Riverhead.

“I told our folks we really needed to pray for a building because I don’t want to be the nomadic Baptist church.” Pastor Fryman said. “I want to find a place to put our roots down. Most of our folks come from the North Fork, so it’s been a blessing.”

One of the features that drew Pastor Fryman to the church is the building’s dynamic history. First Parish Church dates back to 1829, when the parishioners of Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue split from that congregation after deciding it did not follow the Bible’s teachings closely enough. From that, the Strict Congregational Church was born. It held services at Grange Hall until 1831, when the first church building was constructed.

The church was rebuilt twice due to fire. In 1877, a disgruntled former minister burned the building to the ground, according to Riverhead historian Richard Wines. It was destroyed by fire again in 1901, when the church steeple was struck by lightning.

With the support of wealthy local farmers and other parishioners, the current church was completed in 1904. The building was modeled after the Cleveland design plan, which was popular in the 1900s and emphasized asymmetry, Mr. Wines said. Decorated with richly colored stained glass and oak pews, the church boasts one of the oldest working organs on Long Island. The Hook & Hook organ is one of two in working condition on the North Fork, Mr. Wines said. The other is at Orient United Methodist Church.

Up until 1957, the church was known as Sound Avenue Congregational Church. At that time Protestants seeking spiritual and political freedom divided branches of Christ’s church, resulting in the formation of United Church of Christ.

While the UCC started strong in Northville with more than 50 members, parishioners have slowly trailed off, according to First Parish Pastor Dianne Rodriguez. The farmers who once helped finance the church have dispersed, Mr. Wines said, leaving the church without its core following. Pastor Rodriguez says the UCC in Northville has about 15 parishioners.

But the congregation will still have a presence in the iconic church, the pastor said. Community Baptist Church has agreed to allow First Parish to hold special events there, such as weddings.

Community Baptist Church will hold a community day Sunday, May 5, at 11 a.m. to introduce the church and building to the public.

cmurray@timesreview.com