Historic church launches capital campaign after roof nearly collapses

A construction worker earlier this week on a temporary second floor held up with scaffolding. (Credit: Nicole Smith)

Concerned that two miles was too far of a commute for members without a horse, Fanning Church split in 1834, creating the First Congregational Church in Riverhead.

And after the First Congregational Church met at the home of one of its members its first seven years — during that time, expanding from 40 to 83 members, according to a 1976 report from the Long Island Traveler-Watchman — a building was erected on East Main Street in 1841 to hold the growing church.

About 70 years later, in 1908, the grand white church that now sits on East Main Street was built to accommodate the church as it grew even more, moving back the original Fellowship Hall and adding on the sanctuary that faces Main Street today.

Today, however, the sanctuary is a construction battle zone, void of any religious objects; the pews are stored at the empty Papa John’s down the road, the precious Muller organ is covered from the elements. The colorful stained glass windows stick out as the only sign of religious practice inside the church. In place of pews and an altar, eight wooden scaffolding towers support a second floor put down by construction workers.

The scaffolding and support structures have been placed to hold up a church that now faces monumental structural damages — namely, a roof that is now failing. And in the face of restoring the 107-year-old building, the church is running a capital campaign to raise $250,000 in funds to help offset construction costs.

“It makes me want to cry,” said Jim Wooten, of the current state of the building. Mr. Wooten is in his second year as chairman of trustees at the church.

After noticing a crack in ceiling last winter that continued to grow throughout the season, church members decided it was time to take action. And it was just in time as the roof began to eventually collapse.

Richard Cox of Calverton-based RC Construction, the company working on the church, said that additions of nearly 20 tons over the years —such as a cedar shake roof, air conditioning system and duct work—led to the roof’s demise.


“We’re going to do a weight reduction of 6,000 pounds in the ceiling and 25,000 pounds on the roof material,” said Mr. Cox, whose company also oversaw the renovation of the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in the early 2000s. “We’re going to get rid of the original cedar shake roof and put a metal roof or a new asphalt roof.”

Four tresses, all of which broke on the east end of the building, previously held up the roof. Because they split, the weight of the roof has been sitting on the walls, visibly pushing the walls of the building out. Outside, the roof visibly sags inward and the east wall bows outward. In order to fix all of this, workers will eventually need to lift the entire roof and pull the walls in with cables, Mr. Cox said.

Mr. Cox’s son, Richard Cox Jr., said that as the final towers were placed in the building the roof fell and rested on top of them. Had the company not completed the work, the roof most likely would have collapsed entirely.

“They’re calling it a small miracle,” he said.

A GoFundMe page was created in an effort to raise the desired funds. As of Friday afternoon nearly $3,000 had been raised, increasing from only $60 Tuesday evening.

“What we’re really hoping to do is generate donations from people who really care about Riverhead and really want to see downtown Riverhead be beautiful,” said Pastor Sean Murray, who has been at the church for two and a half years. “We’re counting on the people of Riverhead to come to our support. God knows no donation is too small.”

In addition to the donation page Mr. Wooten said large events, such as a car raffle and black tie gala, are in the works. Matching preservation and sacred place grants offered through New York State are also being sought, he said.

Should the church not meet its fundraising goal, it would have to take out a mortgage on the building, which is owned outright, he said.

The congregation, which has roughly 70 members, is meeting in the fellowship hall as the work continues. This building comfortably houses the entire congregation although it is noticeably smaller than the sanctuary that seats about 250 people.

Past members of the congregation include many of Riverhead’s founding families such as the Hubbards and Luces. Some of their descendants are still active members, according to Mr. Wooten.

During its 100 years on Main Street, the church has hosted outreach programs such as alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous meetings and English as a second language classes. In addition, the church is home to the Bread and More INN soup kitchen, which serves dinner to those in need three nights a week. The meetings are unaffected by the ongoing construction since they are held in the fellowship hall.

Additionally, in 1999 the church declared itself an open and affirming church, becoming one of the first in the area to welcome the gay community.

“I think [the fundraising campaign] is important because the church does so much for the community,” Mr. Wooten said. “It was founded by a lot of original families that created Riverhead. People utilized church for spiritual and physical needs…it really means a lot to community.”

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Photos by Nicole Smith:

First photo: A construction worker earlier this week on a temporary second floor held up with scaffolding. Second photo: A split beam shows signs of work needed on the First Congregational Church roof.