The year was 1717. George I was King of Great Britain, Vivaldi and Bach were in Europe feverishly composing music and the American Revolution was over a half-century away.
That same year, a small worshiping body that would eventually become the Orient Congregational Church began its life in a 28 by 30 foot building set on a piece of land in Orient purchased from David Youngs in 1700 for $1.25.
Three hundred years later, the church building on Main Road in Orient is in its third incarnation. The original meeting house was torn down in 1818 and replaced by a larger structure, which was demolished only 26 years later. A new church was erected in 1848 and still stands to this day.
It is a beautiful old building; the details in the interior make it clear that it was constructed by local shipbuilders. The ceilings resemble the timbers of a ship and the entryway echoes the shape of a pilot house.
Orient Congregational Church pastor, the Rev. Dr. Ann Van Cleef cannot conceal her pride in the building.
“We’re so aware that we’ve been give a wonderful gift with this church and we try so hard to be good stewards,” she says. “We want to pass something wonderful on to the next generation.”
All four walls of the church feature stunning stained-glass windows, installed in the early 1900s in memory of local families: the Kings, Beebes, Lathams, Terrys and others.
In 1906 new wooden pews were installed; they are still in use today.
Great care was taken when the interior was repainted; the historical painter entrusted with the task used three slightly different shades of white in order to make the many architectural details pop.
The building itself has survived the 1938 hurricane and a lightning strike in the 1990s that destroyed the church organ.
Church moderator Priscilla Bull of Orient, a descendent of the Terrys, one of the congregation’s founding families, is a font of information about the church’s history and is active in preserving both the building and the historical record.
“Here’s an interesting bit of history,” she says. “After the church tower fell in the 1938 hurricane, they replaced it the following year and stuck a time capsule at the very top of the steeple. It was permanently sealed so no one could access it unless it came down by an Act of God.”
Fortunately, a list of the time capsule’s contents was recorded, she said, so there is no temptation to climb up and retrieve it. The sealed copper-lined box contains a history of the church, records of various church organizations and a poem.
Officially organized in 1725 as the Congregational Church in Oysterponds, the Orient Congregational Church is the oldest UCC church in New York State and has undergone many changes over the past three centuries, including reorganizations and modernizations. In 1840 the church became known as the Orient Congregational Society, then in 1958 a resolution was put forth to change the name to the Orient Congregational Church. In 1960 members of the church voted to join the United Church of Christ and a year later the name was officially changed to the Orient Congregational Church.
Van Cleef points out that the Orient Congregational Church is the only church in Orient and she is very aware of the nationwide decline in the number of people who attend services.
“The United Church of Christ is providing all kinds of resources to make sure that we survive,” she said. “Our church even has a strategic planning team looking into future ways to reach out to become a community church.”
One such strategy was to move religious education classes to Tuesdays instead of the traditional Sundays.
“Enrollment went from two or three children to a dozen,” says Van Cleef, obviously pleased.
Surviving for 300 years is a great accomplishment, and to celebrate the church is planning an anniversary weekend in August complete with a concert, a homecoming service, an anniversary dinner and a brunch. They are also sponsoring a photo contest.
The Oysterponds Historical Society is featuring a display about the history of the church and there will be an exhibit at the church building as well.
The anniversary weekend begins Friday, August 11 with a concert by the Greenport Band on the church grounds, followed by an ice cream social. On Saturday there will be a homecoming service at noon in the church and an anniversary dinner at 5:00 p.m. Finally, on Sunday there will be a 9:30 a.m. outdoor worship followed by a brunch. For anniversary dinner tickets, email [email protected] or call 631 323-2665.