One of the things that surprises folks the most when they visit the Old Dutch Church is that it’s still used for Sunday services. Not only is it still used for services, it’s still used by the community of believers that trace their beginnings back to the founding of the church in 1685 by the first Lord Frederick Philipse – a Dutch businessman with a flair for building, architecture and real estate, touched with the good fortune of marrying wealthy Dutch widows. Following the British takeover of New Netherland, he took an oath of loyalty to the crown and was able to continue business as usual. Some time later he was given the title “Lord of Philipsburg Manor” which sealed the fate of his descendant Frederick Philipse III who found himself on the wrong side of the American Revolution – His Yonkers manor house right in the middle of the “Neutral Ground”. The Philipse family fled to their home in Manhattan as patriot forces gained control of the area and eventually sailed to England, saving their necks, but forfeiting roughly 55,000 acres of current Westchester County including 21 miles of scenic and fertile Hudson River coastline from the Croton River down to Spuyten Duyvil. The New York Commission on Forfeiture deeded the church and the surrounding 3 acre burying ground to the Elders and Deacons of the church for 20 shillings and it’s been the responsibility of my congregation to maintain this historic structure ever since. It has the distinction of being the oldest church in New York State that has been in continual use. It also captured the eye and imagination of Washington Irving who would reference the church, the burying ground, the Dutch families and a certain Headless Horseman in his “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.
When the church was first built, daydreaming didn’t come easily during services. The bottom sills of the original rectangular windows were seven feet off the ground.There was no way to look out the window and let the imagination play while the pastor rambled on through his two hour sermon. Today, thanks to the renovations made by the community in 1837, Gothic windows have replaced the high windows giving everyone a view of the trees and headstones that surround this old church. It’s not hard to imagine the Horseman prancing back and forth among the tombstones of our deceased brethren. We are a church that lives at the cross-roads of history, commerce, religion, literature and legend. We live comfortably with these elements that help to define our unique place in the landscape of New York and America. Washington Irving played with these themes and could not let go of them. Even in death, he watches over the church and his neighbors long buried in the church yard.
Today, the Flanagan Family provided our music in the 2nd of Seven Sundays: A Celebration of Music in Worship. Banjo, guitar, piano, and drum, in a blend of pop, rock and roots music filled our little church and I was grateful for those 1837 windows that let in the morning light and soft breezes that calmed our souls after a week of senseless violence across our nation. This is why we come here. To remember ourselves. To keep faith with one another. To love and to serve. And today, in this sacred space, the Reformer Calvin, theological father of our congregation, may have also found comfort in the words of the Schubert “Ave Maria” so beautifully sung by a Flanagan daughter.