Visiting the Old Dutch Church in the Time of COVID-19

The Old Dutch Fest is Cancelled

Photo Credit: Historic Hudson Valley

There is a historical marker in front of the Old Dutch Church that describes how it has been in continual use since 1697, except during the American Revolution. And if you’ve read my previous blogs you know that Westchester County was a dangerous place to be back then, as farmers took up arms to protect their families and property in the fight for independence. And if you walk through the burying ground you will find signs of disease that sometimes swept through the region taking the lives of young and old. The Couenhoven family lost three children on September 24th, 1794. But in the 10 years that I’ve been a volunteer at the Old Dutch Church I could never imagine that our doors would be closed in the 21st century due to a pandemic. By now, preparations should be well under way for the annual Old Dutch Fest that welcomes hundreds of visitors every weekend of October. But I’m sorry to say, our doors are closed this year. So we may have to revise that signage.

We missed our summer season at the Old Dutch because of COVID-19. In the winter months my congregation worships at our more modern 1837 church a mile south of the Old Dutch. We move our services north during the summer months when Sunday school is held in the burying ground and different musicians are invited to add their distinctive musical styles to a more relaxed and oft-times contemplative service. I missed sitting on the old wooden pews looking through the neo-gothic windows to the ancient stones in the burying ground. Our community quickly adapted to a Facebook live platform for weekly worship, but I think we all long for that peaceful feeling that embraces you when you cross the threshold of the Old Dutch. This is one of the reasons we look forward to sharing this space with visitors. But this summer the Old Dutch was a solitary place where you might catch a glimpse of our pastor Jeff Gargano riding a lawn mower or Sleepy Hollow Cemetery Superintendent Jim Logan making his rounds.

There’s nothing more beautiful than the Old Dutch Church in the fall. If you don’t believe me, this is how Washington Irving described the area as Ichabod Crane started off on his journey to the Van Tassel farmstead:

“The sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet.”

The burying ground needs a lot of attention. The economic hardships brought on by the pandemic forced us to rely on volunteers to maintain the burying ground, which is older than the 335-year old church. Mowing, weeding, and clearing downfallen tree-limbs are just some of the tasks performed by members of the church.

Two of those members, Greg and Stephanie were supposed to get married here in May. They love the Old Dutch and are solid fixtures at all of our events. The cook brats, make festive baked goods, and tell stories during the Dutch Fest. But this year they stepped in as groundskeepers.

Greg Morehouse at work with his pruning sheers. Photo: Stephanie O’Dea

We have to be vigilant in the aftermath of a storm. It doesn’t take much to damage the old headstones.

Photo Credit: Stephanie O’Dea
Greg up a tree checking for damage. Photo: Stephanie O’Dea

Earlier this summer the church youth cleared the burial plot of Amanda and Henry Foster. Henry and Amanda, who herself escaped from slavery, helped to establish the AME Zion Church of Tarrytown in 1860 – the oldest African-American church in Westchester County. Henry died shortly thereafter, but Amanda continued the work and the church became a stop on the Underground Railroad. Amanda is remembered as the “Mother of the Church”. The church is working on new signage to better tell the amazing story of Amanda Foster. If you want to visit this spot walk up the hill in the burying ground along Rt 9 towards the edge of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The grave site is in the northwest corner of our burying ground.

Burial site of Amanda and Henry Foster Photo: Stephanie O’Dea

You can see that even though we haven’t been worshipping at the Old Dutch, we’ve been busy taking care of this historic property all summer. While the church doors still will be closed this fall, the burying grounds are open to visitors at the hours posted for our neighbor, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Washington Irving and his family rest in peace. Face masks must be worn at all times and social distancing will be observed. Church volunteers and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery staff may be on sight for your safety as well as that of the historic grave markers. The Headless Horseman is taking a break, but promises to return next October.

Until next year! Photo: Janie Couch-Allen

Notes:

See our friends at the Historical Society who are conducting a limited tour schedule this fall. Part of the proceeds will go to the Old Dutch maintenance fund.

Pick up a free copy of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and read it together as a family. Or better yet, think about listening to it while you carve your Halloween pumpkins. Sleepy Hollow’s historian Henry Steiner offers a historically annotated version which is my favorite.

Click here to make a financial donation to help us maintain this historic church and burying ground. Choose the amount you would like to donate and the second screen will allow you to choose “ODC Grounds Keeping”. Your contribution is greatly appreciated!

6 Comments

  1. We are all missing our blessed Old Dutch this year! I look forward to doing all we can to support the maintenance and refurbishment of this community treasure. Thank you Deb, Pastor Jeff and the team at the Old Dutch!

    Maria Canales

    Like

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