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1990History

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ST. JOHN’S

Written in 1990 as part of a Parish Profile

In the year 1789, the year the US Constitution was ratified, the vestry and clergy of St. John’s at Getty Square in Yonkers settled on a way to serve the families some six miles away, over the hills, in a settlement known variously as Tuckahong, Turkey-hoe Hills, and Tuckahoe. They established a chapel, also to be called St. John’s. In 1989, St. John’s, Tuckahoe (actually now in Yonkers) celebrated its bicentennial.

There were only nineteen buildings in the settlement then, in what is now called Colonial Heights, the site of the church. Sixteen were small houses and barns; the others were ablacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, and a public house called Underhill’s Tavern.

For nine years, 31-year-old The Reverend Elias Cooper rode horseback in all weather over the few poor roads to carry the gospel to the faithful. Services were held in the parishoners; houses or barns. At the end of those nine years, John Bowne donated the land, and a church was built at a cost of 203 pounds, 4 shillings, and 11 pence – about $1,000. (The cost included $5 for three gallons of rum for the workers.) Twice the church ahs been enlarged, altnough it remains small and much of the colonial architecture still prevails.

The people of St. John’s have always liked to embark on great projects from small beginnings. The building of the parish house across the street from the church, at 100 Undferhill Street, is a case in point. In 1910, Mrs. Harlow R. Brown started a fund for the building with four recently-minted Lincoln pennies. Members of the parish were asked to contribute all such coins as came into their possession. Twelve years later, the fund was large enough to beign construciton, and the building was ready for occupancy in the fall of 1923.

During its 200-year existence, St. John ’s has had sixteen rectors. (For four years during the Civil War, there was no rector, but the church carried on through the efforts of clergy from St. John’s, Getty Square, and the women of the parish who continued its charitable services.)

In many ways, the modern history of St. John’s reflects the changes that were taking place in the country, in the county, and in the Episcopal Church.

For instance, during the tenure of The Reverend Osborne Budd (1946-1973), the longest of any of the rectors, the population shifts were dramatic. After a surge in the membership in the 1950s, when three services a Sunday were required, the demographics changed. Three large Roman Catholic churches opened in the area. and two large Jewish centers became active. Attendance and membership at St. John’s began to fall drastically as people moved further out into the suburbs.

In the 1970s and 1980s, demographics have again played a role in the mission of the parish. With more minority and poor people in once-exclusive Westchester County, the parish has directed many of its activities toward helping them. Once a month, parish members prepare food and serve it to some 200 poor in the downtown Yonkers soup kitchen, The Sharing Community. Every Sunday, parishioners bring food for the Emergency Food Pantry. Outreach funds are allocated for the Sharing Community Shelter for the Houseless, the Jansen Memorial Hospice, and the Samaritan House Shelter in White Plains, to name just a few.

Meanwhile, the parish has not only reflected changes in the Episcopal Church but, in many ways, has been a leader. Its free-standing altar was the first in the coutrny when it was installed in 1948 as part of the remodeling for the sesquicentennial. The parish was among the first to have laypersons read the lessons and administer the chalice at services. In the calling of The Reverend Ellen M. Shaver to be rector in 1974, it was the first Episcopal church in the county to have a woman rector.

New ways of ministering to the needs of parishioners have been instituted in recent years, including a Home Communion service held once a month in parishioners’ homes – in some way a hark back to the early days when Elias Cooper held services in homes and barns.

The congregation despite its nearness to New York City, retains many of the characteristics of a country parish of long ago. When things are to be done, the people still follow the pioneer habit of organizing a bee to do the work with their own hands. At least twice a year, a parish work day gathers parishioners of all ages and talents to do whatever needs repair of refurbishing.

In 1905, The Reverend John W. Buckmaster, the rector of the parish, concluded his history of the church with these words: “We cannot forecast the future We cannot tell what changes will come to this neighborhood in the next fifty, in the next twnety-five years, but we can perform our task to the best of our ability, so that those who follow us shall say, ‘They loved mercy. They did justly. They walked humbly with their God.’ “

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