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Orient Congregational Church to celebrate 300th anniversary

06/18/2017 5:40 AM |

Forty-eight years before the American Revolution began, a group of worshipers joined together to build a 28-by-30 structure on Main Road in Orient. A few years earlier, they had purchased the property for $1.25.

In the years since, that structure has been rebuilt twice, creating Orient Congregational Church, which will soon be celebrating both its 300th anniversary and its distinction as the oldest congregational church in New York State.

“It’s interesting because people regard us as the community church,” said the Rev. Ann Van Cleef. “Although not all people worship here, we have tremendous support from the community.”

The Rev. Van Cleef has served as pastor since 2001 and holds the second longest tenure besides the first minister, the Rev. Jonathan Barber, who served 22 years.

When the members of Orient Methodist Church on Village Lane voted to join a regional North Fork congregation last year, Orient Congregational Church became the last operating church left in the hamlet.

To help acknowledge the anniversary, the church collaborated with the Oysterponds Historical Society to create an exhibit including photographs and drawings, portraits of former pastors, a timeline of church history and other items, which will be on view throughout the summer.

“It’s really kind of thrilling to be a part of something that is older than our country,” the Rev. Van Cleef said.

Amy Folk, an archivist and collections manager for Oysterponds Historical Society, said the church is a mainstay of the Orient community.

“The church isn’t about the building, it’s about the group who has carried their traditions,” Ms. Folk said. “In the past, it and the Methodist church really formed the personality of the community.”

Orient Congregational Church will celebrate its anniversary with a three-day event the weekend of Aug. 11-13. There will be performances from local bands, an ice cream social, outdoor worship, a brunch and an anniversary dinner. The church is also sponsoring a photo contest for children from kindergarten through eighth grade, with the prompt: “How do you photograph kindness?”

The church prides itself on partnering with other local churches for community service efforts, the Rev. Van Cleef said.

“I’m really proud that we’re part of a network of churches on the East End,” she said. “We call ourselves the Greenport Ecumenical Ministries. All of the churches out here are small. We realize that we need each other.”

The church regularly receives overflow from the John’s Place homeless shelter, hosts a monthly community dinner, runs a preschool and maintains a community garden to grow food for donation to food pantries.

Church moderator Priscilla Bull is a descendant of the Terrys, a founding family of the congregation, and has remained deeply involved in the church.

“My memories with the church go back to when I was 3 years old,” Ms. Bull said. “But probably some of my fondest memories were my wedding in 1961, my daughter’s wedding in 1998 and my son’s wedding in 2016.”

Ms. Bull said that one of the most important things the congregation has done is become an Open and Affirming church under the United Church of Christ in 2005, meaning anyone is welcome to worship there. This was originally focused toward the LGBTQ community and Ms. Bull said it is meant to make everyone feel welcome to worship in a judgment-free zone.

The Oysterponds Historical Society discovered that in 1852, church families were reprimanded for allowing their children to attend dance classes, because it was considered an “injury of the morals of the inhabitants.”

“It used to be very puritan and strict,” Ms. Bull said. “That’s really changed and I feel great about that.”

Ms. Bull expects the August event will bring old friends of Orient Congregational Church back to celebrate the anniversary.

“Not only do we like to do things that benefit the community, but this is a congregation that likes to have fun,” the Rev. Van Cleef said.

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