The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper knew pretty much early on in her life what direction she was going to take. She was just six years old, her parents were battling, and a Lutheran pastor came to the house to diffuse the situation.
“I called the pastor at the Lutheran church we attended and asked him to come over and stop the fighting,” she recalled. “He wore a black cassock and looked very stern… I felt safe in his presence. I said I would dedicate my life to keeping girls safe. That’s how it pretty much started. I thought pastors had the power of protection.”
In August, Rev. Schaper, 73, became the pastor at the historic Orient Congregational Church, whose beginnings on the site along the Main Road cater-cornered to Village Lane date to 1718. The present building, with its tall steeple and extraordinary stained-glass windows, dates to 1843.
History has pretty much shadowed Rev. Schaper since that day when the Lutheran pastor came to her house. Inspired to go into theology, she was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Chicago divinity school. From there, her journey took her to Congregational churches in Tucson, Philadelphia, to Yale University, where she served as a chaplain, then Amherst, Massachusetts and, in the late 1980s, the Congregational Church on Main Street in Riverhead.
“I loved being there,” she said. “It is a wonderful church. I am so happy to be back on the North Fork,” she said as she sat in a garden behind the church on the kind of sunny fall afternoon that makes Orient a special place. “It’s really wonderful.”
In a hamlet loaded with history, this church has some serious credentials. The marker in front of the Orient church describes it as the “oldest church of its denomination in New York.” A meeting house was built on the site in 1718, back when Orient and Southold Town were a British place. The marker also makes note that “Here stood the stocks and the whipping post” – a reminder that the past is not always the glorious story that gets passed along.
What truly stands out about the building are the eight, tall stained-glass windows, four on each side. In a word, they are magnificent. Each presents a very different image of Jesus; names below the images say who the window was installed to honor, with many of those names the oldest families in a hamlet determined to hold on to the past.
The windows were likely all crafted in the mid 1800s, using Old World craftsmanship. The light plays through them in a way that is, well, spiritual. According to Amy Folk, Southold Town’s historian, the church’s entry was built in the shape of a pilot house on a ship – an appropriate design in Orient. The present building was renovated in 1868 and several times after that. The parsonage just to the east is a replacement for one that burned down in 1908.
Rev. Schaper served in Riverhead until 1993. All three of her children went to the Roanoke Avenue School. The church had a busy soup kitchen. “The church was one of those places that really work,” she recalled. “We fell in love.”
For the past 16 years she has been teaching at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. There, her students are Muslim, Christian and Jewish. She also preaches at Judson Memorial Church at the south end of Washington Square Park in Manhattan. She will continue with that, with Judson being virtual only and Orient allowing congregants to attend in person.
The Orient church was without a pastor for the past two years, after the longtime minister, Ann Van Cleef, retired. The church needing a new pastor brought Rev. Schaper back to a North Fork she loves. If it is fate, she is glad to embrace it.
Being a pastor means preaching, pastoring and being on site to meet people face to face. As a child she attended the Lutheran church, but at a certain juncture in her personal history realized the Congregational church spoke to her in deeper way. She once marched in California for farm worker rights with Cesar Chavez and the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. All three were arrested and spent a week in jail.
“I grew up a Lutheran, but they were not ordaining women so I jumped ship,” she said.
The Congregational church, she said, “is open-minded, open-hearted, and I love their history. I like self-governance. That is what this church stands for, the freedom to be self-governing.”
The Orient church has about 65 members, with maybe a third of that in attendance on Sundays.
“We in the Congregational church are progressive; we were the first to ordain women,” she said. “We were involved with the suffrage and abolition movements. We were the first to ordain openly gay people. We believe the congregation is in charge of the pastor.
“We are not fundamentalists about the bible,” she added, the warm afternoon sun illuminating the garden and brightening the stained-glass windows on the church. “We are anti-doctrine. We are not fond of any biblical literalism.”
Looking up at the church windows, she said, “At night they are remarkable. They are an incredible spiritual gift to the community.”