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Jun 3, 2019 2:18 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

The Historic Remsenburg Community Church Faces An Uncertain Future As Congregation Shrinks

Church Trustee Nic Millward is seeking support from local residents to keep the Remsenburg Community Church alive. ANISAH ABDULLAH
Jun 4, 2019 3:34 PM

In recent years, the Remsenburg Community Church was forced to make some changes to stay afloat amid a dwindling congregation and a lack of necessary funding.The church became seasonal about four years ago, offering weekly services only from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, as year-round operation became unsustainable. To avoid competition with surrounding churches, church leaders began holding services on Saturday afternoons instead of Sunday. They also rent out the church’s manse, where its ministers used to live, for additional revenue.

This 166-year-old Presbyterian Church is doing what it can to survive—but it may not be enough. Church leaders worry that if the trajectory continues to spiral downward, their house of worship will face the same fate as the First Presbyterian Church of East Moriches, which shut down several years ago.

“Unless we are able to raise the level of attendance meaningfully, the future of our church and its properties looks very uncertain,” church leaders wrote in a letter in May to the Remsenburg community. This was the first letter they sent out in four years to request more support, both in membership and donations, to preserve their church.

The church property, nestled along South Country Road, houses the main church building, which members refer to as the “Red Brick Church,” the manse, a cemetery and the chapel, where weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and occasional special events, like weddings and funerals, are held throughout the year.

Church trustee Nic Millward said that if enough people are interested in attending a service in the offseason, they will use the chapel, because it requires less heating due to its smaller size—it has roughly 30 seats, compared to the 100 seats in the Red Brick Church.

Funding is critical, not only because of year-round utility bills but also because the aging buildings need constant upkeep. Numerous repairs and upgrades were completed to all three buildings in recent years, but none was a major project. Mr. Millward said he thinks it is only a matter of time before substantial, costly work will need to be done.

Mr. Millward, a Remsenburg resident who has been involved with the church for about 30 years, said he believes the decline is part of a larger cultural shift in which people are attending church less often.

The church’s pastor, the Reverend Nancy Jennings, agrees.

“Church used to be a regular weekly activity for many families, but now, increasingly, kids have sports on weekends, and people make other lifestyle choices. And so it’s really, very much a cultural situation,” said Rev. Jennings, who has just begun her third summer season at the church despite having previously retired.

According to published data from the Pew Research Center, church membership declined from 70 percent to 59 percent between 1992 and 2014 nationwide. Other data from 2014 shows that 30 percent of people said they seldom or never attend religious services, a 3 percent increase from 2007.

A resident of Quogue, Rev. Jennings has served Presbyterian churches in Springs, Amagansett and Westhampton, among others. Although her status is “honorably retired,” she said she was asked to serve the Remsenburg church for at least one year—and accepted.

Mr. Millward said that having a small congregation has made it difficult to keep a minister and is grateful for Rev. Jennings’s willingness. Past ministers stayed for only a few years before pursuing churches with larger communities, he said.

“It’s sad to see the church in a precarious position, to see perhaps vestiges of Sunday School that no longer exist, and various church activities, year-round activities that no longer take place,” the reverend said.

The church, which predates the Civil War, has a rich history that tells how the hamlet of Remsenburg got its name. Over 40 years after the church was organized, Dr. Charles Remsen wanted to donate a church to the community, which at that time was a part of Speonk. Local residents wanted to thank him for his generosity and named the area Remsenburg in 1895.

Despite the challenges, church leaders said they are proud of their loyal churchgoers and their ability to have preserved the buildings for as long as they have. They also pointed out that their Christmas Eve service, held in the Red Brick Church, is filled to capacity every year.

“I feel quite proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep it in the shape that it is and look so beautiful,” Mr. Millward said. “People do use it, and I’m very happy about that. I would just like more people to use it.”

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