Remember when ISIS fighters totally destroyed centuries-old religious sites sacred to the Buddhists and other groups a few years ago? Many people had a sense of outrage that any group would have the arrogance to destroy what others considered holy.
That’s why when I heard about a majestic church building – First Baptist Church – in need of repair here in Ossining, I wanted to investigate what had happened to it. My second thought was “Perchance, I can aid in its efforts to raise funds for a restoration project.” And, fortunately, the damage done to First Baptist Church, which celebrates its 230th “birthday” this year, is the result of wear-and-tear over decades, not terrorists.
Situated in the strategic area “where Ossining was first established,” First Baptist Church is the second building to stand in the triangle of land buttressing South Highland Avenue, Main Street and Church Street.
The Historic Roots of the Church
The church’s origins date back to Captain Elijah Hunter, a Revolutionary War “aide-de-camp” to George Washington, who employed him as a spy against the British forces. Hunter, who also became a church deacon, opened his home to services for a Baptist church group in April of 1786, in the area of Broad Avenue [formerly called Hunter Lane]. By October 11 of that year, there were fourteen members. Months later, the congregation had grown to 30 members who continued to meet in homes. In 1811, the educationally minded group started the first Sunday School in the Village of Ossining.
On April 15, 1815, the church incorporated as “The First Baptist Church, Village of Sing Sing, Town of Mt. Pleasant, NY.” A laudable fact is that the church was integrated with blacks and whites worshipping together. According to the church’s website in the early years, slaves and their masters attended services. Both were considered full members of the congregation, and treated equally in the church.” Then, in 1890, when entreated to help establish a “black Baptist church” in the area, First Baptist Church lent its full support to what soon became Star of Bethlehem Church on Spring Street.
On June 3, 1874, the current brick building on Church Street was dedicated. Its cost back then was $75,000, mere pennies by today’s standards ($1.59 million), but a small fortune for that day. The congregation had grown to 197 members.
Surviving the Centuries
Over the past 146 years, the current Gothic Revival-style building with its uniquely designed quatrefoils and design elements (built by J. Walsh) has withstood the architectural assault of time. Its original spire from 1874 was blown off during a severe storm twenty years later. In its place a more impressive steeple was installed consisting of a main spire with four smaller spires flanking it on all four corners.
Over the years, various repairs have been made on the church building, as one would expect. Repairing the three-story stained glass window earlier in this millennium was a major undertaking costing thousands of dollars partially paid for by a grant, according to then restoration chair Marcia McCraw.
Bart Sellazzo, a long-time Ossining resident and church member, has gotten used to the idea of things needing repair. As the official bell-ringer, he rings the steeple bell every Sunday at the beginning of the church service. One day, as Bart was ringing the bell, the rope holding the four-foot bell broke. He didn’t describe it as such, but it was probably a miracle of sorts that the bell didn’t crash through the floor of the steeple.
Then, there was the damage caused by the pigeons that had encamped inside the steeple. Bart recalls the day he and church attendee Bill Gallagher went to investigate the problem with the squawking birds. As they assumed, the pigeons had made a mess of the steeple by leaving excrement on the floor. When Bart and Bill climbed the ladders to reach the steeple, they had even more to deal with – deceased birds.
When the current steeple damage was brought to light by a passerby on March 13, 2014, Bart, a painter by trade, was at a job in Connecticut. “You’ve got a problem down here” was the message from former Ossining fire chief Matt Scarduzio, who had contacted Bart about the imminent public-safety danger posed by the wobbling spire.
Bart was not able to rush back from his job, so he contacted Hazel Davis, the church moderator responsible for handling such things as agendas for meetings. Davis rushed over to the building on Church Street and was shocked by the scene before her.
“By the time I got there, the road was blocked,” said Davis. “Fire trucks and police were there, and people from Channel 12… After all was said and done, we contacted the architect who had helped with our window restoration, and he recommended a structural engineering firm whom we contacted.” The firm soon evaluated the steeple damage, and an official fundraising effort was launched.
So, What’s All the New Fuss About?
Ossining has many wonderful old buildings, but not all of them qualify to be placed on the National Register for Historic Places of the United States. First Baptist Church, however, qualifies as a bona-fide “member” with its handsome Gothic design, stained-glass windows, high-vaulted ceilings, fine interior woodwork, and other architectural attributes.
First Baptist Church also represents 230 years of history and interaction with the Ossining community. From its earliest inception under the guiding hand of Elijah Hunter to the creation of its sister church, Star of Bethlehem, along with the community health organization Open Door, (which started in the church basement), First Baptist Church has made a significant contribution to the local community.
The verbal estimate that the firm gave back in 2014, to repair the steeple was close to $300,000. Today, the cost will likely be 20% to 25% higher, if not more. The entire restoration project has expanded to include repairing the spire, painting the entire building and doing pointing work on the brick. So, the expected costs hovers around one million dollars.
The cost seems higher than one might expect, but Davis explains the cost is partly due to very stringent requirements mandated by the United States Department of the Interior. For example, to maintain its historic status, First Baptist Church is required to ensure that the content balance in the mortar for its brick is the same as that of the original mortar.
Davis still serves as the Steeple Restoration Chair for the committee to oversee the project. Fundraising efforts have been made over the past six years, including starting a GoFundMe account. An application for a grant was submitted in 2019, but it was turned down. As a result of that rejection, fundraising efforts have accelerated.
Giving It Their All and Giving Back
Glenn Courtney, pastor of First Baptist Church, who was being interviewed for his current position at the time of the hazardous steeple issue, says, “Within the first year of my pastorate, in addition to the pre-existing $6,000 in the steeple fund account, we raised $36,000 dollars. Unfortunately, $40,000 dollars is not enough to rebuild a steeple.”
If anyone thinks the church is sitting back twirling its thumbs, think again. Courtney explained, “These past five and a half years, our congregation has been blessed with talent and fundraising ideas such as: Valentine’s Day dinners complete with Italian music in the upper room of the Church arranged by the Sellazzo family and tag sales for the community.”
Still, with a fundraising goal of at least a million dollars, reaching it seems a long way off. Which is why Courtney is making a heart-felt plea to all local history buffs, architecture fans, traditionalists, and members of faith communities: “While the future mission of the church always includes spreading the love of God, human compassion, visiting the sick, showing brother and sisterly love, helping strangers, hospitality, good works and the Great Commission from Matthew 28:19 -20, First Baptist Church also has become very much aware that the goal is not only mission, but mission and maintenance.”
“It’s a truism, but every organization needs to have a combination of both mission and maintenance,” adds Courtney. “Otherwise, an organization’s mission is likely to suffer.” Mission aside, who can argue with his points that “preservation of this historical church is vital to retaining our community’s heritage, which is also part of our nation’s history” or that “being able to see something of our past helps us to better engage with our present, thereby giving us a brighter hope for the future and the next generation.”
In our time, when attending a religious establishment might seem, alas, less vital than it had been in former years, one might well ask, “Why should we protect old buildings?” Perhaps one of the best reasons, along with being a great fundraising appeal, comes from Martin Fox, an art historian, in his response to the www.quora.com question “Should we look after old buildings?” Fox noted: “Some old buildings are extraordinary works of architecture that couldn’t be remade today…. Other buildings are by influential architects and are worth preserving for their aesthetic and historical value.”
Clearly, First Baptist Church of Ossining qualifies on both the aesthetic and the historical levels. Its steeple restoration project includes repairing the steeple and repainting the church. But it represents so much more than that.