MAHOPAC, N.Y. - The bells of the little stone church on the shores of Lake Mahopac have spoken to both the faith and secular community for nearly 100 years.
In a precious few days, they will be ringing, sadly not to call worshippers to Sunday services, but to herald the church’s deconsecration—a bittersweet celebration of its life and mission.
In August, members made the painful decision to close the Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church on Mount Hope Road after decades of struggling to boost membership, raise funds for repairs, and to keep the circa-1922 Gothic-style building from deteriorating.
Back in 2008, the church’s floor was deemed unsafe after being damaged by flooding from a nearby stream. The heating system was defunct. Stained glass windows were damaged. The pipe organ couldn’t be used because it was too cold inside the sanctuary.
And the congregation itself was dwindling.
Things were looking grim.
Regional church leaders were recommending that remaining members join neighboring Methodist congregations. But after many prayers—and a big publicity campaign—the church managed to raise $150,000 to replenish its building fund.
A heating system, slate roof tiles, and flower boxes were installed. And a new carillon, an automated musical instrument, allowed hymns to sound from the steeple. The floor was ripped up and replaced.
The biggest blessing of all was that pews were starting to fill back up. During the renovation effort, attendance blossomed to about 30 a week, according to Heidi Fiederlein-Kesper, staff-parish relations chair, who literally grew up in the church.
“Baptized, communed, and married here,” she said, fondly recalling a time during her childhood when the sanctuary was so packed, they had to open the pocket doors and set up folding chairs to accommodate everyone.
Alas, the reprieve was only temporary.
“Over the last two years, we’ve been lucky to get five to 10 people a week,” she said.
And, because it’s a non-profit organization, without enough folks “tithing”— setting aside a portion of their incomes to financially support it—there simply wasn’t enough in the coffers to continue keeping the lights or heat on.
On Aug. 10, members reluctantly voted to throw in the towel. Their meeting was presided over by the district superintendent, Rev. Tim Riss, and lead elder, Rev. Martha E. Vink.
The church is part of the NOW (Nurture, Outreach, Witness) Cooperative Parish. Cooperative parishes share appointed pastors.
“It’s challenging to have the same person in the pulpit every Sunday if you can’t afford to pay them,” Fiederlein-Kesper explained.
Individual churches cope by using lay speakers and by holding joint services.
The LMUMC held its last services last Easter.
“It’s been a long time coming, sadly,” said Fiederlein-Kesper.
But, she said, “closing the doors does not mean we’re walking away from our church family. We’re the body of Christ, not the building of Christ.”
Members will be able to transfer to other churches in the NOW Cooperative: First United Methodist Church of Brewster (Putnam County); Drew UMC (Putnam County); Purdys UMC (Westchester County); and Holmes UMC (Dutchess County), Fiederlein-Kesper said.
One member of the NOW family, Mount Hope UMC, a pretty little white clapboard church on Hill Street in Mahopac, closed its doors in 2016, a year after its longtime pastor, Rev. Willett Porter, passed away. It, too, had been suffering from a declining membership and didn’t have the financial means to make major repairs or renovations, such as plumbing.
Trying times can test a person’s faith. But that’s expected, Fiederlein-Kesper said. After all, faith is “a muscle; it’s meant to be exercised.”
Also affected by the closure are organizations such as Troll Lodge of the Sons of Norway, a cultural club that met at the church’s circa-1950s Parish Hall and held its Scandinavian Holiday Fair there; Putnam Progressives, a politically oriented organization of concerned citizens; and Alcoholics Anonymous. Earlier this year, when it read the handwriting on the wall, AA found another place to meet.
The church had once also hosted a nursery school, bible study, and confirmation classes. Its Election Eve ham dinner was very popular. And its efforts to collect food for a local food pantry and school supplies for youngsters were appreciated by the community. Volunteers also put together baskets of Thanksgiving goodies for the needy and Christmas presents for families beset by violence.
As for the fate of the beloved building itself, there are a number of things that could happen.
First, it could be sold. But that’s a “last resort,” Fiederlein-Kesper said.
If so, its pews, stained-glass windows, and other fittings would be given new life in other Methodist churches.
The church could also be “held static, but let go fallow,” meaning it will only be used for weddings or funerals. The property will be managed by the church district. To maintain its not-for-profit status with the town of Carmel, however, the church must hold a service at least once a year.
Or it could be targeted for a “church plant”—the establishment of a new church—if demographics change.
There is some hope that things will turn around population-wise as more young families, hoping to escape the city, move up to Putnam and re-settle near train lines. Evidence of that growth has been seen in several other Hudson Valley communities.
It could even be used for a “mission center” during times of crises or emergencies, she said.
HOPE FOR FUTURE
Rev. Vink said she was sad that the church was closing but hopeful that “people in Lake Mahopac will rediscover a need for the Methodist Church in their midst.”
She emphasized that people are first and foremost.
“We know that worship is not confined to a building, that God is not confined to a building. But a church, as a building, provides a place for people to gather together,” Vink said.
Perhaps the church could someday be used for a community center or something else that fills a need for residents.
“It calls for creative, visionary thinking by leaders of the town,” Vink said.
There’s nothing unusual about LMUMC’s situation. A 2013 Gallup poll showed that only 37 percent of Americans reported attending religious services weekly or near-weekly.
“The institution of the church in our culture has shifted,” said Vink.
Work and family demands made on the younger generation can impair their ability to “commit to being in one place at one time on Sunday morning.”
It just means that religious institutions must work harder to maintain relevancy and fulfill their missions despite having limited financial resources, she said.
BIT OF HISTORY
According to the church’s history, “circuit riders,” aka pastors on horseback assigned to a certain region to spread the word, came up to the Hudson Valley as early as 1789. Locally, that circuit took in Shrub Oak, Peekskill, Putnam Valley, and eastern Putnam County. The LMUMC, the oldest Methodist church in Putnam, was organized on July 14, 1822, and services were held in the home of Benjamin Townherd. The first trustees were Leonard Cliff, Aaron Picker, and Platt P. Smith.
The first church building, called the Chapel at Carmel Big Pond (the former name of Lake Mahopac), was erected in 1826 on land that had been donated by Nathaniel Crane. The white frame building was located at the northeast corner of the old cemetery behind St. John the Evangelist School on East Lake Boulevard.
Eventually, the congregation needed a new home. Hilary Chambers gave the parish land just a minute away. It cost $25,000, including the pipe organ, paid for, by the most part, by out-of-towners who summered at the lake. It was dedicated on July 30, 1922, during the ministry of Rev. Henry Lincoln. Dr. Wallace MacMullan preached the first sermon.
Fiederlein-Kesper said she knows that a building is not a church, its people are.
“My heart is sad for the loss of my church, but my mind understands, and my faith leads me to believe, that nothing truly dies. That is my hope for all of our members,” she said.
A welcome mat at the side entrance sums it up this way: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors. The People of the United Methodist Church.”
The deconsecration ceremony and celebration of the church’s life is scheduled for 11 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 21, at the church, 85 Mount Hope Road (just off Route 6, across from CVS Pharmacy).
A luncheon will be held following the service. Parking is free and the church is handicap accessible.
Those who want to attend the special occasion are asked to RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Cooperative Parish office at 845-279-7611, so organizers can plan appropriately.