St John's, Cold Spring Harbor, NY (Exterior)

St John's, Cold Spring Harbor, New York, USA


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John's
Location: Cold Spring Harbor, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 March 2013, 10:00am

The building

The building is a Federal-style, white clapboard church of the almost iconic New England variety – a simple box with a small bell tower, two rooms deep. It was originally a family chapel, the family being that of one Major Thomas Jones, a Northern Irish immigrant to colonial America who acquired immense wealth and power (Jones Beach, a popular summer recreation spot on the south shore of the island, is named after him). The small porch-like narthex opens to a larger sanctuary, with windows and doors arranged in strict symmetry. The six windows that flank the sanctuary are Palladian and all are memorials to various members of the Jones family. Three of the windows sport mid to early-Victorian stained glass; the other three are Tiffany and among the most spectacular I have ever seen. The interior is very bright and white, with symmetrical white and black pews relieved by brightly colored cushions. Marble memorials to even more members of the Jones family dot the sanctuary walls and are its only decoration. The building, both inside and out, looks to have had a very recent renovation, which I found to be incredibly sensitive, modifying the original 1835 building much in the spirit of the Federal style. A nearby rectory, formerly the colonial farmhouse of the – wait for it – Jones family, dates from the early 18th century.

The church

Family chapels are rare in American church history, but such was the case with St Johns. Not a family church any longer (indeed, none of the congregation's 400 or so families is named Jones), it now has a very active ministry in the community, much of which is detailed on their website. One thing I found unique is the churchs farm project. They have a large, dedicated plot of land where they are growing produce to be given away to the needy. Last year they gave away more than 300 pounds of freshly grown produce.

The neighborhood

The hamlet of Cold Spring Harbor (not to be confused with Cold Spring, which is a village in upstate New York) sits on the north shore of Long Island, about 30 miles east of New York City. It was named for the naturally occurring fresh water springs that dot the area. The surrounding environs drip money and prestige like caves drip lime water. Unlike most of Long Island, the area features rolling hills and woodland, which made it attractive to New Yorks wealthiest citizens for summer estates. With the arrival of the railroads, robber barons and industrialists built summer homes in the area. The estate of Louis Comfort Tiffany, famed Art-Noveau designer of stained glass windows and lamps, glass mosaics, blown glass, ceramics and jewelry, was nearby. The local cemetery was laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of New York Citys Central Park. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, headed by James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, has 40 buildings on 95 acres of the western shore of the harbor. Established originally as the Carnegie Institution of Washington in the 19th century, the laboratory was in the vanguard of the wholly discredited eugenics movement. The lab has since apologized for its past and is currently a leader in genetic and cancer research and is the areas largest employer. The church sits at the top of a small hill, next to an enormous pond, in an incredibly picturesque setting.

The cast

The Revd David Ware, rector, officiated; The Revd Luke Fodor, curate, preached.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist: Rite II

How full was the building?

Practically heaving. The sanctuary was totally full, and from what we could hear, the balcony above us was too. We estimated that there were more than 130 present, which quite filled up the small space.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. An usher handed us service leaflets when we arrived, but didnt speak to us.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, surprisingly so, since older churches dont usually accommodate modern, larger derrieres. The pews have black bands on top of a white base and all of the books in the pews were bound in black. My friend pointed out how striking they looked against the black and white pews. This did strike us as purposeful; someone must have thought about how books and pews were more than just seats and texts, but could function as a real architectural and decorative feature.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

This was a crowd that had a lot to say – to each other. It was pretty loud. We were also struck at how attractive everyone was – young and old. It was as if we were plopped in the middle of an advertisement for Ralph Lauren come to life.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Bless the Lord, who forgives all our sins."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal 1982 were in the pews and both books were used during the service. A service leaflet provided only the order, text of the collect of the day, and readings. Ive gotten so used to having everything printed out, it was nice to actually go back to the Prayer Book.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and small choir. There was one bass/baritone with an exceptional voice who definitely made sure he was heard! The organist struggled a bit on the Bach postlude, but for non-professionals, the choir did a bang-up job on the communion anthem, Adoramus Te, Christe by Jacobus Clemens non Papa.

Did anything distract you?

I was trying to figure out where the old ended and the new began on the renovation. It was very well done, integrated almost seamlessly, so it was well nigh impossible. I was very impressed with how thoughtfully it had been achieved.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Perhaps dignified simplicity says it best. And it made me more than a little nostalgic, as it was a style of worship that I thought had entirely disappeared, and very like what I remember from my youth growing up in the Deep South (even down to the confusion over when to sit, stand and kneel!). The priests wore simple albs and stoles. No smells, bells or reverencing of any kind. The doxology was sung to Old Hundredth and the hymn at the dismissal was "Lord dismiss us with thy blessing" (which I am betting is the same every week, as it was in my church growing up). Children were dismissed to Sunday school at the beginning of the sermon, with the preacher offering up a short mini-sermon to the children before they left. Communion was received kneeling at the rail. Everyone sang and looked to be engaged in the service, and that was nice to see.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – The sermon was excellent – well reasoned with an interesting take on the days readings – and the delivery was equally good. The Revd Mr Fodor, who looks like the comedian and political satirist Stephen Colbert, had to have been speaking from notes, but his delivery was so polished it appeared to be off-the-cuff. He was also very enthusiastic. and both my friend and I found his enthusiasm infectious. You could tell he was having a good time. My only complaint was that he sometimes spoke a little too quickly for us, and both my friend and I mistook something he said that led to some head scratching, until we hashed it out together after the service.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was the reading for the day, Luke 13:1-9, the parable of the barren fig tree. He began with a story about a leopard who was envious of the neighborhoods best garden, which belonged to a rabbit. The rabbit credited his success to a "family secret" and reluctantly agreed to share it with the leopard. And he promptly did so, in the form of a wheelbarrow full of the, erm, "family secret" all ready to be spread around. (He was speaking quickly and both my friend and I heard "leper" rather than "leopard". And for the life of me I couldnt figure out why a leper was having an anthropomorphic discussion on gardening with a rabbit.) He then got to the meat of his argument, filling in different ways to look at the parable, arguing that it raises more questions than it answers. He thought that the ambiguity was a way to ask us to examine ourselves and our work. Are we like the fig tree that takes up space, not producing or producing not enough? What could be our "family secret", to make us more productive? And what are we actually producing? Do we give back enough to our community? He then tied this to the various outreaches of the church, especially the gardening project to feed the hungry.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Lots and lots, to be honest. The enthusiastic preaching and active participation were nice. It was also good how nostalgic the service made me feel. There is also one Tiffany window of an angel holding a bouquet of Easter lilies that is sublime, and my eye went back to her repeatedly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I wouldnt say it was the warmest welcome Ive ever received.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

We didnt have time to look lost. Everyone sat quietly until the postlude was over. The moment it finished, a young lad of, Id say, seven or eight years of age started singing God Bless America at the top of his lungs. He only managed to get out the first few bars before his horrified mother stifled him. He was obviously delighted with his mischief, and my friend and I were too. Then a very formidable society matron sitting in the pew in front of us turned around, as a battleship turns around in the water to face down an enemy frigate, and offered a very formal how-do-you-do, asking where we were from. She directed us to the coffee hour in the parish hall.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee hour was actually a bit of a zoo, with kids running around at play. But the coffee was hot and strong and there was an assortment of cookies and homemade muffins on offer. Nobody engaged us, and we wandered around for a bit before deciding to head on back to our train.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – I dont live in the area, so its not a real possibility.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The young boy singing God Bless America.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools