First Presbyterian Church of Newtown to commemorate 360th
by Michael Perlman
Sep 19, 2012 | 4688 views | 0 0 comments | 44 44 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Standing prominently on Queens Boulevard is a rare historic delight. Across from Georgia Diner at 54th Avenue is the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown, which is about to celebrate its 360th anniversary.

On the evening of October 13, a 360th Anniversary dinner for church members, former pastors, and a few special guests will take place. It will feature a Powerpoint presentation on the church’s history since 1652, and photos of members of today and yesteryear.

On both October 13 and 14, there will be a display of historical church documents from 1715 and photos from 1894. On October 14, a special church service will be held at 10:45 a.m., and a walking tour of historic Newtown led by a former history teacher Dennis Redican of Newtown H.S. and Church Historian Marjorie Melikian will be take place 2 p.m.

What we now call home in Forest Hills and Rego Park was originally Newtown in the 17th century. In fact, Newtown comprised all of western Queens, west of Flushing Meadows. The town center of Newtown was the intersection of Broadway, Grand Avenue, and Queens Boulevard, which consisted of the church, shops, a courthouse, inn, and a town hall.

From 1652 to 1720, the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown was the only church in the area where English settlers worshipped. However, today’s congregation reflects the great diversity of Queens.

The current edifice was dedicated on May 5, 1895, and the church continues to remain a central element of the busy intersection. On a landscaped setting is a Gothic masterpiece, which was designed by Frank A. Collins. It features a bell tower, stained glass windows, a pitched slate roof, and elaborate woodwork.

It is rumored that the ornate stained glass windows were designed by Benjamin Sellers, who worked for Louis Tiffany, before creating an independent enterprise. Church member John Goldsmith Payntar left $70,000 in his will for the church’s construction, which is why “Payntar Memorial” is inscribed above the main entrance. The cornerstone was laid in 1893, when Queens Boulevard was known as Hoffman Boulevard.

Originally a community church, it officially became Presbyterian in 1715. The church was founded in the wilderness of the Dutch colony of the New Netherlands, and survived war, invasion, and religious and political persecution.

The church has a bell from 1788 that witnessed several significant Queens historical moments. It was installed in the fourth church building erected in 1791, just after the American Revolution. This replaced its third church, which was desecrated by British soldiers and demolished. The bell survived the destruction of that church by fire.

In 1924, the 1895 building and its congregants faced another feat of survival.The city planned on widening Queens Boulevard, so the only hope of salvation was transporting the church a half block. The grand steeple was lost, but teamwork resulted in an engineering marvel, as the 5 million-pound church was moved 125 feet on greased logs turned by hand winches.

Historian Marjorie Melikian, a Rego Park resident, plays a major role in the church. She has been a member since 1970 and founded its History Committee in 1995. That same year, she coordinated a 100th anniversary of its sanctuary.

She was also the first to bring Newtown Pippin apple trees back to Queens, organized a slideshow on Newtown’s famed Moore family for the Greater Astoria Historical Society, exhibited artifacts at the Queens Museum of Art, led walking tours, and held July 4th presentations to commemorate the church’s Revolutionary War history.

She also coordinated the 350th anniversary in 2002, and published a history of the church for their 350th anniversary book.

In addition to the church’s architectural and religious legacy, Melikian’s amazing historic discoveries in the archives tell a story of its own, which serves as a testament to the development of the church and Western Queens.

The 1700s records indicate how they changed from a community church to Presbyterian in 1715. Records also show how the early church disciplined wayward members. Slaves were mentioned as household members in Newtown and were married in the church.

For the 360th anniversary, Melikian will display a seldom-seen 1715 sheepskin deed for land on the north side of Queens Boulevard, where the prior church and cemetery stood. It references the king of England, who reigned over the U.S.

She also found a draft of a 1775 resolution by some church members to form a Committee of Correspondence with the Continental Congress and other colonies, in support of Independence from England.

The archives contain records of the church’s 1893-95 construction, 1800s rents for pews, pleas from early pastors showing insufficient salaries, and photos documenting the church’s move.

Records document the church’s cemetery's existence from 1822-1906. Congressman James Lent was one notable who was buried there. And DeWitt Clinton, former governor, mayor and builder of the Erie Canal, owned a Maspeth summer home. He was a church contributor who had his children baptized there.

Restoration is often costly, but the salvation of a historic religious edifice is priceless. Therefore, an ongoing fundraiser is underway. The church has recently been declared eligible for the State & National Register of Historic Places, which would commemorate its history and may help initiate funding for restoration.

“It makes me feel privileged to be a member of a church with so much history,” said Dolores Joseph.

“I feel obligated as a congregant to take part in the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown's 360th celebration, and to carry the torch for the future generations,” said Abraham Osei. “We want to celebrate this historical event with our neighbors, and to enlighten them about the spiritual richness of the church.”
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