Christ Church was founded as a missionary parish on April 10, 1848, in a Piermont warehouse once owned by the first president of the Erie Railroad. It was the first officially established Episcopal church in Rockland County. The Diocese of New York chose Piermont, the Erie’s eastern terminus, because of its prospects as a prosperous, fast growing community.
The story of how Christ Church came to be built is one of extraordinary and unnoticed generosity. For a link to an e-book on Christ Church’s construction, click here.
The present-day church, on the Piermont-Sparkill border, dates to 1864. The parish house was purchased in 1902 as the Sexton’s cottage. Eventually, it became a parish hall, with a reading room that was for many years a circulating library for the whole community.
Piermont and Sparkill never turned into the bustling railroad hub the Diocese envisioned. In the Civil War era, the Erie extended its terminus south to New Jersey. Piermont evolved into a rough and tumble mill town, while Sparkill, with rustic charm and easy access to Manhattan, attracted a mix of railroad personnel, creative artists, professionals, and a pioneering brand of commuter.
Christ Church thrived in this setting. In one early 20th century history, it was already being called a “suburban” parish with a spacious rectory overlooking the Hudson River on Piermont Place, photographed around 1900 (left).
But it was no escapist’s idyll: in 1918, during World War I, Christ Church suffered the deaths of two successive rectors in service overseas. World War II would take yet another toll.
The Reverend Albert Ohse was called to Christ Church in 1932, and was Rector for the next 28 years. Fr. Ohse’s resourcefulness helped give the church interior the distinctive qualities that it has today. He located handmade oak paneling and flooring in a mansion in Tuxedo Park; these were installed in the sanctuary and in the adjacent St. Mary’s Chapel (formerly the choir room). A rood screen was similarly located and installed. Christ Church’s signature rose window came from a private chapel in nearby Grandview.
Sparkill’s fortunes began to shift in the 1950’s, with the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Palisades Parkway. Railroads, already hobbled by the emergence of the airlines, could not compete with the convenience and speed now offered by the automobile.
Commuter rail service hung feebly on, but ended in 1966. And, like the community around it, Christ Church entered a lengthy period of somnolence. There was a succession of priests-in-charge; finances deteriorated; and a number of structural failures forced the parish into debt. The rectory on Piermont Place, which had been sold some decades earlier, was replaced with a smaller house on Campbell Avenue in Tappan. But that was now sold as well.
In the 1980’s, a task force was formed, and a long renewal process began. Tellingly, in this era, Sparkill and Piermont underwent something of an identity swap: leafy Sparkill attracted a more working-class crowd, while gritty Piermont, whose paper mill had closed a decade before, became gentrified and acquired a laid back, bohemian air.
In the 1990’s, under the Rev. Deborah Dresser as Priest-in-Charge, Christ Church joined three other parishes in forming ESMOR, the Episcopal Shared Ministries of Rockland. A midweek Eucharist and an evening healing service were introduced. Lay Eucharistic Ministers were trained, Days of Community Recognition were instituted, and a Neighborhood Language Center served immigrants from Central America. ESMOR later disbanded, but Christ Church’s mission had been re-awakened.
Building on this foundation, and discerning a new opportunity to serve through the arts and environmental awareness, Christ Church called its present Vicar, noted sculptor the Rev. Thomas Faulkner, in 2006. Fr. Faulkner’s tenure has been the catalyst for a series of ongoing positive changes at Christ Church.
There is now a critical mass of young children. This has enabled a nascent Sunday School, with teaching aids and a weekly curriculum. The parish began attracting families with an appealing Web site. Many of today’s parishioners were not raised Episcopalian, and their average age is younger.
Laurel Babcock of the Journal News visited Christ Church for its 150th anniversary in 1999. She wrote:
“… the church defines the concept of humble, put together with bits and pieces from here and there, even with members called from different denominations. It has a long history of struggle which it has endured through the dedication of members who keep alive its tradition of religious faith and community spirit.”
From its beginnings in a warehouse to the present, Christ Church remains what its mission statement proclaims: “a community of believers, who in the name of Jesus Christ seek a life of love and justice, committing its resources for the enrichment of all God’s people.”