By Sophia Chang
Today's visitors peeking out the church doors have a direct vista of a pharmacy and cars whizzing along Northern Boulevard.Northeast Queens may have changed in the past 175 years, but Zion's mission of spiritual nurturing and community outreach has stayed the same.The church at 243-01 Northern Blvd. is embarking on a yearlong celebration of its anniversary, beginning Saturday at 7 p.m. with Assistant Bishop Rt. Rev. Rodney Michel from the Diocese of Long Island presiding over an Evensong service featuring psalms and prayer. The service is open to the public, and a reception will follow.”In the early days, this was primarily focused on being a little country church,” said Father Patrick Holtkamp, the rector. He said that despite the humble beginnings, Zion's community focus has been constant through the centuries. “The mission that we still see for ourselves, to nurture our congregation spiritually and also to lend helping hands to the larger community, that's been a part of Zion all along,” he said.In preparation for the anniversary, some of the church's 250 members have helped compile an extensive history, dating back to the land's donation to the church by local merchant and alderman Wynant Van Zandt. In gratitude for the gift, members of the Van Zandt family were honored with burial vaults underneath the church. The original building was destroyed in a 1924 fire, but a new church was quickly erected in 1925 and is the main structure still used for worship. Zion's most distinctive feature may be the cemetery that surrounds the white clapboard church. Although it is not a public cemetery and set aside for church members, people can still tour the grounds with a self-guided churchyard tour brochure.”From the 1830s until yesterday, we've had ongoing burials for church members,” Holtkamp said. “The churchyard makes for a very lovely setting.”In the 1930s, a project to widen Northern Boulevard unearthed a Matinecock Indian burial ground, and Zion's leaders made room in the churchyard for the remains to be reinterred. Two halves of a large boulder engraved with the words “Here rest the last of the Matinecock” flank a 70-year-old tree, a symbol of life continuing in the midst of death, Holtkamp said.As part of Zion's future, Holtkamp said the church has opened its doors to area community groups. A color-coded calendar spread over one wall helps Holtkamp keep track of when each of the 14 civic, educational and self-help groups that regularly use the church's facilities have scheduled meetings and classes. “We try to be inclusive and continue to reach out,” Holtkamp said. “We're mixed ethnically and economically, which is something I'm very proud of.”Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.