By Sadef Ali Kully
The First Presbyterian Church of Newtown in Elmhurst, the borough’s oldest church, celebrated its 363rd anniversary Sunday by paying homage to the church member who donated the land to the Presbyterian Church in 1715.
The church displayed its oldest records, including the original sheepskin deed from 1715, the year it began record-keeping. Those records included documents of baptisms, marriages, deaths, natural disasters, slaves becoming members of the church, and the disciplining of church members who had sinned.
According to the church historians, the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown at 5405 Seabury St. is the oldest Presbyterian church in New York City and the fourth oldest Presbyterian church in the United States.
The first building, erected in 1652 by Purtian settlers, was a combination church, town hall, parsonage and courthouse. It was located on present-day Broadway around Dongan Street in Elmhurst.
In 1715, land was given to for what would become the Presbyterian church today by member Jonathan Fish, an early Newtown settler.
Michael Perlman, chairman of Rego-Forest Preservation Coumcil, said, “[It} was founded in the wilderness of the Dutch colony of the New Netherlands. It is remarkable how the congregation survived war, invasion, and religious and political persecution. The first pastor was Rev. John Moore, who was a signer for the purchase of Queens, west of the Flushing River from the Indians. This area was known as Newtown as of 1665, but later became separate villages, which today are known as Elmhurst, Forest Hills, Rego Park, etc.”
Perlman said it was an engineering marvel. In 1924, the city announced plans to widen Queens Boulevard. The city raised the 5 million-pound church by 125 feet into the air onto greased logs turned by hand winches to move it from the middle of Queens Boulevard to its current location.
“The spirit of God moved the first Christians to act. When the Fish family donated the land, the people had a vision and they had faith. Look at us now,” the Rev. Anette Westermark said to the congregation. “In 1965, this congregation was the largest, diverse congregation in the world.”
After the Sunday sermon, Westermark led the congregation, which even today boasts members from over 25 countries, in prayer for the lives lost in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks.
“Let us be thankful for what we have now,” she said.
Visitors came from across the city to celebrate unveiling a memorial stone dedicated to Jonathan Fish’s gift to the Presbyterian church with elected officials Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing). Stavisky said.
“As I was sitting here, imagining the 363 years of what has transpired over the last 363 years. If these church walls could talk what would they say?”
Reach Reporter Sadef Ali Kully by e-mail at skull