Category Archives: religion

Methodist Church Unearths Its Cornerstone

It’s not the coolest cornerstone in religious history: a Bible, old hymnal, list of members, sermons, a newsletter, a letter from the pastor to future generations; some stones from the Holy Land.

But when United Methodist Church unveils that memorabilia tomorrow — in honor of the 50th anniversary of the original cornerstone laying — congregants will honor much more than those half-century-old relics.

The United Methodist Church on Weston Road.

The congregation on Weston Road has quite a history. In fact, the church predates the founding of Westport by almost as long as the date it celebrates tomorrow.

Its roots here go back to 1790. Jesse Lee — a Methodist from Virginia — rode his horse all around the area, inviting people to gather in homes for fellowship. Churches in Easton and Ridgefield are now named for him.

The first church was built on Poplar Plains. It’s near the site of the longtime Three Bears restaurant. Today it’s once more a home of worship — for Chabad.

In the 1850s the Methodists moved to the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Main Street. There’s a law office now, at the tip of what was then a much larger town green.

A new church was built on (appropriately) Church Lane in 1908. In 1966 — to help pay for the move to Weston Road — that building was sold to the church next door, Christ & Holy Trinity. The Episcopalians still own it; it’s been rechristened Seabury Center.

The one-time Methodist Church on church Lane is now the Seabury Center.

Other funds for the new church were secured by congregation families taking out 2nd mortgages on their homes.

The 5-acre Weston Road site was adjacent to the home of Robert Lawson, author of the children’s book “Rabbit Hill.” During construction, services were held at Coleytown Elementary School. The cornerstone-laying ceremony was held on June 27, 1967.

But for many years, this was not the only Methodist congregation in town. A building in Saugatuck was constructed in 1854, near where I-95 exit 17 is now. That congregation merged with the one on Church Lane in 1947. The Saugatuck building became an artists’ studio, before it was demolished in 1955 for the thruway.

The Saugatuck bell lives on, though. It was bought by John Sherwood, who set it in the grassy area in front of the Greens Farms train station.

Rev. Edward Horne

It sat there for decades. A few years ago Sherwood’s descendants gave it to the United Methodist Church. It’s now in the memorial garden, just outside Reverend Ed Horne’s office.

A 2nd bell on Weston Road came from the old Church Lane building.

Rev. Horne is surrounded by — and thinks about — all that history, as he prepares for tomorrow’s cornerstone unveiling.

(It’s actually a re-enactment. The tin box was uncovered and opened a couple of days ago. Church officials wanted to avoid a Geraldo Rivera/Al Capone’s vault moment.)

The celebration — at the end of the 9:30 a.m. worship service — will include excerpts for the original service. In attendance will be a few congregants who were there at the groundbreaking 50 years ago. Former fire chief Harry Audley and his wife Pat are still active church members. Longtime teacher Pat Farmer and her husband Haynes — both near 90 — still sing in the choir. Gay and Liz Land plan to be there too.

The 1966-67 Methodist Church building committee (from left): Harold Shippey Jr., O. Glen Simpson, Paul Gann, Liz Land, John Kronseder, Curtis Cortelyou, Bob Doty, Bill Hale, Gay Land, Chandler Moffat, Joe Kyle, Arnold Miller, Phyllis Bowlin, Dale Bowlin, Herb Mahn, Faye Busch.

The Methodist Church’s 50th celebration continues in September, with a dinner and visit from the bishop. Also on tap: a day of service in honor of the anniversary, and — next May — a commemoration of the 1st service in the new church.

Tomorrow’s unveiling ends with the installation of a new box of memorabilia in the cornerstone. It will contain a contemporary worship book; letters from young congregants, and a church DVD produced by Dan Gelman.

It will be opened again in 2067 …

… the good Lord willing.

United Methodist Church, ready for worship in 1967.

Building Bridges Between Catholic, LGBT Communities

Three years ago, Sharon Carpenter read Father James Martin’s “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” The longtime Westporter was challenged and inspired by the Jesuit priest’s lighthearted yet loving exploration of ancient Galilee and Judea, and his exploration of how Jesus speaks to believers today.

When Sharon’s husband Sam decided to treat her to a 30th wedding anniversary trip to the Holy Land, he figured a Father Martin-led trip was just the ticket.

Father James Martin

Sam — who is not Catholic — did not realize Father Martin is a Big Name in Catholic commentary. A Wharton Business School graduate who entered seminary in 1988 after 6 years with GE Capital, he’s written extensively — and been interviewed by everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Stephen Colbert and Terry Gross.

Father Martin’s tour had been sold out for a year. The wait list held 400 names.

But Sam said if anyone dropped out at the last minute, they’d be ready to go.

Miraculously, there was a cancellation. Sam and Sharon got the call.

The trip was all she’d dreamed of. Father Martin was a warm, wonderful — and brilliant — guide.

Though Sam was the only non-Catholic in the group of 40, Father Martin asked him to read the Beatitudes at the Mount. “He’s that kind of guy,” she says admiringly.

Sharon and Sam Carpenter in the Holy Land.

After the trip, the Carpenters remained friends with Father Martin.

As the publication date neared for his new book, he asked Sharon to help with the launch.

Building a Bridge — appropriately published on Tuesday, during this month when the LGBT community celebrates Pride — is a passionate plea for Catholic leaders to relate to their LGBT flock with compassion and openness.

The book was a response, in part, to last year’s Orlando massacre at the Pulse club. Father Martin felt that Catholic church leaders had not spoken strongly enough about the LGBT aspect.

His voice is important: Earlier this year, Pope Francis appointed him a consultor for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication.

Sharon read the galleys. “He brings faith back to the basics,” she said. “It’s all about being sensitive and welcoming.”

Still, she wondered about the reaction if she tried to arrange a launch party here.

She needn’t have worried.

Father Andy Varga of St. Luke — the parish where Sharon has been active for 25 years — offered the church for an event. Father Tom Thorne of Assumption wanted it at his church too.

St. Luke was chosen to host the Thursday, June 29 (7:30 p.m.) talk, Q-and-A and book signing by Father Martin.

But there’s more. Father Varga put out the word to Westport’s interfaith clergy group. Father Thorne has publicized it in parishes around Fairfield County.

Other groups are also promoting it. The Triangle Community Center — Fairfield County’s LGBT organization — is all in. So are the Westport Library, Barnes & Noble, and the (Jesuit) Fairfield University bookstore.

Sharon’s book club and prayer group are also excited to hear Father Martin.

As Pride Month winds down, Sharon Carpenter could not be more proud.

(Click here  for more information on Father Martin’s St. Luke talk.)

Remembering Art Marciano

Westport has long been an educational pioneer. From the 1950s on, our school district’s many assets included its high number of superb — and highly respected — male elementary school teachers.

One of the most well known — to thousands of students, and their grateful parents — was Art Marciano.

Beginning in 1959, and for over 3 decades, he taught 4th through 6th grades. Marciano died Monday, at 88.

Art Marciano

A Waterbury native, and the youngest of 7 children, he owned a flower store before entering the military. He attended Central Connecticut State College on the GI Bill, then earned 2 master’s degrees from Columbia University Teachers College.

After being hired by the Westport school district, Marciano supplemented what were traditionally low teachers’ salaries by working at Ed Mitchell’s.

But those were the days when many teachers — even men — lived in Westport. He and his wife Suse — a German native — raised 2 sons, Martin and Tristan, here. He passed on his love of classical music to them.

Marciano and Suse were married for 56 years. Long after retirement, when they walked at Compo Beach, former students would rush up, talk, and say thank you for all he had done for them, many years ago.

He cherished those students, and his long friendships with colleagues. His obituary singles out Sid Birnbaum — another in Westport’s outstanding list of male elementary school teachers.

A mass of Christian burial will be celebrated for Marciano on Saturday, June 24 (11 a.m.), at St. Luke Church. A reception follows, in the community room.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in his memory can be made to Staples Tuition Grants or St. Luke  Church Community Outreach Fund.

You Don’t Have To Be Jewish To Love The Temple Israel Food Festival

Apparently Jewish Food Festivals are a thing.

Elise Meyer’s blog features a recipe for “Sangria, Charoset-Style.”

Elise Meyer — a longtime Westporter, “Much Ado About Stuffing” food blogger and chair of religious/social events like a women’s seder and the Klezmatics’ Levitt Pavilion concert — says there are tons of Jewish Food Festivals nationwide.

But, she notes, they usually center around traditional and/or kosher food.

The 1st-ever Southern Connecticut Jewish Food Festival — set for tomorrow (Sunday, June 11, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Temple Israel) — charts a different course. Its focus is “food justice, Jewish ideals and values like sustainability and who produces our food — those parts of Jewish culture.”

On tap:

  • A keynote speech by sustainable food maven/”Gefilte Manifesto” author Jeffrey Yoskowitz
  • Workshops on subjects like pickling, “Baking Babka to a Latin Beat” and “Wat’s for Shabbat: Ethiopian Jewish Food Culture”
  • Vegetarian and kosher food trucks (including barbecue!)
  • Kids’ activities (they’ll love the bio-powered Teva Topsy Turvy Bus environmental lab)
  • And (of course) more.

Meyer is the perfect person to promote this. She’s a sustainability advocate, a Westport Garden Club member, and Community Garden gardener.

Sample foods, from the Southern Connecticut Jewish Food Festival flyer.

She calls this Federation for Jewish Philanthropy-sponsored festival  “a chance to bring Westporters together around social and cultural issues.”

And, she adds, it’s open to — and appropriate for – plenty of goyim too. Demonstrations will appeal to all cooks, while a composting workshop should speak to everyone’s inner environmentalist.

Meyer promises that festival-goers will leave with “a full belly — and a full mind.”

As your Jewish grandmother — or Italian, or Chinese — would say: “Eat!”

(For more information, click here.)

Remembering Frank Deford

Frank Deford — one of the most famous (and elegant) sportswriters of all time — has died. He was 78, and lived in Key West and New York.

But for many years, Deford was a Westporter. It was here that he wrote many of his 20 books, and some of the most important pieces in his 50-year career at Sports Illustrated. He spent 37 years as an NPR “Morning Edition” commentator, and recorded most of those stories just up the road, at WSHU’s Bridgeport studio.

It was in Westport too that his daughter Alex was raised, went to Greens Farms Elementary School and died, of cystic fibrosis. She was just 8.

Deford turned that tragedy into a poignant book and movie, called “Alex: The Life of a Child.” He also served as national chair of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, from 1982 to 1999.

After Alex’s death, Deford and his wife Carol adopted a girl, Scarlet, from the Philippines. Their oldest child, Christian, graduated from Staples High School.

Deford won countless honors. He was most proud of the National Humanities Medal, awarded in 2013 by President Obama.

In 2013, President Obama awarded Frank Deford the National Humanities Medal. He was the 1st sportswriter to earn that honor.

But he was also a local presence. He spoke at the Westport Library, and was a reader — in that voice familiar to so many NPR listeners — at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Deford had a remarkable career. But though he hit plenty of grand slams, he wouldn’t be human if he never struck out.

In 1990, he was editor-in-chief of a new launch, The National: America’s 1st-ever daily sports newspaper.

It folded after 18 months. One of its many obstacles was distribution. Deford even had to cancel his own home delivery when not enough Greens Farms neighbors signed up.

But he had great fun trying to make a go of the National. (The final front-page headline: “We Had a Ball: The Fat Lady Sings Our Song.”)

Frank Deford

The paper — and he — covered every sport imaginable.

Including soccer. Which — as every NPR listener knew — he hated.

A few months after The National began, I asked him — only half-jokingly — why he got to cover the World Cup in Italy, instead of a true soccer aficionado like me.

Deford was very tall. He looked down at me, both physically and journalistically.

He gave me a semi-smile.

“When you run The National,” he said, “then you can cover the World Cup.”

Frank Deford covered it all, in a storied and story-filled life.

His many fans — and his former neighbors — will miss him greatly.

Uncovering 300 Years Of Church History

In 2011, Green’s Farms Congregational Church celebrated its 300th anniversary.

The other day, operations director Claire England sent me a copy of a souvenir brochure, produced for that occasion.

I’m amazed I didn’t see it earlier. It’s filled with astonishing stories, intriguing sidelights, and tons of fun facts.

I’m sorry it’s taken me 6 years to get around to reporting on this. But after 3 centuries, that’s not so bad.

Here are a few things I learned:

† In colonial days, communities were led by their churches. The term “1st selectman” — for our town’s leader — dates back to the days when the secular leader of the church was “selected first.” Even after Westport was incorporated in 1835, Green’s Farms Congregational members served as 1st selectmen. In 1997, Diane Goss Farrell — a Green’s Farms congregant — was elected 1st Selectwoman.

Before services were announced by a drum or bell, early settlers were called to worship by the beating of 2 thin strips of board, from a high hill.

So, the brochure asked, was Clapboard Hill named for the excellent quality of building wood that was harvested there, or for its great location that allowed worshipers to hear the clapping of the boards?

An early map of Green’s Farms. Turkey Hill and Clapboard Hill are in the center. The 1st church site (now marked by Machamux boulder) is just below that. The 2nd site is marked “Colonial Church” (center left). “Third and Fourth” Churches are also noted at the top. Green’s Farms’ founding Bankside Farmers properties can be seen along Long Island Sound. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

 In 1742, Reverend Daniel Chapman — who had served as minister since the church’s founding 31 years earlier — was dismissed. The reason: He “hath led for several years an Eregular [sic] life …in being sundry times overtaken in drinking to excess.”

150 years later, then-Reverend Benjamin Relyea noted: “In those times, when it was an act of discourtesy in making pastoral calls to refuse to partake of something from the array of decanters which always stood upon the sideboard, the only wonder is that any minister ever went home sober.”

After the British burned the 2nd Green’s Farms Church (located near the current commuter parking lot, at the corner of what’s now the Sherwood Island Connector and Greens Farms Road), services were held in private homes for 10 years.

Meanwhile, the new American government compensated our local church for its losses during the war with land in the Ohio wilderness, known as the “Western Reserve.” The church later sold its Ohio lands, to raise money for the new meeting house (on Hillandale Road, site of the current building).

Lucy Rowe’s headstone.

The original Bankside Farmers — founders of Green’s Farms parish — owned slaves. A century later, many freed slaves lived in Green’s Farms as respected residents. When slavery was finally abolished in Connecticut in 1848, the “last of the slaves” — Charles Rowe — was church sexton. He lived on Hyde Lane, near where Long Lots School is now. He and his wife Lucy are buried in the Green’s Farms Upper Cemetery (adjacent to the current church.)

The church’s original burial ground still stands, on the corner of Green’s Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector. The oldest gravestone belongs to Andros Couch, who died in 1730 at 57. Also buried there are the church’s 1st 3 ministers, who served for a total of 110 years; several sea captains, including Franklin Sherwood, and Dr. Ebenezer Jesup — a surgeon in George Washington’s army — along with his 3 wives.

In 1911, the church celebrated its 200th anniversary by commissioning a bas-relief plaque honoring past ministers. The artist was Gutzon Borglum — the same man who carved Mt. Rushmore. He seldom did small commissions — but friends in the congregation asked him for this one.

On November 25, 1950, the 100-year-old steeple crashed down during a hurricane. The weight of the bell carried it through the roof of the meeting house, into the Sunday School.

At the time, declining membership had already created doubts about the church’s future. Services attracted as few as 27 people, with the collection seldom reaching $5.

Insurance covered part of the steeple damage, and a subscription campaign raised the rest. Many non-members — calling the steeple a “landmark” and a “beacon” for sailors — contributed. That drive helped save the church. By 1957, membership had grown so large that 2 Sunday services were needed.

Part of the 1951 fundraising appeal.

There is much more of interest in the Green’s Farms Church’s 300-year historical brochure.

Here’s to its next 294 years!

Westport Links With America’s Oldest Synagogue

You wouldn’t think that a recent “06880” story on an antique New York City map would lead to a Westport connection with the oldest synagogue in North America.

Then again, you wouldn’t figure that Luis Gomez was Jewish.

The piece focused on Westporter Robert Augustyn, and a 1740 map his company acquired. It was the first to show that synagogue, on Manhattan’s Mill Street.

Benjamin Gomes, great-grandson of Luis Moses Gomez.

Robert Jacobs quickly responded. He and his cousin Joel Treisman — both Westporters — are direct descendants of Luis Moses Gomez. The Sephardic Jewish immigrant, whose parents escaped the Spanish Inquisition, led the drive to finance and construct Shearith Israel — that first-ever New York congregation, founded in the late 1680s — and served as its first parnas (president).

But Jacobs’ story goes much deeper.

He is not a religious person. Yet in 1973, his family got a call from the owner of a house in Marlboro, New York. He was selling his property, which originally belonged to a direct Jacobs ancestor: Gomez.

In 1714, he had purchased 1,000 acres near Newburgh, New York. Later, with his sons Jacob and Daniel, he bought 3,000 more.

Gomez built a fieldstone blockhouse to conduct trade and maintain provisions in the Mid-Hudson region.

“Everyone thinks of the early settlers in this region as Dutch and English,” Jacobs says. “But there were some very important Jewish settlers too.” Gomez arrived in New York City in 1703.

Jacobs adds, “Jewish immigrants were not just the Ashkenazis and Russians of the late 1800s. Sephardic Jews were here too.”

They were world traders. Gomez’ family was involved in chocolate, potash, furs and other commodities. They also quarried limestone, milled timber — and donated funds to rebuild New York’s Trinity Church steeple.

Jacobs was just 27 when the Gomez house went on the market. He called his cousin, Treisman.

Robert Jacobs and Joel Treisman.

As they researched its history, they learned that Gomez was not the only fascinating character. During its 300 years, “Gomez Mill House” served as home to Revolutionary patriot Wolfert Ecker; 19th-century gentleman farmer and conservationist William Henry Armstrong; artisan and historian Dard Hunter, and 20th-century suffragette Martha Gruening.

Six years after buying the property, Jacobs’ family created a non-profit. In 1984 the Gomez Foundation purchased the Mill House, and established it as a public museum.

The Gomez Mill House today.

The house is being preserved as as a significant national museum. The oldest standing Jewish dwelling in North America, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jacobs’ foundation also offers programs about the contributions of former Mill House owners to the multicultural history of the Hudson River Valley. Over 1,000 children tour the museum each year.

Today, Jacobs says, “Freedom, tolerance and opportunity is one of the missions of Gomez Mill House.” The foundation’s work seems particularly timely today.

One of the lovingly restored rooms in the Gomez Mill House.

Jacobs and Treisman serve on the board. They’re joined by fellow Westporter Andrée Aelion Brooks. The former New York Times writer — an expert on Jewish history — lectures frequently for the foundation.

Not many people — even Jews — know about Luis Moses Gomez.

But Robert Jacobs, Joel Treisman and their family have spent 40 years getting to know their ancestor. The story they share is fascinating.

And Gomez Mill House is just an hour and a half away.

(For more information on Gomez Mill House, click here.)

Friday Flashback #31

Protests are nothing new in Westport. As noted a few Friday Flashbacks ago, they date back to at least 1913, when women of the Equal Franchise League participated in Suffrage Week activities.

Perhaps none were bigger though than the rallies against the Vietnam War. There were several, culminating in a National Moratorium Day march on October 15, 1969.

Over 1200 Staples students — joined by some from the 3 junior highs — marched from the high school tennis courts, down North Avenue and Long Lots Road, all the way to the steps of the YMCA.

The long line of marchers headed downtown. The A&P is now the firehouse; the Esso gas station is a Phillips 66. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

They carried American flags and wore buttons saying “Peace Now” and “Hell No, We Won’t Go.” Along the way, pro-war students threw eggs at the marchers.

There were adults downtown too, to hear speeches (including one from Iowa Senator Harold Hughes).

More of the enormous downtown crowd. The former Max’s Art Supplies is on the extreme left; what is now Tiffany is on the far right. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

It took 4 more years. But in 1973 a peace treaty was signed. Two years later, the last Americans were evacuated from the US Embassy roof.

A portion of the crowd — primarily Staples students — protesting the Viet Nam war in 1969. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

A Staples student states his case. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

A portion of the crowd in front of the Y. The Fine Arts Theater (now Restoration Hardware) was showing “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Medium Cool.” Police stood on the roof next door. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

The crowd was predominantly — though not entirely — made up of Staples students. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

Rabbi Byron Rubenstein of Temple Israel addresses the crowd from the steps of the Y. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

Beth El Honors Joe And Irma Schachter

Joe Schachter served as last year’s Memorial Day parade grand marshal.

Before that, he helped found the Minuteman Yacht Club. As “the voice of boaters,” they pushed the town to improve the Longshore and Compo marinas. First Selectman John Kemish appointed him to the town’s 1st Boating Advisory Committee too.

Schachter also helped form the Norwalk Oyster Festival and Commuter Action Committee. As a member of the statewide Rail Advisory Task Force, he served 3 governors.

During World War II he took enemy fire on the Wilkes Barre cruiser in Tokyo Bay, and along the Manchurian border.

After the war he spent 30 years in advertising in Hartford and New York, on accounts like Ford and Eastman Kodak.

Joe Schachter

He then embarked on an entirely new 2nd career, introducing floating concrete docks to the Northeast — and as far as Greenland and Bermuda. For 20 years he worked on projects for the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers. He’s most proud of his 400th installation: the one at Compo Beach.

Many years before all that, Schachter was a 13-year-old bar mitzvah boy at Congregation Beth El in Norwalk. After all his work and travels — including Alaska and Antarctica — when Joe and his wife Carol moved back to the area and settled in Westport, they joined that same synagogue.

She died in 1964, leaving 3 young boys — who themselves had their bar mitzvahs at Beth El.

Schachter remarried. He and his wife Irma brought the congregation into the 20th century, when Beth El first recognized women in the prayer quorum, and later on the pulpit.

The couple helped raised funds, and even did some of the physical work, during a major expansion of the East Avenue building in the 1980s.

Irma and Joe Schachter

In 2014 — 89 years young — Schachter created Beth El’s new marketing campaign and print presence. For weeks he climbed ladders, hung signs on the building, and worked on details small (font and color) and large (what each generation seeks in a Jewish community). Irma was always by his side.

The couple still attends almost every Friday night service. Always, the temple says, they have “a kind word, a thought of encouragement, and a generous smile. They are living legends, quietly and graciously waiting their turn for a cookie or a cup of grape juice.”

On Sunday, April 2 (5 p.m.) Congregation Beth El honors Joe and Irma Schachter at their spring gala. There will be music, dancing, food, laughter and reminiscing.

Most of all, their many friends and admirers say, “there will be a spirit of joy. And there will be community.”

(For more information on the gala honoring Joe and Irma Schachter, click here.)

Rick Benson To The Rescue

Two days ago, I posted a piece about the missing Rotary Club sign on Wilton Road. I described Rick Benson — the member helping replace it — as “the guy you call on whenever something needs doing.”

I wasn’t kidding.

Almost instantly, I got an email from Claire England, operations director at Greens Farms Church.

She said:

Last week one of the 4 finials on the steeple blew down during that gusty wind.

Thanks to Rick, it’s now safe again. He removed the rotten finials. We’ll cap the spots where they stood while we consider whether/how to replace them. The church looks as beautiful as ever.

I was very glad to see Rick and the crew working with him safely back on the ground at the end of it. Definitive proof that being a church trustee is not just a desk job.

Rick Benson (right) in action.

That’s not the first time the steeple needed attention. In the mid-1800s — when the church was already 150 years old — it fell.

In 1950, a hurricane that killed 2 Westporters toppled it again. The steeple spent 2 months on the front lawn, before being hoisted back into place.

Of course, back then Rick Benson was not around to help.

Then again, there was no YouTube either:

(Hat tip: Kara Sullivan)