Category Archives: religion

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)

A Neo-Nazi Story, In Westport

A police car sat outside The Conservative Synagogue of Westport. A police officer stood inside the front door.

Those are signs of the times. Near-daily bomb threats have rattled Jewish Community Centers and Anti-Defamation League offices around the country.

But the only threat last night was to disrupt stereotypes and assumptions.

A full house heard Frank Meeink talk about his life.

Frank Meeink’s book cover shows a swastika tattooed on his neck.

At 13 years old, the Philadelphia native was a skinhead. By 18 he was roaming the country as a neo-Nazi recruiter. He hosted a TV show called “The Reich.”

In prison — convicted of kidnapping and beating a member of a rival skinhead gang — he befriended men he once hated. Slowly, his world view — and life — changed.

Today the 41-year-old is a noted speaker, author and founder of Harmony Through Hockey (he’s also a youth coach). He travels the country talking about tolerance, diversity and mutual understanding, in race, politics and throughout society.

Meeink — who has been featured in a film with Desmond Tutu, appeared in a music video with country singer Jamey Johnson and been interviewed by Katie Couric — was part of the inspiration for the movie “American History X.”

His talk last night was riveting. It was also preaching to the choir. I doubt anyone came to the synagogue hoping to have his or her neo-Nazi views reinforced.

But Meeink’s message of openness, and his story of how hatred can be turned to love, was powerful and inspiring. It was also eye-opening to hear his raw words spoken inside a temple, before an audience that included men in yarmulkes.

Frank Meeink speaking last night at The Conservative Synagogue.

Last night’s event was the culmination in a long day. Earlier, Meeink spent 2 hours with the sophomore and junior classes at Staples High School. They listened raptly as he discussed “The Truth About Hate.” After Meeink spoke, a number of students talked in an open mic session about their experiences with bullying — as bullies, victims and bystanders — and pledged to work toward greater acceptance for all.

Meeink later met with members of the Westport Police Department.

When he was 15 years old, Meeink tattooed a swastika on his neck. Two decades later, a resurgence of hatred sweeps our nation.

The police presence at The Conservative Synagogue last night served as a grim reminder of that. But Frank Meeink’s strong words — delivered to various Westport audiences all day long — overpowered every image of fear.

(Frank Meeink’s appearance last night was sponsored by The Conservative Synagogue, the Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut, TEAM Westport, Hadassah, the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy and the Westport Inn.)

 

Paying It Forward For Refugees

Last week, “06880” told the story of Josh Kangere, a refugee from the Republic of Congo who has found work at Sugar & Olives — and the beginnings of a new life in America.

Today there’s another hopeful tale, of another Congolese immigrant here.

Three years ago, a man named David was granted refugee status. He came to Bridgeport, found work in Milford, and established himself. Last week — thanks to the International Institute of Connecticut — he was reunited with his wife Anathalie.

He also got to hold his son Christian for the first time. When David left Africa, the boy had not yet been born.

The Nestor family of Weston heard David’s story from Sue Ingall, a fellow Westonite who sets up refugee houses with volunteers from 4 area churches: Christ & Holy Trinity and the Unitarian Church, both in Westport; Norfield Congregational in Weston, and Greenfield Hill Congregational in Fairfield.

They were touched, and wanted to do something special. So Samantha, Mike, Finn and Gavin gathered furniture and children’s toys, and headed to Bridgeport on Saturday morning to meet the family.

David and Anathalie with the Nestor family.

It was a special day for everyone. Saturday was the birthday of Samantha’s grandmother Fay, after whom their son Finn is named. A refugee herself, she escaped the Russian pogroms nearly 100 years ago, with her mother and sisters.

Fay, like Christian, was separated from her father for years. She and the rest of her family journeyed to New York, where eventually they were all reunited.

They were the only members of their family to escape from Russia. Their cousins, uncles and extended family were all murdered by the Nazis.

Despite the mass executions, abductions, mutilations and rapes that are almost daily occurrences in Congo, David’s and Anathalie’s faces are filled with gratitude and hope.

And the Nestors were happy to connect their own family’s story with David’s.

(This Sunday [March 12, 3 p.m., Bessemer Center, Bridgeport] IICONN will hold a Rally for Unity and Resilience to Stand with Refugees and Immigrants. Speakers include Senator Richard Blumenthal, and Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy. Click here for information on the Facebook page.)

Wired!

Yesterday, “06880” posted Jennifer Johnson’s gorgeous photo of Bedford Square.

Sitting outside SoNo bakery, an alert “06880” reader noticed how lovely Seabury Center — across from the new construction — looked in the afternoon light.

She snapped this photo:

seabury-center

Gazing down Church Lane toward Christ & Holy Trinity Church, she shot another:

christ-holy-trinity-church

But as she peered closer, she saw what she believes is a new utility pole.

Suddenly, she wondered: Will this lovely scene soon become a jumble of overhead power and cable lines?

She looked back toward Elm Street, and saw this cluttered mess:

elm-street

Last summer, she thought that all the work on Church Lane meant that utility wires would be buried underground.

Now she’s unsure.

And very, very worried.

Remembering John Skinner

John Skinner — a pilot who leveraged his travel experience in his 2nd “career,” as co-founder with his wife Jeri of Builders Beyond Borders — died Friday evening, from complications of a fall the day after Christmas. Surrounded by family, after a happy day of sharing memories and music with loved ones, he was 80 years old.

A native of San Jose, California, he grew up in Sacramento. John joined the Navy at age 18, and served as a fighter pilot for 12 years. He met his future wife Jeri at the Officers’ Club at Moffett Field. Their sons Christian and Craig were both born on February 9 — though 2 years apart.

After the Navy, John continued his flying career as a captain for Pan American Airways. The Skinners moved to Westport so he could be based out of New York.  With Pan Am he flew to Beirut, Johannesburg, London, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Tel Aviv and Tokyo. John finished his career with Delta Airlines, after their acquisition of Pan Am.

john-skinner

John Skinner

John loved flying and anything with an engine, especially cars. He enjoyed attending car races with Chris. His son’s friends used to line up their cars in the driveway so John could fix them.

Following retirement John, Jeri and Craig led Kingdom Builders and Builders Beyond Borders. He put his handyman skills to use building and repairing homes, clinics and daycare centers for the less fortunate. John and his family assembled groups of teens to travel to places like Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Honduras. Over 1,700 teenagers participated in these programs.

John leaves his wife of 57 years, Jeri; his son Christian and wife Tammy; his son Craig and wife Elizabeth; 4 grandchildren, and his French bulldog Winston.

In recent years John suffered from Parkinson’s disease but always kept a positive attitude. The effects of the disease contributed to his fall. In keeping with John’s generous nature, he donated his body to Yale University for research purposes.

John has requested that donations be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

A celebration of John’s life will be held this Wednesday (January 18, 3 p.m.) at Southport Congregational Church.

Glenn Hightower Memorial Set For Saturday

The life of Glenn Hightower — educator, civic volunteer and coach — will be celebrated this Saturday (January 21, 2 p.m.) at the United Methodist Church on Weston Road.

The longtime Westport resident died New Year’s Day, age 76. Throughout his life he was devoted to his wife Beverly, and his daughters Holly, Julie and Heather.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Glenn graduated from Mangum High School as valedictorian and class president. He completed his undergraduate degree at Oklahoma State University, his master’s degree at Kansas State University and his Ph.D from the University of Iowa.

Glenn Hightower at the former Bedford Middle School (now Saugatuck Elementary).

Glenn Hightower at the former Bedford Middle School (now Saugatuck Elementary).

Glenn and Beverly moved to Westport in 1969. He spent over 30 years as principal of Bedford Middle and Junior Schools, serving briefly as interim assistant superintendent.

He led through times of both consolidation and expansion, including working on the design of the new Bedford school on North Avenue.

During 8 years as principal of Westport Continuing Education, he expanded programming and grew enrollment. Glenn was committed to music, the arts and technology. He created compassionate learning environments that valued students and enabled them to excel.

Glenn was an avid sportsman. In junior high and high school he captained varsity football, basketball and baseball teams. He played handball competitively, served on the Bridgeport YMCA Board of Directors, and enjoyed playing in recreational basketball leagues around Fairfield County.

Glenn Hightower, during a Westport Road Runners race.

Glenn Hightower, during a Westport Road Runners race.

Glenn was often seen running throughout town. He competed in Westport Road Races, and completed 16 New York City marathons and 10 ultra marathons. Glenn was a competitor, but most of all he cherished lifelong friendships created along the way.

Actively involved in the Westport YMCA board of directors and Water Rats swim team, as well as the Staples High swim team, Glenn and Bev spent many days by the pool.

When his daughters played team sports, Glenn coached rec basketball. He helped grow Westport Little League softball, coaching for over 10 years. He later returned to a sport he loved, football, to coach middle school PAL football players.

Glenn served in the Rotary Club, and over many years dedicated himself to the United Methodist Church as a Sunday School teacher, lay leader and chair of the Administrative Council, among other activities.

Glenn was known for his warmth, kindness, generous spirit and devotion to his family. He held an unwavering belief in the power of public education and the importance of helping others. Glenn encouraged people to do their best, whether with their family, school, work, faith or on the ball field.

Glenn was predeceased by his wife Beverly. In addition to his daughters he is survived by 4 grandsons, and brothers Richard and Phillip and their families.

In honor of Glenn, the Hightower family encourages everyone to take time to talk with and truly listen to their children, look for the good in those around us, and strive to make a positive impact on our communities.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the United Methodist Church of Westport/Weston, 49 Weston Road, Westport, CT 06880; Staples Tuition Grants, PO Box 5159, Westport, CT 06881, or Magnum High School Alumni Association (c/o Mary Jane Scott, 414 South Robinson Avenue, Mangum OK 73554).