Parish History

Although Episcopal services had been held regularly in Croton since l842, Saint Augustine’s Church was formally organized in 1855.  Augustus Clarkson was the first rector and his tenure lasted 52 years.  A church, modeled on the Chapel of Christ Episcopal Church in Tarrytown, was erected in 1857 on land donated by Philip Van Wyck.  

Several quite distinctive policies marked the early church. One was that no collection plate was passed at church services so as not to embarrass poor people who wished to attend. Clarkson was independently wealthy so he and the prominent citizens who were the wardens and vestrymen provided for the financial needs of the church. Throughout his tenure the vestry generally consisted of the same group of well off men with the senior warden serving for 48 consecutive years.

A second notable policy was the emphasis he placed on the church school.  In l856 there were 20 teachers and 150 students organized into 3 schools, one in Croton, a second in Crugers (a parish that was also served by Clarkson.), and a third at an unknown location. He reported to the diocese in l862 that there were 60 students in Croton and this increased to 117 in l867.  

The numbers seem remarkable for a hamlet of 400, but the Sunday school was open to everyone and was the hub of social activity for the youth of Croton for many years.  It met on Sunday afternoons and at the end of the class Clarkson would give each child a quarter.  Building on this success, Clarkson planned a church operated day school and acquired more property from Van Wyck for that purpose.  

Although the day school was never established, two more buildings that now constitute the Parish Hall and vesting room were constructed for the Sunday school in 1880.  Clarkson’s ecumenical efforts can also be seen in his reaching out to the poor of the village regardless of their denomination.

The first true crisis came when Clarkson’s health failed.   He became ill in l904 and remained at his home in New York City except for Christmas of l905 when he returned for the Sunday School Christmas Festival .  He resigned in l906 and died in l907.  During his long illness from l904 to l907 the church remained locked and the congregation dispersed. In l907 the church was reopened with 103 families and 70 communicants.  

Significantly the parish as a whole took responsibility for the finances of the church.  

This promising new beginning caused the parish to undertake the building of a rectory on the church property in 1909.  By 1911, however, the number of communicants was down to 44 and the vestry had to apply to the Diocese for assistance.   St. Augustine’s continued as an aided parish until l923 when with l6l communicants it attained independent parish status for a short period of time. Then in l926 there was a downturn in church collections, the number of communicants dropped and the church again became an aided parish for the next 24 years.

There were hard times as well as good ones during these years.  They reflected the uncertainty following Clarkson’s death, the ups and downs of the economy, the change from a community Sunday school to a more traditional denominational one, changes in the size and character of the general population, and perhaps most importantly the division over whether the church should be a high or low church.  

The village increased in population as the New Croton Dam, the brickyards and the railroad employed an increasing number of people.  Gradually the commuting population increased as well.  This population was increasingly diverse in its religious affiliation. Mr. Clarkson had been a low churchman.  Following his tenure there were a several priests, notably Father Stewart (1911 to 1927), who moved the church sharply in a high church direction or towards Anglo Catholicism. 

This was resented by many and was only gradually accepted. Although St. Augustine’s was firmly established as a high church by the end of Father Stewart’s ministry, the grumbling did not finally end until Father Armfield’s ministry in the l960’s.  The controversy was serious enough that in the climate of the Red Scare following World War I, the local Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the hill across the Post Road from the church in condemnation of the “papish service of the Episcopal Church”.

 Under Father Stewart a number of physical changes in the church were made that reflected its High Church orientation. In l921 he established the Chapel of the Virgin Mary in the small vesting room.  Despite controversy it continued to exist for 26 years.  Then in l926 a major renovation of the chancel and sanctuary was undertaken.  The window behind the altar was covered and replaced with a reredos (an artistic decoration behind the altar in a church, e.g. a wood or stone screen or a wall-hanging), a rood beam was installed, the altar rail area was raised, and another raised platform was built to accommodate a new altar.  A sanctuary lamp, sanctus bell, altar cross, and six eucharistic candles were added as well as stations of the cross.  

A measure of how the controversy over churchmanship has become an issue of the past can be seen in the current renovation of the church.   The only arguments that have been heard over restoring the church to its earlier appearance have been over aesthetics. 

The worst financial crisis in the history of the parish came with the advent of the Great Depression.  The diocese assigned the congregation to Father Young (1927-1941) who was very well liked but operated under severe handicaps.  He came only from Thursday to Sunday and had also to care for the Church of Divine Love in Montrose.  He was not provided with a car so it was difficult for him to participate in evangelical and pastoral tasks. He did not attend vestry meetings, which took place on days when he was not present.  He was often ill and absent for long periods of time.   

Pleas to the diocese for help were unavailing as the diocese had its own financial problems. Under these conditions the continuation of the church fell on the shoulders of the vestry, the women’s organizations, and the congregation as a whole.  They undertook much of the pastoral work of the parish and then worked endlessly to raise money.  By 1934 there was a deficit of $800 and by 1936 attendance had fallen to 25 per Sunday with an average weekly income from pledges of $7.  

Heating the church was a particularly difficult problem. Parishioners picked up coal dropped on the railroad track by passing tenders and this was used to heat the church. The boiler cracked, the rectory heating system failed, a tree fell across the roof and finally in the winters of l935 and l936 the water was drained from the heating system in the church and services were held around a stove in the parish hall. When the church could not pay Father Young’s $900 per year salary, he indicated that he would continue to serve no matter how much was paid to him.  

By 1939 the discouraged vestry met and discussed the possibility of closing the church for a few months  “since we could no longer support ourselves financially and the people themselves were losing interest and leaving the church.” The senior warden and two vestrymen resigned, emphasizing the hopelessness of the situation.  By this time the church was only taking in $470 a year and $500 from the rental of the rectory.  The remaining vestrymen undertook to contribute to the payment of the diocesan assessment and the arrears.    

Interestingly, despite the terrible financial conditions in 1939 the Junior Guild made contributions to the Mission School in Hawaii, a gift to Sunshine Cottage at Grasslands Hospital, sent a Christmas box to the Negro Mission School in North Carolina and knitted socks and other garments for the American Legion Auxiliary and the Croton Red Cross.  The church continued to send Christmas boxes and missionary boxes to missions in South Dakota, Minnesota, Arizona, Utah and Alaska as will as attending to the needs of the poor in Croton. 

When Father Young died in l941 the bishop accepted the offer of Father Leeming, rector of St. Peter’s Peekskill and headmaster of St. Peter’s school, to act as priest in Croton and Montrose until the diocese could find a replacement.   He was a dynamic individual who would not countenance a defeatist attitude.  He set the church on the road to recovery, helped no doubt by the improvement in the economy .  The diocese appointed two men for short rectorships during the war years, Father Wilson and Father Weeman.    

After World War II St. Augustine’s was assigned a remarkable young priest named Gerardus Beekman. He served from 1947-l952.  He was highly intellectual, yet easy going and friendly, extremely hard working (he visited 50 to 60 parishioners a month), popular throughout the village, and a good administrator. 

Father Beekman held regular meetings with the Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic clergy and for a while helped the Jewish Congregation when they were without a rabbi. It was the genesis of an ecumenical association in Croton.  His ministry came during the McCarthy era and he exercised a calming influence on the community during the Robeson riots in Peekskill.  He also managed for a while to stifle the high church-low church controversy  within the church.          

Two of the greatest challenges that he faced were the restoration of the buildings that were in a drastic state of disrepair, and the need to become a self supporting parish again.  He was successful in solving both problems.  The number of parishioners increased dramatically. 125 person attended Sunday services (three services had to be held on Sundays), and the treasurer’s reports showed a rise in collections from $4,124 in l948 to $7,247 in l952.  

Many people from all denominations in the village were attracted to the church by Father Beekman’s preaching. Parish activities increased apace as did missionary outreach.  The congregation that thrived under his leadership finally saw him leave to become the assistant at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Paris, France. He was relieved to receive the assignment because he felt at the end of his tenure that too many people were coming to church because of him; a cult of personality was developing.  When he died in l975, Father Beekman’s ashes were brought back to Croton and a window in the church was dedicated to his memory.

The next priest, the Reverend Samuel Elliott, served from l953 to l958. Father Elliott was also very successful until his ministry ended in tragedy.  The church continued to grow until there were l65 attending Sunday services.  His particular interest in young people was reflected in the growth of the Sunday school to the point that two sessions were held on Sunday and a summer program was started. During his tenure the church celebrated its 100th anniversary and 26 children were confirmed that year. A young people’s group was started that included members and non-members of the church, as well as a junior auxiliary of the Altar Guild for young girls and a Boy Scout troop. The June Festival was successfully inaugurated and has become the longest running event of its kind in the village.  

Father Elliott was very much liked so that when at the urging of Bishop Boynton, he submitted his resignation for reasons of ill health, the church was deeply divided.  106 members of the congregation, a majority, sent a petition to the Bishop asking for Father Elliott‘s return as rector but it was not to be.  He was suffering from alcoholism at a time when it was not accepted as a disease and there was no help available through the church.  In time Father Elliott’s alcoholism would lead him to his most important ministry.  He eventually recovered and joined with other alcoholic priests in forming the much-respected Recovered Alcoholic Clergy Association. which is  devoted  to providing assistance to alcoholic priests and their families.

Father John Armfield arrived in 1958. His first task was to heal the parish after the turmoil caused by the resignation of Father Elliott.  Many were very bitter over the manner in which the Elliott affair had been handled. Father Armfield was quick to give him credit for the good work that he had done before his illness, and then got the church moving again in his affable, friendly, but dignified way.  He restored the church’s standing in the community with his active participation in ecumenical affairs, and his participation in village organizations.

Although he was a thoroughgoing Anglo Catholic himself, Father Armfield provided alternative services for those who were not comfortable with this tradition and it was during his ministry that the issue of high versus low church died down.  In the same practical way he dealt with the divisive issue of Vietnam.  A big supporter of the war he never mentioned politics from the pulpit.  Like Father Elliott he especially related to children and he continued the work begun with the choirs, Church school, and acolytes. 

Father Armfield acted as Sunday school superintendent and under his direction the Sunday school grew to 90 students and 14 teachers.  The overcrowding was so severe that it was decided to purchase a new rectory a block away at the end of Van Wyck Street and turn the old one into a church school.  The culmination of his ministry was a capital campaign that raised the entire amount needed to purchase the rectory,$30,000,. in three years.   Parish activities flourished in every way during his tenure. After 11 year, in 1969, the Bishop asked him to take over another troubled Parish in Ellenville, NY.

Father Donald Hastings came in 1969.  His arrival unfortunately coincided with the death of the most prominent lay leader, Fritz Dashiell, a man who served the church in every possible capacity including personally balancing the budgets of the l950s and l960s. With his death the church again became an aided parish for 5 years.  It was a time of decline in mainline church membership generally so by the end of Father Hastings tenure the number of communicants was reduced to 104 and there were only 30 children in the Sunday school.  

On the more positive side, many of the changes taking place in the church were well received. The new Prayer Book was accepted without difficulty, girls became acolytes, and women were elected to the vestry and as wardens for the first time.  Money was found for essential repairs.

Father David Wayne succeeded Father Hastings in l976 and stayed until his retirement in l992. During his long ministry the church remained about the same size and was often worried by finances, but it thrived as an active engaged community.  He was much loved both in the congregation and in the village for his kindness, humor, and spirituality.  Under his leadership there was a considerable increase in outreach of all sorts.   

Father Wayne started a ministry to the deaf community in Westchester with signed services, helped found the Croton Housing Network for affordable housing as well as the Clergy Council and the Croton Caring Committee, promoted ecumenical study groups with each of the religious communities in the village at one time or another, and was an instigator of services commemorating Martin Luther King and the Holocaust.   Two new AA group were also started and the parish supplied meals four weekends a year to the group home at Grasslands for people suffering from AIDS.  

As a way of keeping parishioners informed and engaging them in social issues, it became a tradition to devote the coffee hour following the 10 o’clock service from time to time to outside speakers.  During Father Wayne’s ministry a columbarium ( a chamber or wall in which urns containing the ashes of the dead are stored) was created in a garden, called the St. Francis Garden, behind the church.  A blessing of the animals in honor of St Francis became a regular event each fall.  

Father Wayne is remembered particularly for his interest in music although the choir was not very large. He played the violin for all occasions including theater productions at the High School, encouraged young musicians to play at services, and taught the congregation to better read music and vastly increase its repertoire of hymns.  The organist, Memrie Kelly wrote a St. Augustine’s mass that has been used regularly for services ever since 

At the end of Father Wayne’s tenure church income was not growing enough to keep the plant in repair. Despite great efforts, the number of parishioners was not growing either so there seemed little reason to expect an improvement in the financial situation. Some of the problem reflected the vagaries of the economy and some the further decline of mainline churches.  

Anticipating his retirement, the vestry considered various retrenchments such as a shared ministry with neighboring parishes, a part time ministry, the sale of the rectory on Van Wyck Street, either the return of the Sunday School building to rectory use or a housing allowance for the new rector.  They even considered selling the old rectory as well and consolidating all parish functions in the parish hall by constructing of a second floor in the parish hall that could be used for offices and Sunday school.  

In the end it was decided to sell the rectory on Van Wyck Street, to use the money from the sale for repairs and an increase in the endowment, and to rent the newly renovated upstairs of the Sunday school building as office space. The vestry would seek a half time priest and offer a housing allowance 

The year long search for a replacement was arduous without an interim, but a good deal of the structural repairs and refurbishing were completed by the parishioners.  Finally Father Paul Cochran was chosen to serve part time. The choice proved an unfortunate mismatch, so much so that Sunday attendance fell to 25 persons, and a number of families left the parish.  After a year his contract was not renewed.

At this point Father David Gordon, the diocesan stewardship officer just beginning his retirement, offered his services to the church as a part time interim priest. Much like Father Leeming in l941, he was convinced that the church had the potential of being a full time parish, attractive to any ministerial candidate.  He had served as an adviser and supply priest the year before Father Cochran came, so knew the congregation well.  He returned to reorganize the vestry, direct the completion of the renovations, train a new cadre of acolytes, prepare a class for confirmation, and perform pastoral duties that had been let slide. The recovery required hard work on the part of the entire congregation but within a year St. Augustine’s became a bustling self-confident church, ready to call a full time minister.

Father David Carlson, the most recent rector, served from l996 to 2005.  By any standard it was a very successful ministry. He proved to be a charismatic leader.  Membership in the parish soared, so much that an additional service was added at 5 o’clock on Saturday.   Pledges increased dramatically. Initially the diocese was dubious about the future of St. Augustine’s so only allowed Father Carlson to be called as a priest in charge.  

After a year the diocese was persuaded of the church’s viability and Father Carlson’s status was changed to rector.  There was money to do many of the things that had only been dreamed of previously. More renovations were undertaken that tended to return the church to its earlier appearance, and a new rectory was purchased when the housing allowance provision for the rector proved unworkable. 

The finances of the church improved so dramatically that for the first time in many years it was no longer necessary to rent out church space to outside groups and the buildings were available for church activities  full time.  The floor of the Parish Hall was relayed with a maze copied from Chartres Cathedral in France .  This was a centerpiece of the Center for Spiritual Growth.  The position of assistant priest was created to help with services on Sundays and was ably filled by Barrie Bates, Charles Beaton,  and finally Betsy Roadman who continued as interim priest until July of 2006.

Membership in the Sunday school increased to 70 students and a youth group was restarted. The group went on a regular trip to Salem, Massachusetts at Halloween, and took a trip to England to explore its Anglican roots.  They also raised money for a number of social outreach projects.  Another trip taken in conjunction with Temple Israel allowed members of the congregation to go on a pilgrimage to Israel. A tie was established with the South African Diocese of Mantlosane when Bishop  David Nkwe visited the church, and the church gave him some financial support. 

The parish also reached out to the Jewish and Moslem communities in northern Westchester by helping found the Walking Together Program for 4thto 7thgraders and their parents. A thrift shop called Deja Vue was started, first in the basement and then on the first floor of the Sunday school building, to raise money for outreach and provide clothing directly to clients of the Croton Food Bank.   A tradition of serving a meal to the Caring Committee once a year was also begun as well as keeping the food pantry supplied with soup.

A group of mostly older parishioners who were in the village during the day began to meet regularly on the first Wednesday of the month to worship, take trips, hold discussions, and enjoy fellowship.  Quiet days in Advent and Lent were well attended and house Eucharists in Lent became a new tradition.  Other social and fund raising events that were institutionalized under Father Carlson included a winter auction and an Octoberfest, The largest social event of his ministry was the celebration of the 150thanniversary of the parish

The new parishioners are young and vigorous.   Although they have moved quickly into positions of lay leadership, many have come from other denominations so are unfamiliar with the institutional history of the Episcopal Church and the history of this church in particular. Older members of the congregation find this both refreshing and occasionally disturbing.  Many of the old issues like high versus low church orientation, and many of the old financial problems are no longer relevant, but new issues of inclusiveness and governance style have come with rapid growth.  If the past is prologue, this congregation will work them out.  

There are a number of themes that run through this history.  One is surely the grit and determination of the congregation in the face of difficult challenges. This is a congregation that has faced terrible times financially and possible extinction as a congregation on several occasions, but there have always been people who were willing to work hard and keep the congregation going.  A second is the willingness to embrace change.  The church has responded positively to the need to rethink its organizational assumptions, to changes in the prayer book, to the changing role of women in the church, and to changing ideas about sexuality. 

A third is a commitment to ecumenicalism.   St. Augustine’s has been in the forefront of interfaith activities in the village since its inception.  Closely allied to these characteristics are other historic hallmarks of this church: inclusiveness, joyful fellowship, concern for children, and a desire to play a role in the larger world through various forms of outreach.  Finally, although it has not been mentioned in this brief history, the congregation has expressed itself by the effort it has put into beautifying the church buildings and grounds, the care it has devoted to its formal worship, and concern for its musical heritage.