By Jill Webb
St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church’s first meeting was held on Dec. 13, 1917, marking its 100th anniversary this upcoming December. During the church’s first meeting, as the then-called The English Lutheran church of Port Jefferson Station, the Rev. Pallmeyer and his associates decided that services would be held at the Grange Hall on Route 112 and Union Street. Back then, the hall’s rent was only $10 per month.
The church has faced hardships over the past century. During the Depression, the church found difficulty in acquiring a full-time pastor along with acquiring guest pastors. This forced the church to close its doors for a year before reopening as the renamed St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, now at 309 Patchogue Road (Route 112), Port Jefferson Station.
Currently the church has approximately 150 members. “We are small but mighty,” said the president of the church council, Betsy Prosser. John Reiersen, the chairman of the 100th anniversary committee, emphasizes the welcoming atmosphere at the church over the 45 years he’s been a member. “We’re known as the friendly church on top of the hill,” he said.
Pastor Paul Downing, who has been with the church for four years, said the church has lasted so long due to the commitment of the members. “They’re committed not only to coming together to have a worship home, but also to serve the community,” Downing said.
One of the ways St. Paul’s serves the community is through feeding the hungry. The church does a soup kitchen twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays, feeding around 40 to 60 people each time. They do these soup kitchens through the Welcome Friends organization, which is an interfaith not-for-profit corporation serving the Port Jefferson area. Through Welcome Friends, each day of the week a different place of worship hosts the soup kitchen. “People have a place to go each and everyday to get a good meal,” Downing said. Their devotion to the community can be attributed to their motto “God’s work, our hands,” Prosser said, adding, “and sometimes our feet.”
In an obvious contrast to the busy road it resides on today, the area around St. Paul’s used to be very rural, causing the church to stand out. According to John Sehlmeyer, the vice president of the council, the church became a hub to the area’s residents. “Everything that happened here — whether somebody had a baby, somebody got married or somebody visited from out of town — it made the newspapers,” Sehlmeyer said. “All of the community always came and attended these events.”
A struggle St. Paul’s has been trying to overcome is the decline in millennial church attendance. They are constantly putting forth initiatives, including an outreach to Stony Brook University to promote how close the church is to the railroad station. “We’re hoping to see some kind of a rebirth where people start valuing attendance,” Reiersen said. He sees a potential rise in attendance with Generation Z.
Downing sees raising the attendance as more of a challenge than a struggle. “It’s just like when the church started, when you have this curiosity and this message of hope that Christ brings to the world that we are part of,” Downing said. “That’s exciting to be able to share that.”
Noting the division in politics, Downing strives to bridge the gap of differences with his faith. While he realizes that ethnically the Port Jefferson area has little diversity, he has noticed there are clear divisions in points of view, talents and gifts. Growing up in a congregation in Queens, “diversity was obvious and plentiful,” Downing said. “This congregation has taught me that diversity takes a lot of forms.”
As their 100th anniversary nears, the congregation has a lot planned for the celebration. “We got a theme during the year for the 100th year anniversary: ‘Let’s not look 100 years old,’” Sehlmeyer said. “We’ve done an awful lot in terms of upgrading the church to make it’s appearance nice.”
Downing is also incorporating what he calls “flashback services” into Sunday Worship. Working their way back to 1917, each Sunday the service will be based on what is was like 10 years prior. “We just did 1967 so we used the hymnal liturgy from that time with all the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and the older version of the scripture,” Downing said. Going along with the decade theme, there have been film screenings every few weeks in which a popular film is screened from that decade at the church. In August, they will end with a screening of “WALL-E.”
In September, they have a weekend planned to celebrate the past 100 years, in which all current and past members are invited. It will start with a wine and cheese reception on Friday, Sept. 22. On the Saturday, they will attend a dinner dance at the Polish Hall in Port Jefferson Station and will finish up the festivities with a special 100th anniversary worship service on the Sunday, with Bishop Robert Rimbo officiating. Rimbo is the bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “It’s a pretty action-packed weekend,” Reiersen said.
The longevity of the church can be accredited to the member’s dedication to it’s mission: Bringing the word of God to both the churched and the un-churched. “The thing you got to avoid is controversy, because in any organization there are troublemakers. You just kind of have to have a leadership that can recognize that, and remember what the mission is,” Reiersen said. “It’s a rule for any organization: Don’t sweat the small stuff and stick to going after the mission.”