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Utopian Christian community

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How a utopian Christian community started an elder care center

William Augustus Muhlenberg, c. 1860. Photo from the Smithtown Historical Society

By Marianne Howard

Kings Park was once home to the Society of St. Johnland, a utopian Christian community founded in 1865. It was once described by authors Bradley L. Harris and King Pedlar as a “forgotten utopia,” founded as a safe haven, orphanage and school for impoverished boys from Manhattan and Brooklyn. William Augustus Muhlenberg, (1796-1877) a Philadelphia native, ordained an Episcopalian priest in the 1820s, found himself with international accolades after founding St. Paul’s, a private college near Flushing, Queens.

He began to think about creating a refuge for members of the Protestant working-class poor and thus purchased 500 acres of woodland in 1866 for $14,000, which grew into a campus built a stone’s throw from the picturesque mouth of the Nissequogue River to the Long Island Sound. It included a camp, an additional home for girls, an infirmary, a baby shelter and a living facility for seniors. Patients, their families and employees from the campus as well as nearby hospitals were excellent customers for the abundance of farmers in the area at that time. The Long Island Sound became such a draw for the families and children, providing beach access for summer education through the late 1940s.

Notable New York society philanthropists contributed to the growth of St. Johnland. Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt paid for the Sunbeam Cottage, built in 1881 for the educational training of orphan girls. The cottage had a sitting room, a playroom, dining room, kitchen and dormitory space for 20 girls. The babies’ shelter, known as the Lawrence House, provided care for children ages 2 through 8, was established the following year.

In 1911, Alice Page Thomson became superintendent and arranged for 150 impoverished boys from Manhattan and Brooklyn to travel to the beaches of St. Johnland. She spent 35 years in the position. Under her leadership, the construction of the Robert Louis Harrison Infirmary opened in 1913. She also created the Women’s Auxiliary for St. Johnland in 1915, a group of women who provided philanthropic and physical support to the residents. During World War I, St. Johnland contributed not only its alumni who entered the service but also increased crop production for over 200 people throughout the war.

During the 1950s, the trustees of St. Johnland had to decide upon which community they would focus their resources — children or the elderly, and the board voted to specialize in care for the elderly population. In 2016, St. Johnland celebrated its 150th anniversary and it is now a premiere nursing home with specialties in dementia care, adult day health care and rehabilitation services.

Bradley L. Harris, Town of Smithtown historian, Joshua Ruff, consulting curator for the Smithtown Historical Society, and I were invited by Arcadia Publishing to author a book on the history of Kings Park in 2015. The book, “Kings Park,” was published last month and is for sale at the Smithtown Historical Society.

Marianne Howard is the executive director of the Smithtown Historical Society. For more information on the society, its events or programs or on becoming a member, visit www.smithtownhistorical.org or call 631-265-6768.