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How Greenburgh’s Oldest Church Community Faces Today’s World: The History and Future of the South Presbyterian Church in Greenburgh
By Riley Wentzler & Felicia Barber
At 343 Broadway, Dobbs Ferry, stands a very old church, Greenburgh’s oldest church community, in fact, as it was founded in 1823(https://www.southpres.org/about/). It was not always at this location, and for years it was known by a different name—The Little White Church. There is still a cemetery that goes by that name, yet it is no longer owned by the church, next door to its original location. The church is rooted in tradition, but not defined by it, and therefore, faces the future with hearts full of hope. This is South Presbyterian Church in Greenburgh. This article will explore the church’s profound contributions to the community and beyond in the areas of inclusivity and social justice.
A Church Is Born:
In 1820, there were no churches in Dobbs Ferry, so for several years a small group of inhabitants met in the barn behind the mansion belonging to Peter Van Brugh Livingston at the southern end of town. Sunday worship was led by a travelling preacher who was either Presbyterian or Methodist. In 1823, this little congregation, wishing to register its permanence, incorporated as the South Presbyterian Church in Greenburgh to distinguish itself from the North Presbyterian Church in Halls Corners. That same year, Martin and Rebeccah Lefurgy sold a small parcel of land located on Ashford Avenue in Dobbs Ferry to the group of Presbyterians who were looking to form a church (DiLorenzo 2019). Remarkably, the price for the land was just 35 dollars (https://www.southpres.org/about/). Two years later in 1825, the church received official recognition from the Presbytery of New York (https://www.southpres.org/about/).
At the time of its founding the congregation consisted of only six members. These six people not only wrote the first official doctrine of the church, but also physically built the church. It was made from timbers hewn out of trees cut in the swampland by the Saw Mill River, with a roof and walls covered with hand-split shingles and painted white in the manner of New England churches (https://www.southpres.org/about/). Its members gave it the nickname “The Little White Church” (Raftery 2011, p. 25).
In 1831, Peter Van Brugh Livingston, who was the presiding elder at the South Presbyterian Church, attempted to officially establish complete abstinence from alcohol as a major tenant of the church. He lost that battle and resigned (https://www.southpres.org/about/) This disagreement and the subsequent resignation of Mr. Livingston would lead to the founding of another historic church in Greenburgh, Zion Episcopal Church. For our article on that church click here (Sanctuary-of-Zion-Episcopal-Church greenburghny.com).
Moving to a New Home:
By 1864, the church congregation had grown to approximately 140 members (https://www.southpres.org/about/ ) and a proposal was put forward for a larger building to accommodate the ever-growing congregation, ideally to be located closer to the center of Dobbs Ferry. Soon thereafter, James Wilde, Jr. negotiated the purchase of the land for the church and acquired the adjoining piece of property for his own use. Plans for the new church building were drawn up by Julius Munckowitz, who later became Supervising Architect of the New York City Department of Public Parks(https://www.southpres.org/about/). The church continued to use the Ashford Avenue site until 1869 when it moved to the new location on 515 Broadway – now known at 343 Broadway (Raftery 2011, p. 25). The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 as a well-preserved example of an urban Gothic Revival church.
The original Ashford Avenue building was torn down in 1883, but the cemetery known as The Little White Church Cemetery, is still there at 43 Ashford Avenue in Dobbs Ferry. The cemetery is also on the National Register of Historic Places. To read our article on this historic cemetery click here (https://www.greenburghny.com/DocumentCenter/View/5678/There-is-no-church-here-but-the-brave-men-living-and-dead-who-struggled-here-have-consecrated-this-ground).
Growing Spiritually as Well as Physically:
One might expect the oldest church community in any given area in America to be the kind of church one thinks about when one hears the song “Give Me That Ol’ Time Religion,” in the deep melodious voice of Johnny Cash, a stalwart defender of tradition and a bastion of social conservatism. But South Presbyterian Church — known these days as South Church — isn’t that kind of church at all. It is the kind of church where one can hear music ranging from traditional Latin chants to Bach on the organ or piano, and choir songs by Bob Dylan and Stephen Sondheim to hip-hop group Arrested Development, all organized by award-winning music director, Dr. Amir Khosrowpour.
From its modest beginnings, South Presbyterian Church has often faced controversy head-on, and, through it all, love for humankind has been the guiding principle. Starting in the 1850s, the church and the congregation were some of the first in New York to support the Abolitionist Movement in the 1850s and 1860s. This trend continued as South contributed money to help Civil War reconstruction in the South and for “freedmen.”
In 1984, the church initiated the first ever “Midnight Run” (https://www.southpres.org/about/) – and began a program of enabling residents of Westchester County to travel to New York City to share food, clothing and conversation with the homeless poor. South Church was the base of operations for the Midnight Run organization through 1989 when Midnight Run was incorporated as an independent not-for-profit, which today is supported by over 250 different churches, synagogues, schools and other civic organizations (https://midnightrun.org/history). South Church continues to support Midnight Run.
South Church has also been an outspoken proponent of LGBTQ+ rights, and an early leader in rallying Presbyterian churches nationally to allow queer clergy, marriages and membership. This advocacy began with the Reverend Joseph Gilmore, who became the pastor at South Presbyterian in 1983(https://highlandscurrent.org/2020/12/21/joe-gilmore-1943-2020/). Beginning around 1990, Rev. Gilmore performed many same-sex marriages long before the General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church USA said it was permissible to do so (https://exhibits.lgbtran.org/exhibits/show/shower-of-stoles/item/856). This defiance of church law drew much criticism from members of the community and church officials alike. He almost lost his ordination (https://highlandscurrent.org/2020/12/21/joe-gilmore-1943-2020/). One openly gay former member of South Church, Ray Bagnuolo, recalls how welcoming South was for him. “He was brought up on charges for performing holy unions, faithfully resisting the homophobia of a church institution, struggling with those who would silence him while they were determined to silence us,” said Bagnuolo. “He was a brave and fiery advocate for justice, ready to accept the consequences of resistance.” By the time Gilmore retired from the church in 2013 (https://highlandscurrent.org/2020/12/21/joe-gilmore-1943-2020/), public opinion on same-sex marriage had started to shift. It is in part thanks to the advocacy of South Church that the Presbyterian Church USA has become more inclusive as far as ordination of ministers and has also become supportive of same sex marriage.
The Dobbs Ferry Food Pantry is a growing mission of South Church, now serving more than 100 households weekly. Community Nursery School, which has been operating for more than 75 years on South Church’s campus is also an integral part of the identity of this church. South Church shows its concern for the environment through an initiative called Roots & Wings, which has converted parts of the campus into a vegetable garden and pollinator garden. The program looks for ways to support sustainability--from growing food to composting, connection and community—guided by the tenets of people care, earth care and fair share. (rivertownscommunitygardens.com).
Inclusion of all is a hallmark of South Church. Their website highlights that with this statement: “We are families, singles, parents, kids, young professionals and retirees. We are artists, actors, activists, contractors, chefs, bankers, teachers, authors, journalists, musicians, social workers, lawyers, plumbers, and poets. We are queer, and immigrant, and many races and have varying physical abilities. Building on a rich history of faith-inspired social justice ministries and a longstanding commitment to making music, art, and drama an integral part of communal, spiritual life, we envision the church as a force for social change and we strive daily, with God’s help, to make that vision real in our community and beyond.” (https://www.southpres.org/about/).
South Church, located at 343 Broadway, Dobbs Ferry, has evolved from a small conservative church with only six members into an inclusive community treasure which faces the future with hearts full of hope. Learn more at southpres.org or stop by any Sunday at 343 Broadway, Dobbs Ferry. All are welcome!
Previous Slices of History include:
About the Authors:
We are both Town Historians at Greenburgh Town Hall and we are engaged to be married and are currently looking for permanent employment.
I was born and raised in a small rural town in central Pennsylvania. In high school, I took every honors course available including four years of Spanish. I received A’s in all of them. I graduated third in my class of 146 students. This brought me to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Once there, I continued my trend of academic excellence. I graduated summa cum laude in Political Science with a minor in Spanish and a Master’s in Communication Studies, with a G.P.A of 3.94. It was also there that I met my lovely fiancée, Felicia Barber. My Master’s in Communication has promoted public speaking, teamwork, and customer service. My Political Science degree has developed my research skills using computer-based tools and provided me with experience using the Microsoft Office products. My minor in Spanish has facilitated my bilingual capabilities. During my internship at Greenburgh, I created the petition for the State Roads project using website tools. My diverse education and areas of interest have provided me with a wide range of skills. I look forward to finding a career opportunity in business or government. To suggest a topic for next week’s article, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or to help me find employment, you can contact me at email@example.com.
I was born in New York City and raised in Hartsdale, New York. I graduated from Ardsley High School. I recently earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Graphic Design at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. It was here that I met my fiancé, Riley Wentzler. As a result of my academic excellence, I won a scholarship every year. I learned and applied many graphic design skills to projects during my summer internships and at school. I am proficient in using Adobe graphic design applications including Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. For my Identity/branding course at Edinboro, I created logos to appear on the tee-shirts of Physical Education majors. For a veteran’s upcoming event, I used a typeface to focus the reader to the soldier in the poster. For the State Roads Legislative Campaign project, I created the embedded graphic-photo that accompanied the petition I am looking for a job to utilize my skills as a Graphic Designer in an agency, print shop, company or government To suggest a topic for next week’s article, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about my artwork or to help me find employment you can contact me at email@example.com.
Two Interviews with the authors:
Clinton Funeral Home. (2020, December 21). Obituary of Rev. Joseph Gilmore (1943-2020). The Highlands Current, Retrieved from. https://highlandscurrent.org/2020/12/21/joe-gilmore-1943-2020/
DiLorenzo, K. (2019, March 15). Historians Bring Cemetery's Past to Light.The Enterprise, p. 6&21.
MIDNIGHT RUN. ((NOT GIVEN), (NOT GIVEN) (NOT GIVEN)). Our History. Retrieved from midnightrun.org: https://midnightrun.org/history
Raftery, P. (2011). The Cemeteries of Westchester County. Elmsford, NY: Westchester County Historical Society.
Sanzo, S. (1983). A History of Zion Episcopal on the Occasion of its 150th Anniversary. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Unknown.
Solidarity Stole (South Presbyterian),” LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed February 14, 2023, https://exhibits.lgbtran.org/items/show/856
South Presbyterian Church. ((NOT GIVEN), (NOT GIVEN) (NOT GIVEN)). Our Identity. Retrieved from southpres.org: https://www.southpres.org/about/
South Presbyterian Church. ((NOT GIVEN), (NOT GIVEN) (NOT GIVEN)). Roots& Wings Garden Visits. Retrieved from River Towns Community Gardens: http://www.rivertownscommunitygardens.com/
South Presbyterian Church. ((NOT GIVEN), (NOT GIVEN) (NOT GIVEN)). History. Retrieved from southpres.org: https://www.southpres.org/about/
South Presbyterian Church. ((NOT GIVEN), (NOT GIVEN) (NOT GIVEN)). Our Story. Retrieved from southpres.org: https://www.southpres.org/about/