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Congregation seeks historic designation to block sale of church

St. Matthias Episcopal Church on Jerusalem Avenue in

St. Matthias Episcopal Church on Jerusalem Avenue in Wantagh has been vacant since April. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

A congregation that wants to preserve a 114-year-old Wantagh church is awaiting a Hempstead Town Board vote to designate it as a historical landmark to protect it from demolition or future development, members say.

The Hempstead Landmark Preservation Commission voted last month to recommend the town board give protections to St. Matthias Episcopal Church on Jerusalem Avenue.  Commissioner Joshua Soren, who filed the application for landmark status, abstained from the vote.

The church's congregation was evicted in April following a court ruling that gave land rights to the Episcopal Diocese, which is seeking to sell the property at Jerusalem and Oakfield avenues. 

The town board has not scheduled a vote, but the designation could create roadblocks for the diocese’s plans to sell the property to developers. The 120-member congregation relocated to Amityville in April, and the church has remained vacant.

“It at least protects the church from being demolished,” St. Matthias pastor Lawton Bryant said.     

Episcopal officials and congregants had been locked in a decadelong legal battle for possession of the 1.2-acre plot, which is one of the last undeveloped plots of land at Jerusalem and Oakfield.

Nassau County Supreme Court ruled in favor of the diocese in 2017 and affirmed by the Appellate Court this year.

Diocese officials have argued the church was down to three members and declared it closed until Bryant revived it as a member outside the Episcopal clergy. The diocese has said they would use proceeds of a land sale toward the Episcopal ministry in the North Bellmore area.

Diocese officials say they oppose landmark status for the church.

"I believe that St. Matthias is not historically significant enough to be granted landmark status," Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano said. “I am concerned that landmarking the building would significantly lessen the value of the property and result in less money for ministry in the area.”

The church was built in 1904 by Native Americans and African Americans after congregants said the land was given to them to build a house of worship because their previous church on Oakfield Avenue — where a cemetery is now located — was destroyed in a fire that was accidentally set, Bryant said.

The ministry at the new church was later adopted by the Episcopal Diocese out of concern for violence by the Ku Klux Klan, Bryant said.

Hempstead historians and landmark members said the church should be protected. If designated by the town board, any exterior changes would have to be approved by the landmark commission and interior changes would be subject to the town building department's discretion. 

“The fact that it stood there for 114 years is amazing and is in as good a shape as it is,” Hempstead Town historian and commission member Tom Saltzman said. “It held a viable congregation up until April, and I think physically, historically and religiously, it has woven itself into the fabric of the Wantagh and Bellmore area for 114 years.”

The commission based its decision on the structure's historical significance, which members cited as a rare example of a shingle-style building from the turn of the century.

“The building was the only thing that was important. Whether it is preserved as a church has no consequence,” Saltzman said. “Our only concern is this edifice has stood the test of time.”

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