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Oldest church building in Smithtown makes national registry

The Hauppauge Methodist Episcopal Church, seen on Sept.

The Hauppauge Methodist Episcopal Church, seen on Sept. 1, includes a cemetery that dates back to the early 1800s.  Credit: Johnny Milano

The Hauppauge Methodist Episcopal Church, a spiritual home for Long Islanders since its 19th century founding and the oldest church building in Smithtown, has been named to the National Register of Historic Places. 

“The center of Hauppauge is that church — it’s not the county buildings that went up,” said Corey Geske, a historian who helped prepare the church’s application for the register with Jennifer Betsworth, a historic preservation specialist at the New York State Historic Preservation Office.

Listing puts no restrictions on the Townline Road property but makes it eligible for some state and federal grants. It is also a sign of commitment to preservation in a community where “there has been so much redevelopment” that many other traces of the lives of early residents have vanished, Geske said. Those include the farms and estates of descendants of Smithtown’s founding family, some of whom helped build the church in 1806. Suffolk County offices and the police department’s Fourth Precinct occupy the former estate of Ebenezer Smith, and Joshua B. Smith’s land was long ago subdivided for new homes, Geske said.

The church’s first parishioners had names like Wheeler and Blydenburgh, according to archival materials in the Smithtown Library's Long Island room. They built a simple meeting house with rough boards for pews and separate entrances for men and women, who sat separately for the church's first 50 years, men to the west and women to the east. The church was unheated, save for the charcoal foot stoves women used in winter. One parishioner donated timber to help pay for construction. Others gathered to help cut it but not everyone shared their religiosity: one young man, “finding that they had no rum … left without doing anything,” according to an account in Geske’s research. 

By 1833, Hauppauge was the main stop on a Suffolk circuit of nine churches that shared preachers. The Methodist faith had added followers, but a roster of parishioners Geske bought on eBay last January — containing hundreds of names “in that spidery handwriting from the old days,” Geske said — suggests that many were still kin.

Later, parishioners added a steeple, a piece of stained glass, a whole new building for Sunday school. "The primitive tastes of its founders have disappeared in the soul's quest for the beautiful," Simeon Wood wrote in his 1920 "History of Hauppauge" in the Long Island Room. A modern historian's take was less wistful: “Architecturally, you can see all of those layers as the congregation and community grow,” Betsworth said. “You can see these as means of community and also ways of presenting themselves as a congregation.”   

A cemetery next to the church is the final resting place for military veterans from the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War; others buried there include Hauppauge’s firefighters and teachers and the artist Alexander Milne. New burials are still accepted. 

The church congregation grew to 300 in the 1960s but shrank as parishioners moved away and other Protestant churches were established nearby. It now has about 50 members, said Nancy Wanamaker, 82, a trustee of both the church and the cemetery. Wanamaker said the church was one of five in the area slated to be closed or consolidated by the United Methodist Church leadership. She hoped register listing would mean they “can’t just take the building and make it into a pizza parlor.” Officials from the United Methodist Church’s Long Island East District did not comment.

For Wanamaker, some church history is personal. Wanamaker was baptized, confirmed and married there. Her mother, a teacher in Hauppauge’s one-room schoolhouse, and her father, a gamekeeper at Whippoorwill Farm in Hauppauge were parishioners. Her sister wrote the newsletter before her death last December and her grandson did an Eagle Scout project identifying veterans' graves in the cemetery four years ago.

She is proud of traditions like the interfaith Thanksgiving night service her preacher helped start 40 years ago, which still rotates each year to a different congregation in town. She is proud, too, of the piano lessons she taught to children in Hauppauge’s sister church in Central Islip, whose parishioners are mostly younger than Hauppauge’s. She had 50 students, some of whom went on to achieve advanced ratings from New York State School Music Association. “It was the best thing I ever did for myself in my life,” she said.

Back in the day

"The wearing of flowers, ribbons and feathers by the women was not encouraged … The men wore wide stiff stocks around their collar … These with the shad bellied coat and broad brim hat made up the costume of the orthodox Methodist brother of a century ago."

Source: "One Hundred Years of Methodism at Hauppauge, L.I." Pub. 1906

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