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New leadership for group devoted to historic Smithtown church

President Kimm Schmidt, left, and past president Joan

President Kimm Schmidt, left, and past president Joan Vitale of the Landing Ladies Auxillery in front of the Smithtown Landing United Methodist Church. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Before Whisper the Bull, the grand waterfront estates or any of a dozen other fixtures of Smithtown life, there was the Smithtown Landing United Methodist Church — a place so plain and small it didn’t even have its own pastor but relied on a circuit preacher paid $350 a year by the area’s faithful.

Built in 1834 and rarely open to the public, it will host worship and a social on the lawn Sunday afternoon, an event continuing a tradition that dates to sometime after 1957.

The Methodists decamped that year for a larger, more modern building on Middle Country Road that featured running water — but they still visit the plain old wooden church at Landing Avenue and Oakside Road.

Services at the historic church, held only once or twice a year, sometimes overwhelm the narrow pews and overflow into the tiny lobby in back, with so many vehicles parked on the streets nearby that the Smithtown Public Safety Department has to direct traffic.

Sunday will also mark a milestone for the Landing Ladies Auxiliary, a secular group dating back to 1779 that oversees and partially funds upkeep for the building, which is owned by the Smithtown United Methodist Church.

For the past 18 years, Joan Vitale, 84, a retired operating room nurse, has led the auxiliary; Sunday’s service will be the first under a new president, Kimm Schmidt, 50, a therapeutic horseback riding instructor for people with special needs.

“I’m going to be 85 and all our ladies are in the same age bracket,” said Vitale, who met Schmidt at a service two years ago.

Schmidt is not a Methodist, but Vitale liked her youth and energy, and also that the newcomer had a personal connection to the place. Schmidt grew up four doors down from the church. At Christmas when she was a girl, Schmidt recalled, “There were a lot of kids in the area, and we’d all sit in the altar and get oranges and candy canes from someone dressed up as Santa. I’ve always had that memory, and every time I drove by and saw the sign we came to services.”

Vitale, an English immigrant who moved to Oakside Road in 1951, isn’t a Methodist either. Though her parents’ ashes are buried in the graveyard behind the church, she said her allegiance to the place was really to the women of the Auxiliary, who once numbered in the dozens but are now down to eight.

“What’s going to happen to the little church when we’re all gone?” Vitale recalled one of the women asking her, years ago. “ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘As long as I’m here, we’ll take care of it.’ ”

The full weight of that commitment became clear over the years. A replastering job on the walls revealed that the beams underneath had been eaten away. An oil tank had to be replaced. The church windows had to be boarded up for most of the year against vandals.

Schmidt has moved gingerly since joining the board, investigating but not committing to seeking a historical designation for the church, some of whose early members, buried in the graveyard, bore surnames familiar to Long Islanders, such as Smith, Conklin and Brush.

She and her husband have painted the place, and she hopes to ramp up fundraising for building repairs, like the roof work, toward which the Auxiliary contributed $4,500 last year.

Smithtown United Methodist Church Pastor Carole Paynter said she found preaching in the old building, which is about a third the size of her current workplace, to be an intimate experience.

“You’re much closer” to the flock, she said. “The acoustics are lovely, and visually it’s very charming.”

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