Monastery's bid to build church in Head of the Harbor meets resistance
Russian Orthodox monks in Head of the Harbor propose a church for their North Country Road property, but neighbors and preservationists said it would erode the area’s historic character.
The Monastery of the Glorious Ascension, also known as Monastery of St. Dionysios, owns and occupies the 1800-era Timothy House, once inhabited by a descendant of town founder Richard "Bull" Smith on 4.6 acres in the St. James Historic District. The house, in the rear of the property, would remain, but plans call for a 3,341-square-foot church with a 47.5-foot steeple and wraparound porch near the property’s center. The monastery is an institution of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, according to its website.
Joseph Buzzell, the Melville lawyer handling the monastery's application, said construction of a church would ensure the monks stay on as stewards of the house, keeping up the grounds and opening them to the public.
Revised plans to be submitted to the village would place the church more than 200 feet from the road, Buzzell said. The church would hold up to 97 occupants with 51 parking spaces.
Village trustees scheduled a March 16 hearing for a special use permit for the application, though Buzzell said he would ask for a postponement.
Jeffere Van Liew, who grew up in Timothy House and is the son of its former owner, the historian Barbara Van Liew, said the plans were prohibited by a 1997 deed his mother signed that was intended to preserve the site and its open space. "Their belief is that because they’re a religious organization, they can blow through all these restrictions," he said.
The monastery's abbot did not respond to requests for comment. A person who answered the phone at the Manhattan office of the Church Outside of Russia did not answer questions.
Sarah Kautz, preservation director of Preservation Long Island, said even if construction leaves the house untouched, it could radically alter the site. "Preservation isn’t interested in buildings in isolation — it’s about the surrounding landscape, the relationship spatially" with nearby buildings and roads. "You don’t have to demolish something to have an irreversible impact."
Buzzell said the deed's language was vague and unenforceable. And for all its historic value, the site has evolved, he said, with previous inhabitants moving the house away from the road about a century ago.
The monks have no connection to the Russian government and include Long Island natives, Buzzell said. A 2020 post on the monastery website said eight resident monks and one novice needed more space for public religious services. On Sundays and feast days, a small chapel is "packed with parishioners and local pilgrims," with some "compelled to pray outside or in the adjoining hallway."
In October, the village Planning Board recommended denial of the permit, citing its likely "significant adverse impacts" to the site, along with traffic and parking concerns.
Mayor Douglas Dahlgard said trustees would be guided only by local zoning laws. He said the monks had been good neighbors, whose chief pursuits appeared to be Scripture study and candle making.
"They live quietly," he said.