A commissioner from the Town of Hempstead Landmarks Preservation Commission has filed an application under his own name to landmark the St. Matthias Episcopal Church at 2856 Jerusalem Avenue in North Bellmore.
The church, which has straddled the communities of Bellmore and Wantagh for generations, had closed in recent years because the Episcopal Diocese had sued congregants who claimed the property was theirs rather than the property of the church, based upon specific information on a land deed.
In citing the historical significance of the building on Jerusalem Avenue between Oakfield Avenue and Pea Pond Road and its impact on the surrounding communities in the past, the application filed by Landmarks Commissioner Joshua Soren noted that the church was originally built as an African Methodist Episcopal Church around 1845 at a location farther south on Oakfield Avenue and now landmarked by the Town of Hempstead as the Old Burial Ground.
Over 60 people who lived in the loosely defined community called the “Brush” are burried in the Old Burial Ground on Oakfield Avenue, including members of the well-known “Brush” family of African American unionists known as the Jacksons.
According to Commissioner Soren, the burial ground contains the burial plots of many African Americans at least four Unionist civil war veterans of the prominent Jackson family, all African Americans. The church changed names several times, including becoming a Baptist church before reverting back to an Episcopal church and burning to the ground in the 1890s.
Commissioner Soren says Harry Cammann of Merrick provided resources to rebuild the church on Jerusalem Avenue property donated by George Williams as the St. Matthias Episcopal Church, where it once again thrived to serve a loosely defined and broadly expansive community of African Americans then known as the “Brush.”
The landmarked Lawrence Homestead on Old Mill Road and Wilson Avenue was in the community called the “Brush”
An article in the now-defunct Wantagh-Seaford Citizen newspaper claimed that Williams provided the land for the church as a tribute to Cammann’s son Fulton, who died young but was a Sunday school teacher for African-American children at the time.
Owned by the Episcopal Diocese in Garden City and now showing a “for sale” sign, Commissioner Soren remarked on the application that threats to the building at present included deterioration and land developers.
“I have thought we should have landmarked it years ago,“ Commissioner Soren told Your NewsMag. He cites three other locations within Wantagh that the town’s Landmarks Commission has landmarked that are directly related to “ Brush” community: the Old Burial Ground, the Lawrence Homestead on Wilson Avenue and Old Mill Road, home to a “free African family”; and the Harold Avenue Cemetery on Harold Avenue, which he says is another burial ground for descendants of “ Brush.”
“St. Matthias Church is a logical place to landmark” when looking at the overall historical significance of the “Brush” as an early thriving Long Island community, he said.
WHO OWNS IT
The church has been closed the last several years because of court battles over who actually owned the land and the church: the Episcopal Diocese or the congregants.
The Rev. Lawton Bryant, who served as pastor of the congregation for the last 10 years up until April 15 of this year, told Your News Mag that the diocese won the case because, while the church was deeded to the congregants – many of whom were descendants of inhabitants of the “Brush” – once it was built in 1904, when the diocese name was added to the deed “in trust” of the church it became, according to Episcopal Canon Law, owner of the property. The courts then ruled in favor of the diocese Canon Law as owner of the property, even though it was originally deeded to the congregation.
Rev. Bryant maintained that the congregants in 2008 revitalized the building and the congregation, increasing it from two to over 120 when the diocese ordered it closed, to sell the property for development, the pastor said.
Stu Weinstein, president of the North Bellmore Civic Association, said he is strongly in favor of landmarking the structure. “There are few historical structures like that left anymore, so from a historical perspective it is important to preserve what we have left.”
He added that with continued rapid development of the neighborhoods, landmarking such structures is a positive push against any unaesthetic plans.
North Bellmore resident Alison Lorch told Your NewsMag she would also like to see St. Matthias Episcopal Church landmarked “to preserve history for future generations to come.”
“This area once known as the “Brush,’” she said, “has deep roots in the Bellmore -Wantagh community and it would be a shame to knock down and replace this beautiful old historic church with perhaps another commercial establishment.” Bellmore-Wantagh has enough of those, she said.
A letter from Louise Novy [married name] – a former Forest City resident straddling the North Bellmore-Wantagh border – to Commissioner Soren spoke of the importance of the church in her early life in Forest City. In the letter, she recalls the church and the area known as the “Brush” because the buses she and her mother took stopped at Oakfield Road and Jerusalem Avenue to discharge and pick up passengers.
“Several black people rode the bus with us and one stately, elderly gentleman would always smile and tip his hat at me when boarding,” the letter says. “He always went all the way to the back of the bus, even if the front was almost empty. I recall asking my mother why. She explained that it was just his way as did not want to cause a problem,” the letter continued.
Novy said in the letter she couldn’t understand what kind of problem he could cause, and as she walked from the bus to her home her mother explained segregation to her. “After that, I always made sure to smile and say hello to that man because it hurt that he felt differently than me.”
The “Brush” community’s Jackson Family name is prominent on the list of those burried in the Old Burial Ground on Oakfield Avenue, stradding Wantagh and Belldmore, a list the Reve Lawton Bryant, last pastor of the church, placed as a service of the St. Matthias Ministries
Novy concludes in her letter that the church is “representative of how the area became a haven for those who safely lived and productively worked in our community,” and dismantling the church for commercial purposes would “dishonor those who lived and worshipped there.”
Commissioner Soren also has the support of the Bellmore Memorial Library, The Levittown Historical Society and public officials such as New York State Assemblyman Dave McDonough in landmarking the historic church.
The hearing to landmark the church property will take place on Tuesday, July 31, with the Landmarks Commission at the Old Courtroom at Old Town Hall, 350 Front Street, Hempstead, second floor, beginning at 4:30 p.m. the Rev. Bryant and members of the congregation in attendance, community leaders as well as representatives for the Episcopal Diocese of Garden City.