The first Episcopal worship service in Rhinebeck was held on February 13, 1831. The Rev. Samuel R. Johnson, rector of St. James’, Hyde Park, traveled to Rhinebeck to conduct the service. He encouraged the few local Episcopalians to meet regularly for public worship.
During the next twenty years, services were held on one or two Sunday afternoons each month, except during the winter months. Services were usually held in space provided in the Baker Building (the site of the present Village Hall), and later in the Baptist chapel (the site of the present Terrapin restaurant). The Rev. Johnson and his successors of St. James’ Church conducted these afternoon services for a growing congregation.
On August 8, 1852, the Church of the Messiah was organized and incorporated. The Rev. Richard S. Adams was chosen to be the first rector of the Church of the Messiah. He had been an assistant rector at St. James’ Church of Hyde Park. A site at the corner of East Market and Mulberry Streets was donated by Rutsen Suckley for a church building. The Vestry chose George Veitch, architect, to plan and construct the new building. The cornerstone was laid on September 16, 1852, and the structure was completed and occupied the following year.
At the Vestry meeting on June 8, 1854, pew rents were set at $20, $15, $10 and $8 per year, depending on the pew location. The church was consecrated on October 6, 1855 by the Rt. Rev. Horatio Potter, Provisional Bishop of the Diocese of New York. The text for his sermon was Psalms 96: 7-9:
“Give unto the Lord, O ye kindreds of the people, give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come into his courts. O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.”
The church was renovated in 1879 when the wooden structure was painted inside and out, and gas lighting fixtures were installed. On June 29, 1857, the Fulton house at 82 Montgomery Street was purchased for use as a rectory. It housed the first nine rectors of the church.
Many of the first vestrymen served for life because there were no term limits. There were few vacancies through the 1870′s. The vestry minutes of 1861 through 1863 were lost in the Rhinebeck village fire of 1864, when all of the buildings on the south side of East Market Street were destroyed. The minutes had been stored in the law offices of Vestryman Ambrose Wager.
A New Church Building
By the early 1890′s the congregation had grown in numbers, and the church building needed extensive renovations. The roof leaked badly, plaster crumbled and fell, and the balcony was unsafe. At many vestry meetings during that time, a new and larger church building was discussed. In November 1896, property at the corner of Montgomery and Chestnut Streets was donated to the Church of the Messiah by two vestrymen, Dr. George N. Miller of The Grove and Mr. Robert Suckley of Wilderstein. Mr. John Jacob Astor, Churchwarden, gave a house on Mill Street to be sold and all proceeds applied to the construction of a new church building. The rector, Rev. Ernest C. Saunders, was largely responsible for instituting and carrying out the building fund. Hoppin & Koen, architects from New York City, designed the new church in the Gothic Revival style. The vestry accepted their design at the February 1897 meeting.
The cornerstone of the new Church of the Messiah was laid by Archdeacon Burgess on Wednesday, July 7, 1897 at 12 o’clock noon. The clergy assembled at the Starr Institute and processed to the grounds. Hundreds of people were in attendance in spite of the intense summer heat.
Rock from Tator Hill, about a mile north of the church, and supplied by Staley & Gay was used in the construction with trimmings of Indiana limestone. The masonry was done by Curnan & Kearns, and the carpentry was by Ackert & Brown, all of Rhinebeck. The interior is of oak wainscoting and Philadelphia pressed brick, and the ceiling is of cypress.
Consecration of the new church was delayed because one of the architects and John Jacob Astor, churchwarden, were fighting in the Spanish-American War. Finally, on June 17, 1899 the stone church was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Henry Cadman Potter. Several stained glass windows and many of the furnishings were given as memorials.
The Traver Memorial Window in the Choir Room was installed in the first church building in 1894. This window was removed, cut down to fit the new opening and installed in the new church in 1898.Other windows installed in 1898 were: The William B. Astor Memorial Window, the Rev. Aaron Olmsted Memorial Window, the Susan Watts Street Memorial Window, and the Florence Adele Kip Humbert Memorial Window. The remaining windows were provided by Heinigke & Bowen of New York City.
The Early Twentieth Century
Three years prior to World War I, the Church of the Messiah began a Chorister’s School on Montgomery Street, an ambitious project initiated by Norman Coke-Jephcott, organist and choir director. It was a private boarding school sponsored by a few area families. Coke-Jephcott also presented organ recitals for Sunday evensong each week at the Messiah, and frequently performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and in Albany at the Cathedral of All Saints. During World War I, joint worship services with the Reformed Dutch Church were prompted by coal shortages and other wartime difficulties. The Rev. Francis K. Little, rector of the Church of the Messiah, served as an Army chaplain and was absent from his pulpit from March 1918 until August 1919.
Deaconess Mary Clelland West provided religious instruction for the Episcopal children in Rhinebeck and carried on the work of the parish during those war years. Another deaconess, Ann Gilliland, was employed by the church from 1921-1923.
Post World War I Years
Following World War I, there were many changes to the church interior. Douglas Merritt donated a bell to the church as a thank offering for the safe return of his daughter, Ethel D. Merritt, from war service in France. Miss Merritt went to France before the United States entered World War I, and served as a nurse with the French army. The bell, made by the Meneely Company of Troy, NY, pitched in B flat, is delicate and graceful in shape.
The Pipe Organ
The pipe organ was built especially for this building by E. M. Skinner, and donated to the Church of the Messiah by Capt. Vincent Astor in 1921. The organ chamber contains three stories of pipes. The Skinner reputation was deservedly very high, and the company built organs for American’s finest churches and universities. This Skinner organ has all the essential elements: warm, rich foundation stops, accompaniment voices of great beauty (especially the Swell strings); and superb solo reeds (tuba, English horn, and Flugelhorn).
A twenty-note tubular set of chimes, electrically operated from the console at both keys and pedals, was installed by the Skinner Company in July 1930, also a gift of Capt. Astor. The chimes add to the scope of this beautiful instrument.
The Memorial Chancel
Soon after World War I, the idea of a suitable memorial to those who gave their lives in the conflict began to arise. After much consideration and discussion, plans were presented to the vestry on October 4, 1921 by the rector, the Rev. Francis K. Little. The chancel area was finally renovated while the Rev. Gabriel Farrell was rector of the parish. The lectern was the first gift toward the new chancel. It was given in 1921 by Mrs. William G. Lowe as a thank offering for the recovery from a serious illness of her daughter, Mrs. Francis K. Little. Designed by W. J. Anthony, it is a stately and beautiful piece of wood carving. The lectern has a V-shaped top, forming book rests for the two Testaments which can be turned as each lesson is read. There is a three-branched pedestal and at the top of each branch, there is a statuette, exquisitely carved in wood. The figures are those of St. Francis, St. Esther, and St. Lois. The lectern is stained a rich black, polychromed and embellished in gold. Other memorials given at that time include the Altar – in memory of Henry Montgomery Suckley, Arthur Gerald Haen and George N. Miller, Jr. The Chancel Paneling – the tribute of the parish to those who served in World War I. The Parapet, Clergy and Choir stalls – in memory of Col. John Jacob Astor.
In May of 1928 the Memorial Chancel was dedicated by the Bishop of New York to honor those who died in World War I. This chancel was modified from the original one and now projects into the nave in order to get the necessary sense of depth. The chancel lanterns, a memorial to John Langdon, hang from the chancel’s beamed ceiling, not only to furnish light, but also to enhance the perception of height and depth so desired in this space. The altar is of Premier Tavernelle marble, quarried in Tennessee. The marble was selected for its mottled texture and warm cream color. The chancel floor is covered with black and white Belgian marble.
During the 1960′s, the chancel was brightened and enriched with the addition of needlepoint cushions, kneelers and a rug. Religious symbols found in the church were used for the designs on the cushions and kneelers. Members of the Altar Guild, under the direction of Mrs. Clyde K. Miller, Jr., skillfully executed all the needlework. People paid for the cost of the materials and gave them as memorials.
1987 to the Present
Since the late 1980′s, the Church of the Messiah has undergone necessary, professional restoration. Much of the exterior stone walls have been properly repointed, a chimney was rebuilt, copper flashing and a ridge cap were replaced, and a broken gargoyle was rebuilt. Three new memorial stained glass windows were installed, new protective glazing was installed over all the stained glass windows, and the Susan Watts Street Memorial Window by LaFarge was restored.
In 2002, as a thank offering for our first one hundred fifty years as a parish, we have had carillons installed. They proclaim our faith and unity as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ to the community of Rhinebeck and all who pass through it. The Church of the Messiah has grown in so many ways in the last one hundred fifty years. Our outreach program is extensive and eagerly supported by parishioners and friends alike.
Let us always “make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 100.
Compiled and submitted by Joanne L. Brunson, 2002; revised 3/2004