Over the past 350 years, the community of Jamaica has changed drastically. Dutch settlers gave way to the English. Farmland was gradually replaced by buildings and major thoroughfares such as Jamaica Avenue. Through this time there has been one constant — First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica.
The church kicked off its 350th anniversary celebration on Sunday, January 15 with a ceremony on its grounds.
“The celebration was wonderful,” said Pastor Patrick O’Connor. “It brought together old and new members, people from the community and provided a launching point for the next six months. It focused on what the church has done and what we will do in the future.”
Many of the parishioners have attended the church for decades, including several for over 50 years and through many generations.
The original congregation, many of whom were from Halifax, England, held worship services in a public meeting house before a stone church was built on what is now Jamaica Avenue in 1699.
The church stood for over 100 years before it was razed and replaced by a building on Jamaica Avenue and 163rd Street. The church stood there for more than a century until it was placed on logs and pulled to its current location at 89-60 164th Street.
Over 350 years, the First Presbyterian has witnessed its share of history. During the Civil War, it played host to an entire regime of Connecticut Yankee Soldiers when a Long Island Railroad train broke down on the way to an encampment.
The church also provided religious training to emancipated slaves.
During World War I the trustees of First Church turned over the chapel to the War Camp Community Service to use as a dormitory for soldiers and sailors in uniform.
For a church that has been around longer than America, pinpointing one moment in its history that sticks out is no easy task.
When asked, O’Connor spoke about more recent memory that stood out as vital to the church reaching this very anniversary.
In the early 1970s the church, which once featured more than 2000 members, had swindled to less than 100. Under the leadership of the Reverend Raymond Swartzback it was decided that they would be the church of tomorrow, not yesterday.
“They opened up the church to the members of the community,” O’Connor said. “The church is not for those who are here, but for those who God is calling. When it was possible we may have closed, we received new life.”
The event on January 15 was only the beginning of this very special anniversary. The church has six months of events to commemorate the jubilee culminating with an anniversary gala at Leonard’s of Great Neck on June 22.
Other plans include a heritage Sunday in February focusing on the diversity of the church’s history and the existing cultures in the congregation, a Milal Missionary Choir concert in March and a service weekend in May.
O’Connor has served the congregation since 1992. While 20 years is a significant length of time, it represents only five percent of the long history of the church — a fact that does not escape the pastor.
“Every time I step onto the campus I think that so many people have passed through before,” he said. “There is a legacy of faith and service which preceded me and will continue long after I am gone.”
That legacy is one O’Connor feels responsible to uphold, before leaving it with the next generation of the church and the next 350 years.
“I see myself as a relay runner,” he said. “I try to do my best with the legacy before passing it on to somebody else.”
For more info on the church or its calendar of anniversary events visit http://www.firstchurchjamaica.org/.