A piece of history and community is gone, By Bob Curtis Highland Mills - Last week, after nearly 100 years of weekly worship and spiritual service, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Highland Mills closed its doors for the last time. Somewhat akin to a death in the family, the closing generated an outpouring of emotion among its parishioners, past and present, as well other neighbors and friends in the community at large. The final service in the church was conducted on Tuesday evening, Nov. 16. “I feel a sadness with the closing of St. David’s,” said Anne Wibiralske, who attended the church with her family while growing up. “We expect churches to be enduring, spanning generations before and after our lifetimes. St. David’s is the place where I and my brothers and sister were baptized, attended Sunday school and served as altar boys and girls.” Anne, whose father Fred is a longtime “warden” at St. David’s, continued her recollections. “My parents reaffirmed their wedding vows at their 50th anniversary here, and this is the place where we held the funerals for my grandmother and my mother. “In the pews with my parents, siblings and other parishioners, reciting prayers and listening to readings from the bible and sermons,” she added, “we affirmed our beliefs and were offered guidance on how to live our lives.” Former parishioner Frances Van Etten, whose father had also been a senior warden of the church for many years, was glad that she attended the final service. “I was very emotional in hearing about St. David’s closing. I was baptized here, I was married here, and my children were baptized here,” Van Etten recalled. She also offered her thoughts on the closing service and the many who attended the event: “It warms my heart to see so many people here. I only wish they were all here all the time.” Some of the faithful traveled long distances to attend the final service and had been doing so for some time. Once or twice a month for the past three years, Sherry Becker would “commute” from Downsville in Delaware County, driving about 80 miles each way. She was heartbroken by the news that the church would close. “This has been my church, my refuge,” she said. “The vicar, Rev. Alon White, is great, and I have loved her services. I’ve gone through a lot in the last few years, and St. David’s has helped me to find peace.” Becker also expects to attend services at Grace Church, where Rev. White is also vicar. Organist Jan Valentine, who played for the final service, provided music for the church’s services about once a month. “I’ve been very happy to be able to serve in the capacity that I did for the past three years. This is a very sad event, which I feel affects the entire community.” Passing into history In late October, Reverend Alon White, Vicar of St. David’s since 2008, wrote to announce to the congregation that St. David’s would soon be closing. Her letter read, in part, “I regret to inform you that St. David’s Episcopal Church will be closing in November. I know that St. David’s has been a place of constancy, affection and deeply personal history for many of you.” But when a church with such a long history as St. David’s closes, one thing that many people may be asking is, why? Longtime parishioner Fred Wibiralske attended St. David’s for some 50 years and was a church warden, a member of St. David’s vestry or managing group involved in the decision that the church should close. He explained the situation that led to that conclusion. It seems that attendance at St. David’s had been diminishing for some time. In better days, in the 1950s and 1960s, the church would be full to overflowing with 70 to 80 worshippers on a Sunday morning, members who made a yearly pledge which supported the church. “We’d need to set out extra chairs to accommodate the turnout,” Fred Wibiralske recalled. But as attendance began to dwindle over the years, the church began having trouble supporting itself. It seems that when Episcopal churches fall on hard times, they may apply for any needed assistance from the diocese’s congregational support plan. St. David’s had been utilizing this assistance program for more than 10 years, Wibiralske explained. “These arrangements are, by their nature, subject to periodic review. And at its last review point in February, it was determined that due to its dwindling congregation, St. David’s no longer warranted the congregational support,” Wibiralske said. “We were down to eight or nine parishioners, and you just can’t support a church in this economy with so few members.” Nicholas Richardson, the communications officer and editor of the Episcopal New Yorker for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, wrote in explanation: “In the history of the Diocese of New York, there are many examples of the founding of churches and their subsequent closings when their congregations have shrunk with no promise of new growth. “It is, indeed, a sad moment when this happens, and it is always an extremely difficult decision. But there are, unfortunately, times when financial circumstances leave no other option.” The congregation “The most special characteristic of St. David’s was the closeness and intimacy of the congregation,” Wibiralske said. “Everybody knew each other on a first-name basis, in some cases, for many years. “But after all, a church is not a building, but a group of people. And of course, the closing of a church does not diminish the Lord.” Noting that church attendance is generally on the rise in many Episcopal churches, Wibiralske expects that St. David’s parishioners may continue their Episcopal worship at a number of nearby churches, most within 10 or so miles of St. David’s. “There’s Grace Church in Monroe, St. John’s in Cornwall, and St. Mary’s in Tuxedo.” Wibiralske said the diocese will take over the title to the church and the rectory around the corner. The stained glass windows will be removed and will eventually be installed in another place of worship. As to the final disposition of the church itself, that is still yet to be determined. Service of remembrance and celebration On last Tuesday evening, St. David’s Church was filled with parishioners, former parishioners, clergy and well-wishers of many faiths and from many other houses of worship. Numbering nearly 50, they gathered together to mark the closing of the church, an event which it was agreed diminishes all. The special service was conducted by two Episcopal Bishops, the Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk, who acted as celebrant, and Rt. Rev. Catherine S. Roskam, who gave the sermon. Both agreed they had hoped never to officiate at the closing of a church. After the service at the reception in the church hall, parishioners and friends shared memories of St. David’s and its impact on their lives. While most churchgoers kept up a steely exterior, some longtime congregants admitted they were devastated, others shared their disbelief that such a thing could happen, and for still others, it was too emotional to even express in words. Among her remarks at the closing ceremony, Bishop Roskam proclaimed a message of hope in the midst of sadness and loss. “I don’t want to minimize the sense of loss and sorrow about closing St. David’s. The fact that it is ending in one form does not take away from St. David’s in any way.” “Our buildings, our institutions, share our mortality,” she continued. “They have beginnings, and middles, and ends, and we need to push those endings out just as far as we can. But we don’t need to mourn without hope. “St. David’s has affected many lives,” she added. “St. David’s is going to live on, in people’s memories, and in their hearts, and in the way people act and move on from here.” Affirming that sentiment, Anne Wibiralske recalled the sensibility of her late mother, Mary: “I know were my mother at the closing service, she would have reminded us that the building is not the church, that the church is the people and spirit in which they come together to pray in community and in which we go out into the world. In this sense the church endures, however the building passes on.”
Now after many years of faithfulness, with thanks to God for the good accomplished here, I declare the Church of St. David’s closed.” The Right Rev. Mark Sisk, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, at the final service held Nov. 16 at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Highland Mills.
The most special characteristic of St. David’s was the closeness and intimacy of the congregation. Everybody knew each other on a first-name basis, in some cases, for many years. But after all, a church is not a building, but a group of people. We’ll all have to move on now and find another place to express our spirituality elsewhere. And of course, the closing of a church does not diminish the Lord.” Longtime parishioner Fred Wibiralske