Description of Parish
Honoring St. John’s Stories
We of St. John in the Wilderness take great pride in our historic country parish
church and its rectory, which are adjacent to Taconic State Park and lie close to the natural and cultural attractions of the Berkshires. We are grateful that our founders established St. John’s in this beautiful setting and pleased that many people continue to be drawn to its natural surroundings. During its long history, St. John’s has accumulated many stories to share with its parishioners and the wider community. Our present close knit and loving congregation relishes telling stories of the church’s past and present, which create a word picture of the parish. We also look forward to the stories that we will write together in the future.
Stories of the Past:
St. John’s has been a vital part of the village of Copake Falls and the surrounding region for more than 150 years and has shared their ups and downs. Some members of the early church were farmers, but many were involved in mining and smelting the iron ore deposit whose remains lie just west of the church. Thus, our early history parallels that of the Copake Iron Works, which was established in 1846 by Lemuel Pomeroy of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Happily for St. John’s, both Pomeroy and his business associate, Isaac C. Chesbrough, were Episcopalians. At first, in 1849 and 1850, Episcopal services were held only occasionally and took place in the tiny local schoolhouse. The present church, designed by Richard Upjohn in the Gothic Revival style, was consecrated on June 29, 1852. The building is of much historical interest, for Upjohn designed many other churches, the most famous of which is New York’s Trinity (Wall Street.) He also founded the American Institute of Architects in 1857.
The early years of St. John’s featured many up and downs, which add to its historical interest. Histories of the parish tell of periods when rectors stayed for only a year at a time. In the 1870s, for example, the Copake Iron Works closed and both church and community fell on hard times. Without a permanent rector at St. John’s, priests from other parishes preached. At one time when the church was empty, Methodist services were conducted. there.
The Methodist “interlude” is a story in itself. A legendary pillar of the church, Mrs. Fanny Pomeroy Chesbrough Peck, daughter of Mr. I.C. Chesbrough, managed to locate the long lost deed of the church property. This discovery convinced the Bishop to re-establish the church as a legal entity in the diocese, but before that happened, a history of St. John’s church tells us that the “frail Mrs. F.P.C. Peck gathered a few of the remaining Episcopalians, locked herself and them into the church and the Methodists out.”
St. John’s reverted to mission status for many years and was even closed between 1925 and 1943. In the summer of the latter year, the Rev. Allen W. Brown, Rector of Christ Church, Hudson, found a key in his desk drawer marked “St. John defunct parish.” When he went to investigate, he found that our church had become home to raccoons and squirrels. Rev. Brown and his wife had the church cleaned out, and it opened again as an Episcopal mission during the summers 1944 and 1945. Regular Sunday services began again on April 14, 1946, and they have been held at St. John’s ever since. On January 1, 1949, under the leadership of Fr. Bliss, the church became a family parish church once again. Long known as “the church of candles,” it underwent various renovations as the years went by. Perhaps the most important of these, in 1968, provided lighting and central heat.
Throughout its long history, St. John’s has been blessed by many strong rectors who have guided us to where we are today. Father John Byers, a beloved rector for 22 years, is still revered today, as is Father Peter Whalen, who served from 1989 to 1996. To bring the story up to date, the Rev. Barbara Jean Morgan, who served us for a decade and retired in December of 2007, was and is cherished by the parishioners of St. John’s.
Stories of the Present:
St. John’s is a eucharistically centered church, with a broad church worship
tradition. There is a joyful quality to the worship and, many of us are willing to share stories of our spiritual journeys. The members appreciate our wonderful choir very much; for music is an important element of our worship services.
St. John’s is a fully inclusive church. It welcomes all and is open to new ideas and new people. Many parishioners have attended St. John’s for more than 25 years, but others are relative newcomers. Lay ministry groups such as Altar Guild, Lay Eucharistic Ministers, ushers, and lectors, are actively involved in services. Episcopal Church Women (ECW) are tireless. The phrase, “Volunteers from 9-90,” certainly describes the age range of those who come out for such important events in the life of the church as the annual Country Fair and Auction, church suppers, and receptions for special occasions.
St. John’s reaches out to the community by opening its doors to outside groups (for example AA) and by participating in such charitable organizations as the Roe-Jan Pantry, which distributes food to those in need. Our clergy and laity are active in the Hudson Valley Deanery and the ecumenical Roe-Jan Clergy Association, both of which are cooperating to better use their individual resources. Members of the parish also belong to Albany Via Media, a lay-clergy organization that seeks to promote closer ties between the Diocese of Albany and The Episcopal Church.
St. John’s participates in many ecumenical events in Columbia County, for example concerts, Thanksgiving and Christmas services, the celebration of Candlemas with the Hispanic community, Winter Vacation Bible School, Churches Assisting Neighbors (CAN), Habitat for Humanity, Women and Children Wellness (WIC), Meals on Wheels, and Community Hospice.
Stories of the Future:
As we look ahead, our stories exhibit an awareness that our surrounding
communities are in transition from chiefly agriculture to second and retirement homes and recreational services. Different kinds of people are moving into the area, for example retirees and commuters who come on weekends or the summer and ski seasons. They make the area livelier, and more cosmopolitan, attitudes that are reflected in the parish. .
The area offers many cultural amenities, such as the Opera House and Time and Space Limited in Hudson, and the lively arts community in the nearby Berkshires (for example, Tanglewood in Lenox, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge).
As the surrounding area grows, we at St. John’s are developing stories with themes of perceived needs for our own growth. Many of us understand that one of our greatest needs is to attract new members, especially younger people. In a recent self study questionnaire, respondents said that growth in educational programs for children and teens is very important (rated so by 54%,), an increase in the number of active communicants (68%), preaching that inspires and strengthens (67%), increased music programs (50%) and enhanced financial support of the parish (47%).
We are now seeking new ways to grow the parish and hope that a rector with a strong vision and leadership ability will help the Church of St. John in the Wilderness move ahead into the new century.