A Private Investigator’s Guide to Dutch Reformed Churches

When you do genealogy, you quickly discover that you have to become an expert on churches. Where were they located, where are they now, what happened to the buildings, who’s got the records? When it comes to Staten Island, which celebrated its 350th year in 2011, that’s a whole lotta church history to absorb.

Luckily, we have in our possession a handy-dandy guide to all of the churches that existed in Staten Island as of 1942. Now, this doesn’t give you all the churches that ever were, but having an inventory of extant churches at a specific point in time is a great reference. And it is a l-o-n-g list, which you will love if you are a genea-geek.

Anyway – the existence of this list is interesting, in and of itself.  It’s from the Guide to Vital Statistics in the City of New York, created by the Works Progress Administration for the City of New York.  It lists all the churches by borough, and describes the type of vital statistics each church held in its archives at that time – baptisms, marriages, etc.  In 1942, America was at war, and it seems they needed to run some background checks on people, but the Internet was down.

The volumes are primarily designed as an aid to governmental agencies or private individuals interesting in locating corroborative proofs of the facts of birth or marital status as required for military service or engagement in war industry.

How cool is that? Helping to blow the cover of enemy spies who were bent on infiltrating our armed forces based on a fake Staten Island baptismal certificate.

I think I was born too late. I hope I worked for the WPA in a previous life.

In any case, today is the beginning of a series in which I am going to list the churches from that document for you. (In the future, I’ll feature some individual churches in separate posts, with more detail).

Our first installment will begin with the Dutch Reformed Churches, which is only fair, since they were first to build a church on Staten Island.

Nowadays this denomination is formally called the Reformed Church in America, and its churches are found mainly in the mid-Atlantic states and the upper Midwest. It is still rooted in the religion the Dutch brought with them from the Netherlands, but the denomination has had several name changes. At times, it was officially the Dutch Reformed Church and the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. In the records, and colloquially, it’s sometimes just referred to as “Dutch Church.”

Dutch Church on Staten Island, Port Richmond. Established 1680

Dutch Reformed Church, Port Ri... Digital ID: 104639. New York Public Library

Consider this the mother ship on Staten Island. Worship at this location began in 1665, and services were in Dutch until about 1780. Many original worshippers were from Long Island, Manhattan, and Bergen, New Jersey. Its cemetery, first called “The Burial Place,” is the oldest on the island, and bears a New York State Historical Marker. There has been a building on this site since 1715; the current one was built in 1845. The first Sunday School in America began here in 1812. After a branch congregation was established at Village of Richmond, this first location was sometimes called the North Church.

Its sanctuary, Sunday School building, and cemetery are all on the National Register of Historic Places. They are also New York City Designated Landmarks. It is still in operation as the Reformed Church of Staten Island, but does not appear to have a website. Lovely photos and more here.

Richmond Church, Village of Richmond. Existed 1808-1886

This first branch of the mother ship got its own building in 1808 and was sometimes called the South Church. It operated until 1886 in the area that is Historic Richmondtown today. The building was demolished in 1903.

So it wasn’t active in 1942, but I guess it was included on the list because the location of its records were known:  they were transferred to New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Jersey.  The bodies in its churchyard were removed to Moravian Cemetery, Lot C, Section D, in Nov/Dec 1885.

Brighton Heights Reformed Church, Tompkinsville. Established 1823

This was another offshoot of the mother ship and was also known as the East Church.  Its creation was assisted by a donation of land from Daniel Tompkins, who was Vice President of the United States at the time.  The first building was located in the area that is now called Stapleton, and there was a cemetery there.

Many African-Americans were original members of this church and were interred at the Stapleton location. In the 1870’s,  the remains of all interred there were removed to Silver Mount Cemetery.

In 1864 the New Brighton congregation built a new sanctuary on St. Mark’s Place, which became as a New York City Designated Landmark in 1967 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.  But the building burned down in 1996. There was much controversy about the fire and subsequent activities. The church did rebuild,  and is still active, but does not seem to have a website.

Reformed Church of Huguenot Park, Amboy Road. Established 1849

Huguenot Church Huguenot Park,... Digital ID: 104654. New York Public Library
This congregation traces its heritage to French Reformed Protestants, the first group of Europeans to receive official sanction from Peter Stuyvesant to settle on Staten Island in 1661. These folks actually pre-dated the congregation at the mother ship, and established the very first church building, “the French church” in Green Ridge in 1698. It is said that the small church which was destroyed by the British during the revolutionary war, but I haven’t confirmed that.

The people worshipped at Port Richmond until 1849, when the Reformed Dutch Church of Westfield was created. The first building was called “the little Brown Church;” it burned down in 1918.

The current building dates from 1924. (In some records, you may find this church referred to as Bloomingview or Seaside). It is designated as the National Monument of the Huguenot-Walloon-New Netherlands 300th Anniversary of Religious Freedom, and is a designated New York City landmark. The congregation is still active today as the Reformed Church of Huguenot Park.

Reformed Church of Prince’s Bay, Seguine Avenue. Established 1900

Growing out of a Sunday School started in 1895, it later became the Prince Bay Union Church. In 1917 the congregation built a sanctuary on Seguine Avenue, and in 1921 it was renamed the Reformed Church of Prince’s Bay. It is still in operation as a Reformed Church and calls itself The Church That Never Closes.

First Reformed Chapel at Mariner’s Harbor, Richmond Terrace. Existed 1905-1974

Mariners(sic) Harbor Dutch Ref... Digital ID: 104656. New York Public Library
Information on this congregation isn’t easy to come by. I hope someone can fill me in. As of 1942, they had records of marriages, deaths, baptisms, and members going back to 1905. Presently the church building is occupied by Fellowship Baptist Church.

Charleston Reformed Church, Arthur Kill Road. Existed 1927-1971

This one gets complicated.

Starting in 1882, the services at St. Peter’s German Evangelical Reformed Church at Kreischerville were conducted by Rev. Jacob Ganss, who was ordained by the Dutch Reformed Church, so it counted the congregation as “theirs.”

Very near by that location, in 1918, a new Reformed Church of America congregation named the Charleston Reformed Church moved in to a sanctuary on Arthur Kill Road that was built in 1847 and formerly used by the West Baptist Church.  I’m pretty sure these were the same folks from the German Church, or at least part of them.

Meanwhile, at about the same time, the St. Peter’s building was sold to Hungarian immigrants who incorporated as the Free Maygar Reformed Church of Staten Island. So it seems like there was some kind of split in the church.

The Charleston Reformed congregation disbanded in 1971 and its building was razed. The cemetery (still known as the West Baptist Cemetery) remains.

The Maygar Reformed Church congregation still exists in the St. Peter’s building, but it is a separate denomination, not part of the (Dutch) Reformed Church of America. The building itself, under the name of St. Peter’s German Evangelical Reformed Church at Kreischerville, is a designated New York City Landmark.

The End

So, there you have it – the 1942 list. There were other Reformed churches in the history of the Island, but they had come and gone by this time. So those are a different post. And we have just begun with the list; more denominations coming soon.

Do you know anything about the missing Mariner’s Harbor Church? Or the details of the Charleston Church? Fill me in!


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