Music May Hath Charms to Save Historic Church

Posted on 04 June 2010

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By Andrew Rudansky

After hard financial times The Old Whaler’s Church is now looking to turn the corner, and with a new pastor at the helm, it looks like they may be doing just that. This Saturday, June 5, the church kicks off a new concert series to help raise money for The Community House of the Old Whalers’ Church, a newly created fund. The evening begins with a 5:30 p.m. cocktail party at the Sag Harbor home of Lindsay and John Landes followed by a 7 p.m. performance by jazz pianist and vocalist Judy Carmichael at the church. This is the first of many concerts planned at the church throughout the summer featuring a diverse mix of genres and performers that the church congregation hopes will appeal to a wide audience. All of the money raised by the Community House Fund will go toward keeping the Old Whalers’ Church open and operational for the various community groups it houses.

Reverend Mark F. Phillips, who was recently brought on as the permanent pastor of the Presbyterian congregation, said the money is vital for the continuing operation of the church as a community center. He said that when he first joined the congregation in April, “The church was in danger of closing in a manner of months.” However, according to Rev. Phillips, thanks to the community and an increase in the church’s congregation, as well as the success of church sponsored programs like the Great Chefs Cooking Series, the Old Whalers’ Church is seeing its way out of the global recession.

 But the church is not out of the water yet. Rev. Phillips explained that without this additional source of revenue from The Community House Fund the church, built by architect Minard Lafever in 1844 and now a National Historic Landmark, could easily be closed in less than five years. Rev. Phillips said that the work at the church continues to be “a challenge,” but one made easier by the help of the officers and congregation at the church.

The new fund is called The Community House Fund, because as Rev. Phillips put it, the church is a “home for the community.” Currently the church houses an Alcoholics Anonymous program, a Girl Scout troop, an English as a Second Language program, the Sag Harbor Food Pantry, Southampton Town counseling programs, a Spanish language congregation — Comunidad Cristiana Internacional — the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons, and several other programs. While some of these groups donate money to the church in order to help with operating costs, this money does little to help with the church’s mounting financial concerns. 

 “There is always somebody [in the church],” said Rev. Phillips, who added this is something neither he nor the church wants to change. Despite the church’s financial difficulties it was imperative for them to not cut a single program, and instead keep their doors open to everyone in the community. Rev. Phillips said he makes it a point to welcome any community group who wishes to use the building as a meeting place.

“All money goes to the community, to keep the building open. None of the money raised for The Community House Fund will go to the Presbyterian congregation at the Old Whalers’ Church,” said Rev. Phillips who added that funds raised are slated to go to practical renovations like fixing the building’s plumbing or paying bills to keep the structure open.

“It’s not going to pay my salary,” Rev. Phillips joked.

Carmichael has performed at the Old Whalers Church on two previous occasions, the first time back in 1993 when the church presented its first music concert. 
“I spend over 200 days a year on the road, so any chance to perform in my home town is a gift. I'm looking forward to this tremendously,” she said. 
Carmichael calls herself an architecture buff, someone who appreciates the history of her home town and the Old Whalers Church. 
“It's essential for those of us who live here to contribute to [the church’s] maintenance, which the funds raised with this concert will do,” said Carmichael of the Community House Fund. On stage Carmichael will be joined by her longtime guitarist Chris Flory and a special surprise guest. 

This concert is certainly not the first to be hosted by the Old Whalers’ Church and over the years the building has garnered a reputation as one of the best venues around, acoustically speaking. Every year The Choral Society of the Hamptons performs in the sanctuary at the Old Whalers’ Church, their next performance there will be a summer concert on Sunday, July 18. In addition, Sag Harbor’s legendary jazz saxophonist Hal McKusick has offered a number of concerts at the church with his bands over the years and The Perlman Music Program, a group started by Itzhak and Toby Perlman that provides musical training to young musicians, will hold a concert at the church on Friday, August 13.

Even though he’s been in Sag Harbor little more than a month, Rev. Phillips is optimistic about the future of the church.

“In my short time here I see that there is a sense of excitement, enthusiasm, and expectation” said Rev. Phillips. “There is a renewal of life in this building.”

In the months since he arrived, Rev. Phillips said that attendance has doubled, “Everyone here feels a new chapter has started in the life of this church.”

Tickets to Judy Carmichael’s concert at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 5 at $35. A $50 ticket includes priority seating at the concert and admission to the 5:30 p.m. cocktail party at the Bluff Point Road home of Lindsay and John Landes. For details, call Lillian Woudsma a 329-2151.

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