Parishioners at the First Presbyterian Church in Oceanside are preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the institution in early November. The church, which is the oldest house of worship in the community, has continued to be a beacon for local residents, especially through the pandemic.
Despite the pandemic and overall decline in church attendance across the nation, First Presbyterian has grown and is as strong as ever today, church officials said.
Pastor Russ Roth said the church has seen strong attendance in the past few years, even after shifting to virtual services in the first year of the pandemic. Church staff members have taken precautions, such as closing off half the pews and distancing people in each pew. Roth said the church would continue to stream services on Facebook to allow the congregation to attend from home, even after the pandemic. “As people came back, we would actually run out of space,” Roth said. “People really had the desire to come back and really experience mass here.”
Roth attributes the church’s active congregation of about 60 to 80 people online and 40 to 50 people in person to the inclusive message of the clergy. “One of the things about this congregation is that it is very welcoming,” Roth said. “Some of it is people who are looking for hope.”
And this is not the first time the church has been an important pillar of the community during tough times. When Superstorm Sandy hit a decade ago, the church offered fuel, food, water and a place to charge phones. The church still acts as a disaster relief site for the community. Throughout the pandemic, deacons and youth of the church have made a habit of calling members of the congregation to check in with them.
“It’s like a second family,” parishioner Stacia Liossatos said. A Merrick resident, Liossatos has belonged to the Oceanside church for close to 50 years. When her daughter suffered burn injuries a few years ago, the congregation rallied by donating money and medical supplies to her. “I feel the connection here,” Liossatos said.
The church also seen youth engagement in in its Sunday school programs, with children, high schoolers, and college students attending. “They’re the future,” parishioner Ailie Donlon said. “It’s very exciting to see them involved.”
“Youth and young people want to be caring and they want to know the church is caring,” Roth said. “They want a reminder that we’re not here to condemn people. We’re here to welcome them. Jesus didn’t come to condemn. He came to offer hope.”
The landmark was founded and dedicated in 1871 as the first house of worship in what was then called “Oceanville.” The building was originally located across the street and established as Christian Hook, a church school. In 1867, the church school was reorganized under the support of the Freeport Church. From that year, its minister, the Rev. Marcus Burr, would preach in the morning in Freeport and then walk four miles to Christian Hook to hold Sunday afternoon services.
When the current church building was constructed in 1871, Burr left his position in Freeport to become the first minister of what the community referred to as “the little white church on the corner.” The church will host a dinner on Nov. 6 in the Fellowship Hall in its lower hall. On Nov. 6, parishioners will meet at the Freeport Church and drive the four miles in recognition of Burr’s walk ahead of their 150th anniversary dinner.