Religion in the Hudson Valley: A Special Year-Long Series

We are proud to introduce our year-long series on religious faith and worship here in the Valley. This monthly feature will spotlight the local history of religious denominations, current trends and opinions on controversial issues

“Hmmm,” some of you may be saying right about now. “A year-long series about religion. Wow, I didn’t expect that.” So what exactly does this mean? And perhaps even more importantly, why are we doing it?

A recent Gallup poll indicates that 77 percent of Americans feel that religion is losing its influence on American life. Still, it remains a fact that — for better or worse — religious faith has played a central role in the development of virtually every civilization since the dawn of time. And regardless of what you believe (or don’t believe), religion remains at the center of most global issues, and continues to inspire and affect everything in our culture from politics to art to economics. After all, our country was famously founded on the very premise of religious freedom. And more than 200 years later, religion again played a prominent role in the 2012 presidential election, when Mitt Romney was in the running to becoming the nation’s first Mormon leader. (Incidentally, another Gallup poll found that the bias against a Mormon presidential candidate in 2012 was the same as it was in 1967!)

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So, rest assured, we will not be promoting any particular faith or set of beliefs in these pages; we will simply take a look at the local religious and spiritual landscape. How many of you are Catholics? How many reform Jews? Buddhists? Are your numbers growing or shrinking? We’ll bring you all the stats, and let you know who is worshiping where. We’ll track trends. After all, many of the things going on in the Valley are really nationwide developments that are playing out on a local level. For years, the mainline Protestant churches, once considered the backbone of American society, have been losing members and even closing some houses of worship. It’s happening here too: In the past few years, Presbyterian churches in both Poughkeepsie and Kingston have shuttered their doors. Reform Judaism is also losing members, but we’ll introduce you to charismatic young leaders in both of these religions who are working (sometimes together) to turn the tide. Women in the pulpit? There are plenty of them locally these days and several will share their compelling stories. And we’ll look at which local religious institutions are performing gay marriages.

This topic should yield stories about many fascinating people, as well as interesting historical tidbits. Did you know that the Episcopal Bishop of New York lives in Poughkeepsie (and is a cartoonist to boot)? You’ll meet a Mormon teenager who is obsessed with fashion and find out what her life is really like. We’ll cover amazing rituals and interesting worship services (you might be surprised at how many German church services there are out there). And we bet you didn’t know that in some circles the Hudson Valley is actually referred to as Dharma Valley because of the growing number of Buddhist temples that have been popping up here over the last few years. If you’ve ever wondered what really goes on in one of them, our photographer, who spent several nights in one, will tell us — in both words and beautiful photographs. We’ll also feature many personal stories, from tales of conversion to faith lost and found.

Of course, we can’t possibly cover every religion in a few pages each month; there are simply too many. But we hope to provide an interesting snapshot. We have faith that it’s going to be a fun ride.

Below, check out some of the seminal moments in the history of religion in the Hudson Valley. Click here to open this timeline in an easy-to-read, printable PDF (opens in new window):

old dutch church
Photograph by Al Novak/courtesy of Old Dutch Church, Kingston


1649 First Lutheran congregation in North America is formed in Albany.

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1659 Just one year after Kingston was created to protect Dutch settlers from Native American raids, the First Reformed Protestant Dutch Church is organized there. The current bluestone church, the fourth on the site, was built in 1852.

old dutch church pocantico hills

1685 The Lord of Phillipsburg Manor builds the old Dutch Church in Pocantico Hills. It is now the oldest church building in the state.

1714 Luis Gomez, a Sephardic Jew, builds a house in Marlboro as a trading post for the new colonists. Today, the Gomez Mill House, the oldest surviving Jewish dwelling on the continent, is a museum.

1717 The Huguenots, the French-speaking Protestants who founded New Paltz, build their first stone church (replacing a 1683 log building). French services continue until 1753, when they switch to Dutch.

1742 The Quakers build their first meeting house in present-day Pawling. In 1776, the group famously votes against slavery at this site. During the Revolution, General Washington’s officers use the subsequent meeting house (built in 1762) as a hospital.

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trinity church in fishkill

1768 Fishkill’s Trinity Church is completed; the original building is still used for worship. Once part of the Church of England, it morphs into an Episcopal Church after the Revolution. In 1776, it briefly serves as the meeting place of the New York State Convention, but is abandoned for the nearby Dutch Reformed Church. Trinity serves as a hospital for Washington’s army until at least 1781.

chapel of our lady cold spring

1833 The first Catholic church north of Manhattan is built in Cold Spring for the Irish immigrants who worked at the West Point Foundry. Fire destroys the Chapel of Our Lady in 1927; the rebuilt Greek Revival structure, on a cliff overlooking the river, is now a popular nondenominational event space.

1839 Saint Mary’s of the Mountain Church is erected in Hunter; it served the Irish and German immigrants who flocked there to work in the tanneries. The oldest Catholic church in the Catskills, it closed in 2002, but was saved from the wrecking ball by a community group several years later.

1896 St. Joseph’s Seminary is founded at Dunwoodie in Yonkers. The university continues to train new priests for the Archdiocese of New York. Two popes, John Paul II in 1995 and Benedict XVI in 2008, have visited here.

1899 Most Holy Trinity Church built at West Point; it’s the first Catholic church in the country erected on government property. More than 50 new Catholic parishes are established in the lower and mid-Hudson Valley between 1865 and 1900.

vassar chapel

1904 Vassar chapel is built; it remains the largest religious sanctuary in Dutchess County.

1939 The King and Queen of England attend St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park during their historic visit. Twenty-three years later, Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral is held here and attended by President Kennedy (and Jackie) and former presidents Eisenhower and Truman.

1977 The village of Kyrias Joel is settled in Monroe by 14 Hasidic Jewish families; by 2006, there are 3,000 families. Today, Orange and Rockland counties are home to the most rapidly growing community of Hasidic Jews in the U.S.

chuang yen monastery

1981 Groundbreaking on the Chuang Yen Monastery in Putnam County, which now houses the largest indoor statue of Buddha in the country. Buddhism soon starts to thrive in the region.

1985 The very first Anglican- Roman Catholic International Com- mission debates the question of whether the two churches could ever reconcile. Twelve representatives of the Pope and 12 sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury meet in Garrison.

1990 The Mid-Hudson Islamic Association builds a mosque in Wappingers Falls, establishes an Islamic Sunday school, and creates space for a community hall. The ensuing years see tremendous growth of Islam in the country and region. The local Muslim population almost doubles in the five years following 9/11.

bard muslim chaplain

Circa 1995 Bard becomes the first college in the nation to have a Muslim chaplain on campus.

2000 Thirteen Hudson Valley Presbyterian churches write to their governing body to say that they no longer want to keep a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuality in the church. They want to welcome homosexuals.

2003 The head of the HV Presbytery tells a reporter that he thinks half of his churches may close or merge in the next 10 to 20 years, due to declining enrollment. Eleven years later? At least three have closed and/or merged with other congregations.

dalai lama

2006 The Dalai Lama makes a surprise visit to Woodstock on September 25. Many businesses close early, so everyone can attend his speech. Close to 4,000 people show up.

2008 The newest church in the NY Catholic Archdiocese, Saint Kateri, opens in Lagrangeville. Capable of holding 1,200, it caps several decades of dramatic church growth in the mid-Hudson. It’s named after Saint Kateri, the first Native American saint, who was born near Auriesville, NY in 1656 and was canonized in 2012.

buddhism in walden

2012 For the very first time, hundreds of Buddhists from different disciplines come together in Walden on May 5 to celebrate Vesak, Buddhism’s holiest day.

rockland county synagogues

2013 Two of Rockland County’s four reform synagogues announce they are considering merging, due to decreasing enrollments.


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