Historic Episcopal Church in Ft. Hamilton prepares to close

A historic church in Bay Ridge where two Confederate Generals once worshiped has made the hard decision to close its doors and merge with a nearby Episcopal parish.

St. John’s Church in Fort Hamilton will close after 180 years of public ministry. The Rev. David Sibley, Priest-in-Charge of St. John’s Church, and the Bishop’s Committee made the announcement last week.

Because St. John’s Church is of great interest to the Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton community, as well as to Brooklyn history buffs, the parish published a Q&A about the pending closure on its website.

Fort Hamilton has been an active fort and military base since the 1830s, defending New York City and the harbor against naval attack, according to a website managed by the U.S. Army. During the 1840s, General Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson each were stationed at Ft. Hamilton and worshiped at St John’s. In fact, notwithstanding their Confederate loyalties, both generals had “Northern” roots: Jackson was baptized at St. John’s in 1849 and Robert E. Lee served on the vestry from 1842-44. The parish thus came to be known as “The Church of the Generals.”

The Q&A stated that “over the past several years, attendance has declined at St. John’s below the level necessary to sustain healthy ministry at the parish.” Citing rising costs and aging infrastructure, the Q&A continues: “The Bishop’s Committee (Board of Trustees) of the parish believed that in order to be faithful to our ministry as a church, major changes needed to be made to ensure that our neighborhood has a vibrant and healthy church presence. After consulting with the leadership of the Diocese, and the leadership of Christ Church, the Bishop’s Committee voted to begin a new phase of ministry together with Christ Church Bay Ridge.” Both Fr. Sibley and Bishop Lawrence Provenzano fully support this decision, according to the document.

The leadership of the parishes and diocese see this decision as a move towards strengthening ministry in Bay Ridge. The merger of the two congregations will mean that for the first time in 10 years, an Episcopal church in Bay Ridge will have full-time ordained leadership.

“The leadership of both Saint John’s and Christ Church have been actively consulting with one another on the best ways to form a new, vibrant parish community. Members of both congregations will share leadership in the new congregation,” the Q&A statement read.

But a building with so much history should be preserved, say locals.

City Councilman Vincent J. Gentile, who represents an area of NYC that includes Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton and Dyker Heights, is determined to make sure St. John’s Church—and its history—are preserved. “St. John’s Episcopal Church dates back to 1834. This is where ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was baptized and Robert E. Lee went to pray. I intend to work with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island to do whatever we can to protect and preserve this unique landmark – one with a tremendous history not only locally but woven into the fabric of our nation.”

Bishop Provenzano released a statement earlier this week: “As St. John's joins together with Christ Church, I will be consulting with the lay leaders of the new, joint congregation, and together we will explore the best stewardship and most appropriate disposition of the historic property that has been home to St. John’s.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission had not yet responded to calls and emails from the Eagle as of press time on Thursday.

A worship service to officially conclude the local ministry at St. John’s will take place on Sunday, Sept. 7 at 4 p.m. The Q&A indicated that St. John’s will not be de-consecrated (that is, it will retain its blessing) for the time being.