St. Matthias Church granted landmark status

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St. Matthias Church — a small building with brown shingles and white clapboard on the border of Bellmore and Wantagh — was granted landmark status at the Oct. 2 Hempstead Town Council meeting. The site will now be protected against demolition, preserving a 100-year-plus legacy of the area’s African-American history.

The building is one of the only remnants of the Brush, a historic, predominantly black community that comprised freed slaves and their descendants.

Josh Soren, a commissioner of the Landmark Preservation Commission, said he had long wanted to see the site landmarked, but was moved to fill out the application by a more urgent dilemma. A recent court ruling gave the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island ownership of the property’s land rights, concluding a decade-long legal battle with St. Matthias congregants led by the Rev. Lawton Bryant, and subsequent for-sale signs signaled a potentially imminent demolition.

“Once I saw the for-sale sign, it became an emergency,” Soren told the Herald Life after the meeting, at which he advocated for landmark status. His application “flagged” the property in the town’s building department, preventing any future physical construction at the site.

The church’s most recent congregation, an independent Christian group considered “squatters” by the diocese, was evicted from the church in April 2018. St. Matthias was under the Episcopal Diocese’s jurisdiction from the building’s construction in 1904 until 2009, when it ended services due to a lack of attendees.

Since 2009, Bryant has heralded a resurgence in congregants, however. Fewer than 10 members attended the church when the diocese ended official services; today, congregants number more than 100. The group now meets in a church in Amityville due to the eviction.

“We would love to occupy [St. Matthias] again,” Bryant said. “It’s our family history.”

Who the future owners of the church will be still depends on the diocese, he added. In a statement, Denise Fillion, the diocese’s director of communications, said the sale of the property is still being considered, and proceeds would be used for ministry purposes in the diocese.

“Part of me prays that the diocese can see past the money and see the value” of the building, Bryant said.

At the meeting, landmark status — and the church’s history justifying it — was not only defended by Bryant, but by several other supporters.

“This is really the only representation [of the Brush] in all of Nassau County that exists,” said Gary Hammond, a retired registrar of Nassau County Museum Services, to council members. He compiled his research of the site into a 29-page report, which he wrote independently and supplied to the council. (see box)

“Hopefully this vindicates what [the congregants] have been saying — they’ve always been here,” Preservation Long Island Director Sarah Kautz told the Herald Life. Kautz voiced support at the meeting, calling the church a “rare survivor” and “one of the few remaining buildings with ties to the Brush.”

In addition, Paul Daly, an architectural historian and Bellmore resident; Natalie Naylor, a past president of the Nassau County Historical Society; members of the Wantagh Preservation Society; and other Landmark Preservation Commission members argued their support. Assemblyman Dave McDonough also sent a letter urging the council’s approval.

“Making a site a landmark is not about economics or politics,” Hammond said in a later interview, “it’s whether it’s historic. The church was built 115 years ago — that is historic.”

“There’s nothing on Long Island that matches the Brush,” said Bill Muller, a commission member.

The building has potential to be repurposed. A representative from Pets4Luv attended the meeting, and suggested turning the church into a pet rescue sanctuary. Bryant said his congregation would work with a potential new owner to restore religious services.

“At least the building will be saved,” Bryant said with a sigh.