Tom Hunt, 54, a former Roman Catholic and his wife, Donna, a life-long Episcopalian got married in on North Division Street in Peekskill in 1984 simply because it was close to where they lived.
Today, they remain active, well-loved members of the congregation.
“The church has always been an extended family. The majority of our personal friends come here. The diversity here is fantastic and we have so much fun,” said Tom who has been a part of the church leadership for 20 years. He ticks off the different ways he’s been involved as one would a shopping list. “Finance committee, building committee, vestry member, junior warden, senior warden, usher, endowment committee, parish life committee.” He paused to think and with a jolly smile adds that he has been involved in just about every way possible.
Perhaps of all the jobs, the most important one for him is working with the kids as a Sunday school teacher and teen group leader. You see, Tom and Donna do not have any biological children of their own but, as they put it, through St. Peters they have many.
St. Peter’s has a rich and intriguing history. Its first building, a one-room framed structure located in Van Cortlandtville was consecrated in 1767. George Washington reportedly read the Morning Prayer there and between 1781 and 1782 and French troops in the area who helped the Americans defeat the British used the church as a military hospital. One of the folklore about the church is that when told that the church on top of the hill in the cemetery needs to be burnt down General Washington responded, “I sir, do not burn down churches.”
One of St. Peter’s most loved qualities is its diversity. Forty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King said that the most segregated hour in the United States is on a Sunday morning at 11a.m. because each ethnic group tends to worship together in their own religious institutions, but St. Peter’s has always been different. That is one of the historical facts, Reverend Caryle J. Hughes; the church rector says its congregation takes for granted.
“St. Peter’s has been integrated since its inception. There were free blacks in Peekskill. By right there should have been a black Church of England, but for some reason there wasn’t,” said Hughes. “I don’t know how many churches in the U.S. that has been integrated for over 240 years.”
“We have a lot to offer the rest of the world when it comes to the issue of how do different groups of people not just get along but flourish together, because that is what we have done here. We do not just tolerate each other, we are in relationship with each other and that is an extraordinary gift,” said Hughes.
St. Peter’s also has a close relationship with the Peekskill community.
“Where ever there seems to be a need, St. Peter’s is called upon,” said Connie Dyckman, a church member of 13 years and senior warden. “Currently, we are conducting our annual school drive where we collect school items and in September distribute them to needy families. We have Fred’s Pantry, which we started in February 2010, with Caring for the Homeless in Peekskill (CHOP, Inc.) Every Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. families in need can come to St. Peter’s for canned goods, other non-perishable items and frozen meats and vegetables. We feed more than 600 families. We also have a free community dinner on the third Thursday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in the parish hall,” said Dcykman.
Doryl Wolfe has been a church member for eight years and one of the members of the community dinner committee. “We feed people who like our food and need our food and that makes us feel good,” said Wolfe, and went on to explain how committed members are.
“We meet to decide what we are going to cook and the items we need. We are very organized and everyone is very dependable. They do what they say they are going to do. On a given night, we serve 65 to 70 people, sometimes a hundred depending on the time of year.”
“Every time we turn on the television or read the news papers someone is telling us that America is falling apart. They say that the democrats and republicans will never come to the meetings of the minds and that those who have are trampling over those who have not. That is why I feel the church that we have here on Saturday around the food pantry is just as important as the one we have on Sunday,” said Hughes.
“On Saturday morning there are between two to three hundred people here. There are those who have and those who are less fortunate. They know each other by name, check in on each other and are considerate and passionate to one another. Besides feeding people, we put a level of balance back into the community.”
Three years ago all of this could have been lost when St. Peter’s faced its biggest financial challenge in its existence. During the financial fallout in fall of 2008, overnight St. Peter’s lost two thirds of its operating budget when their endowment lost substantial profit. A meeting of the vestry was convened. They sat around a table with a box of tissue, cried, ranted, prayed and asked God for help.
“Although it made financial sense, it was unacceptable to close the church. We saw a level of need around us and felt that God was asking us to be present in a troubled time,” said Hughes. In that moment, St. Peter’s became the little church that could, but it meant changing the way they dealt with their finances.
“We recognized that God has given us enough to take care of our financial needs and it was spread all over the church,” said Hughes. “Three or four wealthy families always assumed the lion share of caring for the church. With those families long gone, it was up to a hundred families to all take care of the church.” This drastically changed how the church operated.
“Mother Caryle handed over the spiritual leadership of the church to everyone. She told us this is your church. You have to decide what you want to do for God and St. Peter’s. Before the decisions came from the top and now it comes from the people. It is truly a partnership,” said Dcykman.
It began with transparency. Every Sunday the bulletin provides the congregation with a financial update. It lists how much monies were expected, what actually came in and the bills that need to go out. Hughes says St. Peter’s often reflects what is going on in the nation and the congregation’s response expresses that. Together the members learned how to do more with less. They lent their skills and expertise and ensured that St. Peter’s remained a charitable and spiritual resource in the community.
For an hour after service last Sunday, Hughes sat with a church member discussing an energy audit to take place that Monday to help make the church buildings more energy efficient. Hughes says many of the ideas do not come from her but from members. This includes grant proposals, the annual fundraising dinner, flea market participation, small change make big change campaign, putting Sunday service on You Tube and many of the mission and outreach activities. Congregation members have discovered and even deeper connection as more members have increased their participation. Dcykman says people have always loved the church but now have more ways to express it.
“They are people who would love to never talk about our financial situation again, but the reality is if we don’t then we close the church. This little church feeds approximately 10,000 people every single year. There are usually 70 people in service on Sunday. How do 70 people feed 10,000 people? We do it because we care,” said Hughes.
The church’s innovative way of handling its financial problems has inspired members who have lost their jobs and their homes. They have expressed how witnessing the church weather its financial struggles has given them inspiration and renewed strength to endure their own.
“The thing that makes us unique is that we are not of the world. We are of God. Our doors could have closed, but they remain open. There was a time our church could have been burnt down, but it wasn’t, because a man of faith looked at the church and said I am not going to burn that down,” said Hughes.