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Renaissance for Jamaica’s First Reformed Church

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After 300 years of drawing worshipers to downtown Jamaica, the First Reformed Church is due for a revival.

The Rev. Mark Kellar, the church’s pastor, is hoping to revitalize the church as a community facility this year during the congregation’s celebration of its 300th anniversary.

“It’s a very, very exciting time,” Kellar said. “I want to make this a church of Jamaica. We have so much to offer, it’s just a matter of getting the message out.”

The 70-member church marked its anniversary with a banquet in June and a Kid’s Jubilee in July, Kellar said.

The parish has been through four churches in its history, but at its current home on 90th Avenue remnants of the past in the form of love letters, legal documents and even papers of indenture have been preserved.

The First Reformed Church of Jamaica at 159-29 90th Ave., and all grew out of one house of worship that was used by Dutch settlers in the area in the 1600s, at a time when the different congregations shared the town’s buildings as makeshift churches.

The congregation’s records date back to June 1, 1702, when the first baptism in the area was recorded, Kellar said. The early church members — Dutch settlers including families such as the Wyckoffs — shared the Stone Church at what would now be 162nd Street and Jamaica Avenue with other congregations before building their own church.

Two of the other congregations continue to worship in Jamaica – the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica at 89-60 164th St., which dates back to the 1660s, and the Grace Church at 155-24 90th Ave., which is also celebrating its 300th anniversary this year.

The First Reformed Church of Jamaica built its first church in 1715 on Jamaica Avenue, and the building was badly damaged during the American Revolution by British soldiers who used it as a storehouse.

A surge in members in the mid-1800s forced the congregation to move to a larger church, but the building was gutted in a fire in 1857 that the church believed to be arson, although no one was ever charged with the crime, Kellar said.

A third church was built in 1859, also on Jamaica Avenue, and the congregation stayed there until 1984, when the city took possession of the church after construction on the Long Island Rail Road and subways weakened the structure, Kellar said.

The congregation now worships in the former Queensborough Lung Association office building, which underwent $900,000 in renovations to create a modern church with a 45-foot bell tower, housing the original bell from 1837, Kellar said.

And as the location changed, so did the congregation and the community, Kellar said.

“The biggest change is who worships here,” he said. “It’s changed to a predominantly black congregation from a predominantly Dutch congregation.”

The shift came in the mid-20th century and posed a question for the church leaders, Kellar said.

“It was a huge challenge for the Dutch Reformed Church,” he said. “Were they going to reach out and serve the needs of those new members?”

The church stepped up to the challenge, Kellar said, although some community and church members still have difficulty coming to terms with the reality that the congregation was founded by slave owners.

The church has become very youth-oriented, offering programs for teens and children such as Bible study, choir groups, dance and basketball teams, and social events, Kellar said.

“We have a deep, deep commitment to the youth of this community,” he said. “We see it as a way of reaching into the community. If we reach the young people, we’ll reach the parents.”

The church also sponsors the Isaiah 61 project, a program that grew out of the Sept. 11 attacks to teach children how to deal with pain and trauma, Kellar said.

Kellar also wants to reach the community’s adults and senior citizens by offering a basic computer course and hopes to start a noon prayer service on Wednesdays for employees in downtown Jamaica, he said.

“The majority of our congregates do not live within walking distance of the church,” he said. “Most of them live 20 minutes away. My goal is to change that.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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