For almost two centuries Zion Episcopal Church has been a community of diverse, resilient and faithful people called to love God and one another. Throughout the Bible, Zion refers to the “holy hill” where God’s promise of justice and joy is made a reality, a refuge where every outcast is welcomed with open arms. The prophet Micah writes that it is in Zion where the people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks…and no one will make them afraid.” Over the years that prophetic vision has inspired neighbors and newcomers alike to build Zion Episcopal Church into a community where our vulnerabilities are met with care and compassion, a place where we are transformed by God’s love and grace.
The church was founded and chartered in 1830 under the leadership of Wynant Van Zandt, a successful merchant and former alderman of New York City. In 1813 Van Zandt had moved his family to a 120 acre farm along the shores of Little Neck Bay, land that had first been the ancestral home of the Matinecock tribe. For fifteen years the Van Zandt family dutifully made the journey to Christ Church in Manhasset (then known as Cow Neck) for communion. They also established regular Sunday worship in the east parlor of their home, even building an addition to serve as a chapel. But, like true New Yorkers, they came to resent their commute and soon ran out of space in their home. It was time to try something new.
In 1827 Van Zandt gathered together with 17 of his neighbors, and, after Van Zandt pledged to give the land surrounding the highest hill on his property, together they all pledged funds toward the construction of a church and Sunday school. Even the construction was a cooperative effort: after the cornerstone was laid in 1829, the community gathered to raise the walls of the church together. When the work was complete, one long table for all present was set out for a celebratory supper: it stretched half a block down the road. Bishop John Henry Hobart of New York formally consecrated the brown church with the square tower and cemetery on July 30, 1830, and its new brass bell resounded in the town and surrounding fields. Sadly, Wynant Van Zandt worshipped in that church for only a year: in 1831 he was buried in the family vault beneath the church he had helped to build.
The fledgling Zion community called the Reverend Eli Wheeler as its first rector, and he served until 1837. Describing the congregation at that time, a somewhat self-impressed observer wrote bluntly that they were “rural and simple folk; not rude, but unfamiliar with what is called the world; and under the wise teachings of their noble pastor and preacher they were being trained intelligently for the true enjoyment of religion and for the glory beyond the skies. Happy people!”
The original church building was humble and sturdy. There was no raised area for the altar. The pews ran straight across the sanctuary without a middle aisle. The elevated pulpit stood against the wall before the people, and below it on the ground floor, surrounded by a railing, was a plain table for the service of communion.
In 1842, Zion called the Reverend Henry Marvin Beare as its new rector, and he served the wayside country church faithfully until his death forty-five years later. He was loved and respected not only by his parishioners, but also by all the community.
In the late nineteenth century, the town of Douglaston was established and began to grow—and Zion grew with it. In the 1850s and 60s the Flushing and North Side Railroad expanded into what is now the Port Washington Line of the Long Island Railroad, linking the small towns of northern Queens County to more populous points west. In 1896, the vestry of Zion Episcopal Church laid the cornerstone for a new Parish House, which quickly became a social hub for the parish and the entire community. Bowling alleys had been built in the basement, and upstairs the hall was used for church suppers and community socials, an annual fair and Strawberry Festival, Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas, and to host outside groups.
One evening in 1924, a fire broke out in the church. Despite the heroic efforts by many to check the flames and to rescue items of great historical and sacramental value, the 94-year old building was destroyed. The bell that had sounded for four generations fell from the blazing belfry and broke into toneless fragments. The burning of Zion Church shocked the entire community, and many responded generously. Community Church threw open its doors and its pastor, the Reverend Eugene Flipse, placed every facility at the service of Zion. Zion’s parishioners celebrated Holy Communion at Christmas in the new Community Church building.
Steps were taken at once to rebuild. Aubrey G. Grantham, a parishioner, became the sole architect and and skillfully designed a building of Colonial design. The Architectural Record of March, 1927, showed the church as an illustration of simplicity and restraint. “The Colonial interior of the church has beauty of its own. No ‘dim’ religious atmosphere was intended. Daylight pours through the open panes of glass, tinged here and there with a lavender hue. The sixteen-over-sixteen windows are beautifully proportioned, and the church is bright and full of quiet dignity and cheer.”
The Parish House, rebuilt at the same time by another parishioner, Samuel Lindbloom, was also kept to the Colonial design and shares the dignity and simplicity of the church. The auditorium seats 150 persons, and is used to this day for community theater productions, town hall meetings with government representatives, afterschool programs, and recovery groups.
The resilience of the congregation was tested again in 1929, when a second fire destroyed the cancel, sacristy and the choir rooms. In rebuilding, the sacristy was enlarged to provide a study for the rector.
Through the faithful stewardship of its members and leadership, Zion continued to grow and change, honoring its legacy and responding to the needs of the community. At the south end of the church the balcony front was altered in 1959 to accommodate a new Moeller organ. This fine instrument was given as a memorial to Elizabeth Vanston Morgan, long-time resident of Douglaston and a member of the Altar Guild. In 1950, several parishioners gifted the church with new tower bells, which are still in use today. In the mid 1960s, it was discovered that the original timbers supporting the floor of the church had begun to rot and weaken—these timbers remained from the original 1830 construction. The church undertook an ambitious solution to the problem, digging out a full basement beneath the sanctuary and adding ten new rooms for choir rehearsal, Sunday school, and a spacious library which remains in active use as the Zion “book nook.”
Zion is surrounded by a churchyard that includes a labyrinth open to the public [LINK to labyrinth page…] and the graves of Zion’s faithful parishioners through the generations. It also includes a memorial marking the place where the remains of Matinecock ancestors were reburied in 1931. In that year, the city of New York decided to widen Northern Boulevard into the four-lane road it is today, even though their plan involved the thoughtless destruction of a Matinecock burial ground at the site of what is now Queens County Savings Bank. Despite the impassioned opposition of Chief Wild Pigeon and others, the city pushed forward with its plan, desecrating the original gravesite and reburying the remains in the Zion churchyard. The site is marked by a great rock split in two with a tree growing in between. A simple inscription is carved upon the stone: “Here rest the last of the Matinecoc.” In 2018, the memorial was restored by Aidan Decker as part of an Eagle Scout project. In November of that year, Chief Harry Wallace led a homecoming burial ceremony for the remains of Matinecock ancestors that had been returned from the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Florida. Though the site is a reminder of a shameful moment in our community’s past, it is also a place where people seeking transformation and to restore ties of mutual care have gathered to build a new future.
Many early settlers of Little Neck and Douglaston are buried in this historic churchyard, as well as the Matinecock ancestors who lived on this land before white settlers arrived. If you like, stroll the grounds and read the markers, or use this brief guide, which highlights some of the graves.
Begin at the large stone cross on the west side of the building.
1. “Cutter” cross
You are standing in the oldest part of Zion Churchyard. Here are the weathered markers of families who buried loved ones following the 1830 dedication of Zion Church: Haviland, Allen, Cornell, Hicks, Lawrence. The family of Wynant Van Zandt, who actually donated the land on which the church stands, is buried in a vault directly under the existing church and a marble tablet in his memory has been placed above the inside of the west door.
The large cross marks the plot of Bloodgood Haviland Cutter, a pillar of Zion who as a boy remembered the raising of the original Church structure and later donated several acres to expand the eastern border of the churchyard. He was the proprietor of a farm and grist mill just east of the city line. On a steamship voyage a fellow passenger, Mark Twain, referred to him as the “poet lariat” of Little Neck and later in his book Innocents Abroad added, “A simple minded, honest, old-fashioned farmer with a strange proclivity for writing rhymes.”
Walk towards Northern Boulevard. As you draw even with the white barn, find a stone marked “Mary Buhrman.”
2. “Mary Buhrman” Stone
Between this stone and the barn, you can see the grave of Benjamin Lowerre. In 1827 Benjamin P. Lowerre purchased a general store and grist mill from the descendants of the Foster family, who had settled Alley Creek in 1637. Mary Lowerre married William C. Buhrman, whose name in later years was associated with the store and mill. The Alley was important because before a road (later Northern Boulevard) crossed the Creek, the only north shore route east and west went through the Alley just south of Alley Pond.
Walk towards Northern Boulevard and stop at the small stone cross marked “Caroline Bissell.”
4. “Caroline Bissell” cross
Between this cross and the barn, you can see the stone marked “Edwin Lawrence.” This family owned burial plots on both the east and west sides of the early churchyard. They lived in a large house on the north side of Northern Boulevard and owned the section that was later developed as Marathon Park.
Bennem Plot Gate: On the Northern Boulevard side of the cross are several plots marked off by low railings. The first plot belongs to Albert S. Griffin, and early Douglaston resident who traveled abroad and has been credited with importing seedlings of a variety of exotic trees such as the weeping beech at the Douglaston train station.
The next plot is John Bennem, who with his son Charles were for many years the Little Neck Village blacksmiths who operated a shop on Little Neck Parkway just south of where the Chase Bank now stands.
The third plot is Henry Benjamin Cornell, a life long member of Zion. He served as Vestryman and sometimes Warden from 1887 through 1942.
The last railed plot is the Schenk-Hicks families. Benjamin Schenk was a partner of Schenk and Van Nostrand, who operated the village General Store in a white wooden frame building on the current site of the Chase Bank. Mrs. Schenk’s father, John Hicks, owned several farms in the area between where the Long Island Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway currently lie.
Now walk back towards the church, cross the driveway, and find the stone bench marked “Cornell.”
4. “Cornell” Bench
On the Northern Boulevard side of this bench is the plot of Alfred P. Wright, who was a wheelwright in Little Neck. The plot also contains a particularly poignant stone to a daughter who died at age twelve, as well as an unusual cast-iron grave marker.
Closer to Northern Boulevard is the Hutton family plot, featuring another Victorian cast iron marker. Behind the bench is one of the Hicks Family plots. They were descendants of one of the early Douglaston families.
Walk towards Northern Boulevard, and find a large stone marked “Bryce Rea.”
5. “Bryce Rea”
This is a more recently developed section of the churchyard, containing the family plots of many of the local merchants: John Gabler, Bryce Rea, Doyle Shaffer, and others. From this vantage point on a clear day the skyscrapers of Manhattan can be seen to the west.
Walk north to the cluster of cedar trees.
6. Cedar trees
In the midst of the cedar trees is the marker of John Gibson, who served as Sexton of Zion Church for many years. To the left is the marker of Charles Hallberg, who along with Donald Kirkpatrick moved their families to Douglaston when Queens College was founded in 1938. They were two of the original twenty-eight professors of the college. The Kirkpatrick stone lies flush with the ground near the tall pine tree.
The portion from here to 244th Street is where plots are currently available to members of Zion Parish.
Walk north towards 44th Avenue. Find the two large boulders with the tree growing between.
7. Matinecoc Reburial Site
On Sunday November 1, 1931, the reinterment of some thirty of the bodily remains of the Matinecoc tribe took place at Zion churchyard. In that year, the city of New York decided to widen Northern Boulevard into the four-lane road it is today, even though their plan involved the thoughtless destruction of a Matinecock burial ground at the site of what is now Queens County Savings Bank. Despite the impassioned opposition of Chief Wild Pigeon and others, the city pushed forward with its plan, desecrating the original graves and reburying the remains in the Zion churchyard. The site is marked by a great rock split in two with a tree growing in between. A simple inscription is carved upon the stone: “Here rest the last of the Matinecoc.” In 2018, the memorial was restored by Aidan Decker as part of an Eagle Scout project. In November of that year, Chief Harry Wallace led a homecoming burial ceremony for the remains of Matinecock ancestors that had been returned from the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Florida. Though the site was and is a reminder of a shameful moment in our community’s past, it is also a place where people seeking transformation and to restore ties of mutual care have gathered to build a new future.
Walk towards the church. By the drive find a marker “Mott.”
This is the second oldest portion of the churchyard. Members of the Mott family lived in Douglaston since before the Revolutionary War. To the left is a marker of the Van Nostrand family, also long time residents of this area. Many of the earliest markers have been worn smooth by over 165 years of wind, rain, and snow.
Updated 3 October 2019 by Carl Adair