Excerpt of illustration by James Gurney of the Church of the Messiah

A Look Back

The history of a church is really the history of a faith community. Messiah like many churches has had an interesting history that reflects the relationship of individuals to the larger context of their time. There have been moments of grandeur as well as challenges over the past century and a half.

But even more importantly than the historical narrative of people and events, is the way that our history has shaped who we are today. I think it is safe to say that the people in the pews at Messiah a hundred years ago might be surprised that the church is no longer a torch for social position but a beacon for social change. Instead of pews filled with the rich and famous, we are by and large ordinary people: men and women, young and old, gay and straight. We have changed as a people, but we worship in a building that is spectacularly beautiful and represents the best of what we can offer.

What has remained a constant in our history is that we are real people with a deep faith in God. The people who shaped our history were real as well and what follows in greater detail is their story. We may not be the same as them but we celebrate the same faith and connection with God, here in this place. If interested we invite you to read more about our story.


The history of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah is inextricably linked to the historical context of the local community and our nation. This part of the Hudson River Valley was dominated by other Christian denominations, most notably the Dutch Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church. This reflects the settlement in our area by immigrants from Northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Although there were English settlers here, many were loyal to the English crown and fled to Canada or England during the American Revolution.

It was not until February 13, 1831 that the first Episcopal worship service was conducted by the Rev. Samuel R. Johnson, rector of St. James’ Church in Hyde Park.

He encouraged the few local Episcopalians to meet regularly for public worship.

During the next twenty years, services were held on one or two Sunday afternoons each month, except during the winter months. Services were usually held in space provided in the Baker Building (the site of the present Village Hall), and later in the Baptist chapel (the site of the present Terrapin restaurant). The Rev. Johnson and his successors of St. James’ Church conducted these afternoon services for a growing congregation.

On August 8, 1852, the Church of the Messiah was organized and incorporated. The Rev. Richard S. Adams was chosen to be the first rector of the Church of the Messiah. He had been an assistant rector at St. James’ Church of Hyde Park. A site at the corner of East Market and Mulberry Streets was donated by Rutsen Suckley for a church building. The Vestry chose George Veitch, architect, to plan and construct the new building. The cornerstone was laid on September 16, 1852, and the structure was completed and occupied the following year. The founding of Messiah in the mid 19th century reflects the tremendous growth of the Episcopal Church in New York State. During this period many towns and villages had their own parish church.

At the Vestry meeting on June 8, 1854, pew rents were set at $20, $15, $10 and $8 per year, depending on the pew location. Unlike current preferences the favorite pews were in the front of the building, not by the entrance. The church was consecrated on October 6, 1855 by the Rt. Rev. Horatio Potter, Provisional Bishop of the Diocese of New York. The text for his sermon was Psalms 96: 7-9: “Give unto the Lord, O ye kindreds of the people, give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come into his courts. O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.”

The church was renovated in 1879 when the wooden structure was painted inside and out, and gas lighting fixtures were installed. On June 29, 1857, the Fulton house at 82 Montgomery Street was purchased for use as a rectory. It housed the first nine rectors of the church.

A New Church Building

By the early 1890′s the congregation had grown in numbers, and the church building needed extensive renovations. The roof leaked badly, plaster crumbled and fell, and the balcony was unsafe. At many vestry meetings during that time, a new and larger church building was discussed. In November 1896, property at the corner of Montgomery and Chestnut Streets was donated to the Church of the Messiah by two vestrymen, Dr. George N. Miller of The Grove and Mr. Robert Suckley of Wilderstein. Mr. John Jacob Astor, Churchwarden, gave a house on Mill Street to be sold and all proceeds applied to the construction of a new church building. The presence in the congregation of families such as the Suckleys and Astors reflected the tremendous changes occurring in the Hudson valley at the time. Great fortunes had been made after the Civil War and these wealthy families began to build homes in our area. Attracted by the beautiful setting and escaping the unhealthy, crowded conditions of New York City, millionaires built houses along the river and many were Episcopalians.

The rector at the time, Rev. Ernest C. Saunders, was largely responsible for instituting and carrying out the building fund. Hoppin & Koen, architects from New York City, designed the new church in the Gothic Revival style. Craving an aristocratic lineage, the newly rich favored architecture that referenced European and especially English styles. The new building would look as if it could be sitting on an English village green.

The cornerstone of the new Church of the Messiah was laid by Archdeacon Burgess on Wednesday, July 7, 1897 at 12 o’clock noon. The clergy assembled at the Starr Institute and processed to the grounds. Hundreds of people were in attendance in spite of the intense summer heat.

Rock from Tator Hill, about a mile north of the church, and supplied by Staley & Gay was used in the construction with trimmings of Indiana limestone. The masonry was done by Curnan & Kearns, and the carpentry was by Ackert & Brown, all of Rhinebeck. The interior is of oak wainscoting and Philadelphia pressed brick, and the ceiling is of cypress.

Consecration of the new church was delayed because one of the architects and John Jacob Astor, churchwarden, were fighting in the Spanish-American War. Finally, on June 17, 1899 the stone church was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Henry Cadman Potter. Several stained glass windows and many of the furnishings were given as memorials.

The Traver Memorial Window in the Choir Room was installed in the first church building in 1894. This window was removed, cut down to fit the new opening and installed in the new church in 1898.Other windows installed in 1898 were: The William B. Astor Memorial Window, the Rev. Aaron Olmsted Memorial Window, the Susan Watts Street Memorial Window, and the Florence Adele Kip Humbert Memorial Window. The remaining windows were provided by Heinigke & Bowen of New York City. From the beginning the benefactors of the new church used the most renowned artists and craftsmen of their time to create a building that is extraordinary in its beauty. It heartens to a unique period in design, which was the Edwardian period, popularized in the PBS series Downton Abbey. The building may have been designed to resemble an English Manor hall with its oak wainscoting and honey colored brick walls. Rather than grand tapestries or paintings, the beautiful stained glass windows grace the walls as a collection of art, given by wealthy benefactors. Messiah was designed as an architectural transition between the Victorian style and the later 20th century reinterpretation of the Gothic revival.

The Early Twentieth Century


The Titanic Connection

Col. John Jacob Astor was the son of William and Caroline Astor. The Astors at the time were among the richest and most powerful families in America. Caroline Astor held tight control over New York society and the expression, the Four Hundred, referred to the number of people that Mrs Astor found acceptable to invite to her lavish balls in her New York City mansion.

John Jacob Astor was very active in the building of the new church building. He also served as warden of the parish for many years. He had divorced his wife and remarried a much younger woman, creating a scandal that drove the newlyweds to Europe. By the spring of 1912 the scandal had died down and John and Madeline Astor decided to return to New York, booking passage on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. Madeline Astor survived but John died on April 15th, 1912. His body was recovered and brought to Messiah for his funeral.

The Rector wrote in the parish record book the following notation:

Col J.J. Astor was a churchwarden of the Church of the Messiah for sixteen years and was always a regular attendant at church and a frequent communicant when staying at Ferncliff. He was a member of the Building Committee under which the present church was erected and a large contributor to its building fund. He was also a liberal contributor towards the maintenance of the church. He was drowned in consequence of the sinking of the S.S. Titanic on her maiden trip from England, in four hours after striking an iceberg, when more than 1600 people lost their lives. He showed the greatest calmness and heroism, and died nobly, after assisting other passengers to escape in the boats, in which 700 were saved. His body was recovered by the S.S. Mackay-Bennett (which had been sent out to look for bodies) two days after the wreck, and was brought home for burial. His tragic end is deeply regretted by the parish and village, of which he was a great benefactor.  Ernest Saunders, Rector

Later Madeline gave a stained glass window in her husbands memory, which depicts Jesus walking on the water, an image that Madeline hoped comforted her husband as he faced death. She also chose very dark glass for the window as she remembered how dark it was in the lifeboat that night.

Prior to World War I, at the suggestion of Rev. Francis Little, Norman Coke-Jephcott, organist choirmaster, began a Choristers School. Mr. Tracy Dows bought the Westervelt residence at 62 Montgomery Street to house the private boarding school. Mr. Charles Pennington, whom Rev. Little knew, was hired as head master. The school opened on Monday, September 20, 1915, and was financed especially by Mr. Tracy Dows. In June 1918 the Choristers School was permanently closed. The expense of running it was very great, and with the war going on, teachers were hard to get. For the following eight years after the Choir School closed, the building was used as a Parish House. Then it was sold.

Norman Coke-Jephcott presented weekly organ recitals for Sunday Evensong, and frequently performed at the Cathedral of St John the Divine and in Albany at the Cathedral of All Saints. During World War I, joint worship services with the Reformed Dutch Church were prompted by coal shortages and other wartime difficulties. The Rev. Francis K. Little, rector of the Church of the Messiah, served as an Army chaplain and was absent from his pulpit from March 1918 until August 1919.

Deaconess Mary Clelland West provided religious instruction for the Episcopal children in Rhinebeck and carried on the work of the parish during those war years. It is notable that a woman maintained the pastoral care of Messiah, rather than an ordained clergyman. As women gained the vote and a greater prominence in our society, Deaconess West provided the leadership in the parish that assured its survival.


Post World War I Years

Following World War I, there were many changes to the church interior. Douglas Merritt donated a bell to the church as a thank offering for the safe return of his daughter, Ethel D. Merritt, from war service in France. Miss Merritt went to France before the United States entered World War I, and served as a nurse with the French army. The bell, made by the Meneely Company of Troy, NY, pitched in B flat, is delicate and graceful in shape.


The Pipe Organ

The pipe organ was built especially for this building by E. M. Skinner, and donated to the Church of the Messiah by Capt. Vincent Astor in 1921. The organ chamber contains three stories of pipes. The Skinner reputation was deservedly very high, and the company built organs for American’s finest churches and universities. This Skinner organ has all the essential elements: warm, rich foundation stops, accompaniment voices of great beauty (especially the Swell strings); and superb solo reeds (tuba, English horn, and Flugelhorn).

A twenty-note tubular set of chimes, electrically operated from the console at both keys and pedals, was installed by the Skinner Company in July 1930, also a gift of Capt. Astor. The chimes add to the scope of this beautiful instrument.


The Memorial Chancel

Soon after World War I, the idea of a suitable memorial to those who gave their lives in the conflict began to arise. After much consideration and discussion, plans were presented to the vestry on October 4, 1921 by the rector, the Rev. Francis K. Little. The chancel area was finally renovated while the Rev. Gabriel Farrell was rector of the parish. The renowned architect, Bertram Goodhue oversaw the renovations which are a more austere interpretation of the gothic style. The lectern was the first gift toward the new chancel. It was given in 1921 by Mrs. William G. Lowe as a thank offering for the recovery from a serious illness of her daughter, Mrs. Francis K. Little. Designed by W. J. Anthony, it is a stately and beautiful piece of wood carving. The lectern has a V-shaped top, forming book rests for the two Testaments which can be turned as each lesson is read. There is a three-branched pedestal and at the top of each branch, there is a statuette, exquisitely carved in wood. The figures are those of St. Francis, St. Esther, and St. Lois. The lectern is stained a rich black, polychromed and embellished in gold. Other memorials given at that time include the Altar – in memory of Henry Montgomery Suckley, Arthur Gerald Haen and George N. Miller, Jr., The Chancel Paneling – the tribute of the parish to those who served in World War I, and the Parapet, Clergy and Choir stalls – in memory of Col. John Jacob Astor.

In May of 1928 the Memorial Chancel was dedicated by the Bishop of New York to honor those who died in World War I. This chancel was modified from the original one and now projects into the nave in order to get the necessary sense of depth. The chancel lanterns, a memorial to John Langdon, hang from the chancel’s beamed ceiling, not only to furnish light, but also to enhance the perception of height and depth so desired in this space. The altar is of Premier Tavernelle marble, quarried in Tennessee. The marble was selected for its mottled texture and warm cream color. The chancel floor is covered with black and white Belgian marble.

During the 1960′s, the chancel was brightened and enriched with the addition of needlepoint cushions, kneelers and a rug. Religious symbols found in the church were used for the designs on the cushions and kneelers. Members of the Altar Guild, under the direction of Mrs. Clyde K. Miller, Jr., skillfully executed all the needlework. People paid for the cost of the materials and gave them as memorials.

More Recently

A columbarium where the ashes of parishioners can be interred was built in the Tyler Memorial Chapel. A memorial garden was also created providing another alternative for burial on the church property.

Three new memorial stained glass windows were installed, and the Susan Watts Street Memorial Window by LaFarge was restored.

The parish hall has been expanded, providing classrooms for our thriving church school. Air conditioning has been installed in the parish hall and church.

In 2002, as a thank offering for our first one hundred fifty years as a parish, we have had carillons installed. They proclaim our faith and unity as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ to the community of Rhinebeck and all who pass through it.

In 2010 Fr. Richard was called as Rector of Messiah and he and his partner, Tim Lewis arrived in August of that year. In June 2017, Fr. Richard and Tim were married by the Bishop of New York at Messiah.

Through the generosity of the parish, the Diocese of New York and a number of local granting organizations, over $6million was raised to save and restore both the building and the organ.

Recalling the words spoken by Bishop Potter when he preached at our founding in 1854, we celebrate our past, live in our present and pray for our future.


Compiled and submitted by Joanne L. Brunson and Richard McKeon, 2002; revised 3/2004 and 7/2017