QUEENS — He likes to preach using hand puppets, is passionate about hiking and playing tennis, encourages environmental awareness, and recently performed a same-sex marriage for two of his parishioners.
One of the things Vanek is known for is using two hand puppets — Wrinkle and Mr. Wolf — during his sermons.
"Wrinkle is very positive and upbeat and Mr. Wolf is a little bit of a skeptic," said Vanek, who uses them mostly when he talks to kids, but sometimes also during regular sermons.
Many parishioners said Vanek, 60, who will now be the pastor at the Community Church of the Pelhams in Pelham, N.Y., was more than a clergyman.
“During our one-on-one meetings, sometimes he was a pastor, a counselor, a parent, or a friend — whatever I needed that day”, said Sunny Knable, 30, a musician and current music director of The Church-in-the-Gardens. “I will miss him greatly.”
Vanek, who is married and has two daughters, said his time at the parish "was quite a ride."
The church has been located in a landmarked building at Ascan Avenue and Greenway North in Forest Hills Gardens since 1915 and first held services 100 years ago in a storefront in Station Square.
It is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, and has attracted people of all religious backgrounds, including Catholics, Jews and Buddhists, Vanek said.
“We have a lot of people who are ‘ex,’” Vanek said. “A lot of people who grew a bit dissatisfied with what they used to be and maybe are looking for something different.”
A number of people who come to the church don’t have any religious background, he said.
For Vanek, his message has been simple.
“Jesus reached out to different kinds of people and you try to speak the way maybe he would have,” Vanek said. “You try to talk about things that are important to people and try to touch people’s hearts but with a message that relates to the kinds of things that Christ said.”
Parishioners said Vanek knows how to make people comfortable and how to engage them.
“One of Noel's greatest gifts is to bring people together in a subtle and effective manner,” Knable said.
Vanek grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, and majored in English literature at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He wanted to become a literature professor, but then, according to his biography on the church’s website, he “went to seminary to pursue an 'itch' from God,” that he later continued at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
He came to Forest Hills in 1992, after serving in churches in Michigan, Phoenix and Denver.
The Church-in-the-Gardens, which has about 250 members, serves as a sort of community center and cultural institution.
It hosts numerous classical music concerts, holds a summer food drive, supports a school in Haiti and an orphanage in Cambodia, screens documentary movies about environmental issues and has a composting site in its yard. It also has a pre-K, a Boy Scout troop and a book club.
“Our deepest sense of who we are is that we are a church that serves the community,” Vanek said.
Vanek, parishioners said, was instrumental in starting a popular morning service, which is less formal than the other, more traditional one, and features contemporary Christian music. Both services are followed by a coffee hour that allows parishioners to get to know each other and maintain friendships.
Many said they felt they had a special bond with him.
Jack Quinn, 46, a manager at a marketing company and a Kew Gardens resident, said he met Vanek at a candlelight vigil at Ground Zero shortly after 9/11. His speeches inspired him and his partner Curtis, and they started attending the Church-in-the-Gardens, even though he was raised Catholic and his partner was raised Lutheran.
A few months ago Vanek performed their marriage at the church.
“He told us that performing our marriage, the first same-sex marriage performed in the 100-year church history to two existing church members, was a highlight of his career,” Quinn said. “It certainly was a highlight of our time at the church.”
After Vanek’s departure, the Rev. Bonnie McDougall Olson, who worked at the church in the past and who serves as a Protestant chaplain at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village, is returning to the parish as its temporary pastor, Vanek said.