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Greenpoint Church Once on the Brink of Closing Celebrates 150th Anniversary

By Gwynne Hogan | September 13, 2017 1:58pm
 St. John's Lutheran Church celebrates its 150th year this fall. 
St. John's Lutheran Church, Greenpoint
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GREENPOINT — She gave up the "lesbian redneck dream" to save a local church.

Pastor Katrina Foster, 49, an ordained Lutheran minister with a knack for turning around struggling churches, was enjoying a blissful existence in the Hamptons, overseeing two congregations and exploring the great outdoors in her spare time when she got "a call" from God to save a 150-year-old Brooklyn church.

"I was hunting. I was in a gun club. I was fishing," Foster said. "I was living the lesbian redneck dream."

Then, in 2015, she got a call from Lutheran Bishop Alan Rimbo, who oversees around 200 congregations in the Metropolitan area, to tell her about St. John's Church on Milton Street, in Greenpoint. Rimbo wanted to sell the church and combine its congregation with the Park Church Co-Op across from McGolrick Park, also owned by the Lutherans, Foster said.

They were down to about six faithful congregants on a good Sunday, they hadn't had a full-time pastor since the '70s, and to top it all off, the landmarked church was falling apart.

"He basically did not see a future for St. John's. Not even Jesus can make this place work," he'd said. Foster saw it as a call from God, she said. She made a snap decision and called her wife, who "has veto power."

"We're moving to Brooklyn," she said. "If we don't, he's going to close the church." 

They sold much of what they owned, made school arrangements for their teenage daughter and moved to Greenpoint all within a matter of weeks, she said.

Now, as the congregation celebrates its 150th anniversary in Greenpoint, two years since Pastor Foster walked in the doors at the red brick Milton Street church, it has swung back in a way longtime parishioners prayed for but couldn't have imagined. 

"The right thing probably would have been to sell one and move into the other church. But each congregation loved their church," said Ruth Haupert-Legemann, 91, a lifelong member and third-generation member, whose grandparents first began attending in 1890, taking a boat across the Newtown Creek from their home in Blissville, a small section of Long Island City, long before the Pulaski Bridge was built.

"We just kept praying," she said. "Then they sent us Pastor Foster."

Pastor Foster alongside the church's oldest living parishioner, Ruth Haupert-Legemann, 91, whose grandparents began attending the church in 1890. (DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan)

St. John's now keeps its doors open to the public every day, and between 100 and 300 people filter in and out of each week, between play rehearsals and performances, Cub Scout meetings, meditation classes, choir practice, a book club, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, film shoots, community meetings, and a free meal each Saturday open to anyone who is "human and hungry," Foster said.

"It's alive and busy and bringing in income which we desperately need," she said.

The church is slowly but steadily increasing the number of people who turn out for weekly services, up to about 30 people each Sunday. Foster is able to appeal to LGBTQ neighbors, who see her, her wife and her daughter in service most weeks.

"People are looking for community and for relationships," she said. "We are a Jesus-loving, neighbor-loving community of people."

While things at St. John's seem to be on the upswing, they're far from out of the woods, Foster said.

Their biggest challenge now is upkeep of the building. They've begun to eke away at repairs investing $250,000 to fix the plumbing, roofing, repairing leaks and the building's landmarked facade.

There are cosmetic fixes, that are years away, like the palm-sized scales of peeling paint, flaking from walls and molding throughout the church.

Cosmetic fixes will be years away, as the church prioritizes essential structural work on leaks, roofing, the plumbing and the facade. (DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan)

St. John's congregation was founded on Sept. 8, 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War.

The physical church that stands at 155 Milton St. was built in the 1890s by a Brooklyn architect Theobold Engelhart commissioned by one of the parishioners, according to the City's Landmark Preservation Commission.

Soon after the church opened, English builder George Jardine constructed an impressive tracker-action pipe organ, which is powered by a complex wooden lever system rather than electricity, which is still operable today.

Foster has just hired a music director to play the organ each week at service and to run a choir after church Sunday.

 

Sounds from the 125 year old pipe organ at St. John's Lutheran Church in Greenpoint.

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"We haven't had a choir in decades," she said, yet another sign St. John's is here to stay. 

"Everything is going in the right direction."

St. John's will celebrate its 150th anniversary on Oct. 15 from 4 to 7 p.m. at 155 Milton St. For more information about programming at the church, visit its website.