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Millerton to lose one of its churches

MILLERTON — While closing doors has been the plight of many churches nationwide between the changing culture and COVID-19, the Millerton community was nonetheless saddened to learn of the First Presbyterian Church of Millerton’s plans to close in the next couple of months. Having struggled with its diminishing attendance of congregants, the church has decided to struggle no more by closing in January.

Established at 58 Main St., the First Presbyterian Church was first incorporated in 1847. To this day, many of its active congregants can trace their long ties to the church through their grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives who once occupied the church pews.

In addition to its sermons and Sunday school, the church has been a place for monthly community dinners, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, the Millerton Food Pantry, the Medical Loan Closet, English as a Second Language classes, Spanish services, Vacation Bible School and even a thrift store.

While their beloved sanctuary offered such services to benefit their community — not to mention regular and holiday church services — the church elders did their utmost to be good stewards of the property.

From installing a new roof in the 1990s and two new furnaces to repaving the driveway, the elders have been taking care of the church’s maintenance and operations over the years. Yet in spite of their earnest efforts, those elders said they have struggled to attract people to the church and increase participation these past 20 years.

In speaking with First Presbyterian Church Elder Linda Kaplan, she said just last week that the church usually sees only four or five people out in the pews.

With the majority of the elders on the session (or the group that governs the church) over the age of 70 — three of whom participate in the church choir — Kaplan said there are too few people to help take care of the church’s daily operations. And while they’ve tried many different things to attract people, she said it seems to be the way of the world that people have not come back to church.

Just this past summer, Kaplan said the church tried to host Vacation Bible School for the first time in years, but despite their planning and preparations, no one signed up. By the time that VBS was to begin, no on had registered and the program had to be canceled.

When the COVID-19 virus first hit the U.S. and New York, making its way to  northeastern Dutchess County and Millerton, the church strived to adjust to the “new normal,” added its pastor. It did so by hosting Saturday evening services and opening its sanctuary to the community, though attendance continued to dwindle.

“I kind of had hope people would come back after the pandemic,” said Pastor Zora Cheatham, reverend of both the First Presbyterian Church of Millerton and the South Amenia Presbyterian Church. “But that didn’t happen and it seems to happen to other churches that people haven’t come back.”

Cheatham attributed the diminishing church attendance to the number of older active parishioners who moved away to be closer to family members during the pandemic. She also said there’s been a changing culture in which younger people aren’t going to church.

Based on what she’s read about what’s been happening to churches nationally, the pastor said COVID-19 has been a major factor in disconnecting people from the church community, particularly with shifting people from attending services in-person to virtually.

The societal changes and the loss of enthusiasm for attending church have led those governing the decision making at the Millerton Presbyterian Church to decide to close its doors for good come January. The decision was not easy to make, said Kaplan.

“It’s a very sad thing for all of us to be doing, but it’s something we have to do,” she said. “It comes a point where it doesn’t make sense anymore to keep struggling, and the thing is if you don’t have young people, you don’t have a future.”

“Certainly it’s heartbreaking and concerning and alarming,” said Gail Rohr, a church elder at the South Amenia Presbyterian Church, roughly a half hour south of its sister church in Millerton. “I think many people in the village are going to say how surprised they are that the church is closing, but it’s dwindled down to such a small amount of people showing up and people, I think, have started to come to church for the big events in their lives and they forget the costs it takes to keep the building open all year long.”

At this time, Kaplan said the church is planning to have a Christmas Eve candlelight service at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 24, which will be the church’s final official service.

On Sunday, Jan. 23, at 4 p.m., the church will hold a celebratory closing service for the community, followed by a reception.

Till then, Kaplan said, “We’re still in the midst of [planning] how everything is going to go.”

There are currently a handful of churches in the village of Millerton and town of North East, including the North East Baptist Church (which just lost its leader of more than six decades, Pastor Henry Prause), the Millerton Methodist Church (which has also struggled financially and held many fundraisers) and St. Patrick’s Chapel (which closed in 2017 but still has a cemetery on site) and the Faith Bible Chapel at 222 Silver Mountain Road in North East.

The Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall on Route 22 in Millerton, which was founded in 1986, closed in March 2022, as a spokesman from its U.S. branch in Walkill said the entire ministry has shifted to function totally online throughout the U.S. and closed its public ministry," adding he has no idea if or when it will return in person.

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