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The fellowship of St. Gregory's came into being in 1949 when Mr. George Hard sought healing ministry for his mother, Fanny, a Woodstock native who was too ill to travel. Mr. Hard appealed to Father Herald Swezy, the rector of the Church of the Ascension in West Park (just below Rhinebeck on the east side of the Hudson), and Father Swezy agreed to visit with Fanny and a handful of other worshipers every other Sunday at four in the afternoon. Less than a year later, in response to the spiritual thirst of his growing congregation in Woodstock (home services had swelled to as many as forty-five people!) Father Swezy offered a Eucharistic service once a month at the American Legion Hall in town.
FROM CORN CRIB TO A-FRAME
The History of St. Gregory's
“The architect for the Diocese was named William Van Benschoten,” Helen Jackson recalled. “He was a member of the Church of the Ascension in West Park. Father Swezy and he were very closely connected—you know, good friends and both down-to-earth. And Van—they called him Van—would call my Pop and they’d have long discussions about the church… The Ladies Guild (as they called themselves) didn’t want a box church with a steeple on it. They were very powerful and firm. In fact, Allie Wardwell was really… she was… Well, she’d given the property, so why shouldn’t she be? She stood up against the men of the Diocese!”
As Father Swezy noted more than half a century ago, St. Gregory’s should be a church reflecting “the talents and crafts of the people.” Or, as a former church warden, Stuart Auchincloss remarked, ours is a church where everyone is encouraged “to pitch in,” to contribute according to their talent and their sense of calling. Through successive ministries of inspired (and inspiring) pastors, the nurturance and fostering of the creative potential of every parishioner has been a constant theme. However that potential may be revealed—whether in music or drama, in gardening or visual arts, in writing, singing, or in silence—St. Gregory’s offers the rich soil in which God-given talents may grow. “At St. Gregory’s, we recognize the arts as an expression of God’s love and we nurture the creative spirit.” So reads the second of our six Core Values. “We are a community where acceptance, encouragement and love awaken the desire to give something back.” So reads the sixth. Fitting it is, then, that our church is named for the patron saint of the arts.
In 1957, the New York Diocese recognized the innovative design of the resulting structure in a letter: “This was not an easy church to build. It was designed to employ unusual structures and new materials. The structural skeleton of glued, laminated timbers is of a type never before built and required a high order of precision in its erection. When the last wooden beam was put into place over 50 feet in the air, it fitted perfectly. Then the large windows had to be built and installed exactly as planned. You are to be commended for the fine building you produced.” The author of the letter added that the Diocese liked to cite St. Gregory’s “as a shining example of the ability of a small group of worshipers to erect an outstanding church in the service of God and community.”
Many local artists had contributed work to furnish the tiny chapel on Frederica Milne’s property (the altar and altar rail were created by Richard Eschmann, the pews by Clark Neher) and much of that work was transferred to the new church upon its completion in 1957. The weathervane—an angel with a horn—and the remarkable abstract cross that hangs above the altar (both works of Eduardo Chavez) are tangible examples of the creative, hands-on ethos that has informed the spirit of St. Gregory’s Church from its inception.
The following year, Frederica Milne, one of the early congregants, volunteered her guest house, a converted corn crib, for regular Sunday services. "We met there summer and winter," Helen Jackson, a long-time parishioner reflected. "Frederica had a big pot-bellied stove. If you sat up near the stove, you roasted."
In the summer of 1954, with Father Swezy working both sides of the Hudson every Sunday, and attendance at the Corn Crib growing, the Diocese of New York decreed that the chapel on Mrs. Milne’s property was no longer big enough for regular services, and that a new location would have to be found. A formal application for mission status was submitted that fall and approved the following spring, at which time Alice
Wardwell, another devoted member of the early congregation, donated four-acres of land directly across the road from the small chapel with the big pot-bellied stove. In the fall of 1955, ground-breaking ceremonies were conducted and construction of the present church was begun.
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