St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

History: Parish and Building

Before St. John’s


Prior to Europeans coming to this continent, the land where Kingston, NY now sits was inhabited by Lanape people and called Lenapeyok. The local clan were the Esopus. The Dutch settlers made their way up the (now) Hudson River under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company and in the 1650’s established Wiltwyck. It is widely thought that the first permanent settler, Thomas Chambers, lived in what is now the St. John’s Rectory at the back of the property.

As tensions increased between the Dutch settlers and the local Esopus clan, General Peter Stuyvesant constructed a wall around the central part of town (now known as the Stockade). In 1664, the Dutch ceded land to the British who created a transactional co-existence with the Esopus and in 1669 renamed the town Kingston. Current residents here are familiar with Kingston’s role in the Revolutionary War and it’s status as the first capital of New York State (1777-1797).

St. John’s Beginnings

St. John’s on Wall St. in Kingston

The Dutch Reformed Church was a continuous presence in Kingston from the time of the earliest Dutch settlers in the 1650’s. Other Christian denominations formed informal worshipping communities as they arrived – Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Episcopalians.

On June 24, 1832 (the Nativity of St. John the Baptist), St. John’s Episcopal Church was formally chartered as one of the first English language congregations in Kingston under the leadership of the Rev. Reuben Sherwood. A lot was purchased on Wall Street for $550 (the building where the current Kingston Candy Bar is), with a grant from Trinity Episcopal Church (Wall St. in Manhattan) and built our first building that was consecrated in 1835, the new priest being the Rev. John Downey.

In 1847, the Church of the Holy Spirit was instituted in the village of Rondout with 42 members, formerly of St. John’s. Over the coming years, St. John’s would become more and more a part of the “Uptown” Kingston landscape under the leadership of several rectors: The Revs. Henry Davis, William Curtis, George Sayres, George Waters, and F. Marion McAllister.

The nave of St. John’s on Wall St.

In 1869, a house was purchased on Green St. in Kingston, giving the St. John’s rector a place to live. When the Rev. Walter Delafield became rector in 1873, he tried to introduce high church practices and, after being summarily reprimanded by the vestry, resigned. Following him were Revs. Clarence Buel and Charles Camp.

In 1885, the Rev. Lewis Wattson came to St. John’s while he was still a deacon. He was a charismatic leader and a proponent of the Oxford Movement who sought to renew the church through “high” worship and service to the poor. Once he was ordained priest in 1886, Wattson was elected rector in and in 1891 was encouraged by St. John’s leaders to found Holy Cross Mission in the vicinity of the railroad (now Holy Cross/Santa Cruz Episcopal Church on Pine Grove Ave.). Eventually Wattson resigned over growing discontent about high worship and in 1893, in an effort to effect Christian unity, he founded a community at Graymoor called the Friars and Sisters of Atonement. He later converted to Roman Catholicism and changed his name to Paul. St. John’s still receives visits from novices of this community.

The Early 20th Century: Changes and Moves

This old map of the Stockade District shows the exact location of St. John’s on Wall St.

During the first part of the century, St. John’s was led by the Revs. J.H. Watson, Edgar Murphy (under whose leadership a parish house was erected behind the church), Octavius Applegate, Henry Meisner, Charles Kennedy, J.I. Blair Larned, and Leighton Williams.

In 1919, the Keeney Movie Theatre moved in next door to St. John’s and over the next few years, vaudeville became a part of the entertainment there. While it has been reported that this was the reason for the sale of the property on Wall St., that story is not entirely accurate. Property in “Uptown” had become sought after and a real estate broker approached St. John’s in 1925 with an offer of $110,000 (almost $2 M in today’s rates). After much deliberation by the vestry, they decided to accept the offer.

St. John’s then purchased a lot on Albany Ave. from Mrs. Williams Carter, who owned and lived in the large house in the lot immediately behind (today’s rectory). Meanwhile, the Rev. Edward Knapp, who had led the lay leadership of St. John’s through these difficult decisions, became ill with pneumonia and died. The current pulpit was given as a gift in his honor.

The crowd gathers at the new foundation on Albany Ave.

Bishop William Manning was present to lay the cornerstone of the new building in 1926 and then sent the Rev. Halstead Watkins to help oversee the rebuilding of St. John’s as it was taken apart, stone by stone with each stone numbered, and then transported in parishioners’ cars to be carefully reconstructed.  The congregation worshipped in the Tremper House (corner of Front St. and Clinton Ave) during the construction. The Rev. William Kemper was called as the next rector and St. John’s celebrated both the institution of their new rector and the dedication of the re-erection of the church on October 21, 1927.

While the edifice remained the same, the interior changed dramatically. The rood screen was removed, the pews were re-ordered from 2 aisles into one center aisle, and a long chancel was built to accommodate choir seating between the pews and the altar. This is reflective of the movement to a higher form of worship – processions into and out of the nave. Many financial gifts were made by parishioners to complete this new building and adorn it with decor and vestments.

The current quire and nave of St. John’s on Albany Ave.

At the same time, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit (now, St. Mark’s AME Church) surrendered their charter due to a drop in membership. The proceeds of the property sale in 1934 were split between Holy Cross and St. John’s and placed into an endowment on their behalf.

During these first years in the new building, the choir (all male members), under the direction of Mr. Robert Williams grew and became regionally known. Several parish organizations were developed – the Monday Guild, the Women’s Auxiliary, the Parish Aid Society (all 3 women’s organizations), and the Men’s Club. In June 1932, St. John’s celebrated its first century and Rev. Kemper retired in 1937.

Mid-Century Stability

The Rev. Maurice Venno was elected rector in 1937 and women were given the right to vote at the annual meeting that same year. During the next 5 years, St. John’s would see enhancements of the chancel, including a choir screen (which was later removed and is now in the basement) and a new

Raredos and paneling surround the quire.

altar and reredos hand carved by French-American artist George Huber, who had recently moved to Rosendale from New York City. The large carved wooden figures on the reredos represent St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, Moses, and the prophet Isaiah. The former altar containing beautiful mosaics of angels and the rising sun, now sits upstairs in the St. John’s Godly Play room.

In 1938, St. John’s purchased the estate of Harriet Carter for $7,000 – a house and 10 acres of land immediately behind St. John’s. The decision was made to restore the house to a more original pre-Revolutionary War structure, complete with stone walls. The work was done by architect Myron Teller and cost $8,000. A more recent study was done on the beams in the rectory basement and it was discovered that they date to the 1650’s, which corresponds with the date of European settlement.

The current rectory covered in snow.

Rev. Venno enlisted in the Navy to be a chaplain in World War II in 1942 and later that same year, the vestry called the Rev. Robert Shellenberger to be the new rector. He set up a small altar in the organ alcove so that family members could pray for their loved ones who were fighting in WWII.

Throughout the 1940’s, George Huber’s work continued to be installed in the St. John’s chancel, the wood coming from reclaimed warships – pulpit rail, choir stalls, lectern, cathedra, organ screen, among others. The crucifix with the figures of Mother Mary and John the beloved disciple, was hung in 1946.

A New Era

In 1955, the IBM Corporation opened a programming center just outside of Kingston, bringing hundreds of new families to town. St. John’s became a place for many of these families to worship. Lay leadership transitioned as families moved away and the membership of St. John’s was filled with newly arriving people.

Cornerstone of the new building on Albany Ave.

In 1957, WKNY purchased 2 acres from St. John’s in the lowlands behind the rectory on which they built a radio tower/transmitter. Today, WKNY is better known as Radio Kingston. In 1959, Evelyn Chilson became the first woman to serve on the St. John’s vestry, after the Diocese of New York approved the membership of woman on vestries at convention the previous year. And in 1964, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church proposed a revision of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. This would prove to have a major impact on the worship life of St. John’s as well as the rest of the Episcopal Church.

In 1972, Rev. Shellenberger retired after nearly 30 years, the longest term of any St. John’s rector. And in 1973, the vestry called the Rev. Mark Sisk (future Bishop of the Diocese of New York). Rev. Sisk oversaw the transition into the 1976 Book of Common Prayer, continuing with the 1928 book at the 8:00 am worship service while introducing worship from the new book at 10:30 am. Eucharist was celebrated twice a month and the altar was moved out away from the wall so that the priest could face the congregation during Eucharist. Additionally, lay people were licensed for various worship ministries, including women and girls. Mary Bishop was the first woman licensed as a lay reader  and chalice bearer and Laurie Mine was the first girl to be an acolyte.

Stained glass in the afternoon light.

Sunday School ranks swelled in the 1970’s as families grew so St. John’s began a youth program. And, as St. John’s was continuing to elect more women to the vestry, women across the Episcopal Church also became delegates to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church and were able to be ordained deacons. Soon after, the Episcopal Church would face the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood. You can learn more about the turbulent journey of the Philadelphia 11 here. Then in 1977, Rev. Sisk retired and the vestry called the Rev. Christopher David. In 1988, former rector Robert Shellenberger died and the parish hall was named in his memory.

Later in 1988, the vestry called St. John’s first woman rector, the Rev. Janet Vincent-Scaringe, a significant choice since there were very few women rectors anywhere in the church at that time. She oversaw the full implementation of the 1976 Book of Common Prayer by celebrating Eucharist every Sunday, and moving the worship of the 8:00 am service to Rite I (from the 1928 prayer book). Finally, to enable Baptisms as a public sacrament, the font was moved from its small room off the narthex and placed on a platform at back of the nave in 1991. The baptismal window was moved to its current location, and a baptismal icon was installed over the font.

The 1990’s saw St. John’s parishioner Joe Nicklas ordained to the diaconate, as well as a host of projects to upgrade the buildings and grounds including including the installation of the ramp in 1990 and renovation of the parish hall in 1993. This decade also saw the downsizing of IBM, which had a significant impact on the community of Kingston and the membership of St. John’s.

The volunteers of Angel Food East.

In 1992, in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, St. John’s began hosting a newly formed ministry called Angel Food East. Originally begun as a grocery delivery service to those who were ostracized because of the disease, the St. John’s kitchen began to be used for cooking meals for these homebound people. The reputation of the organization grew and so did the client base. St. John’s raised money to upgrade the kitchen equipment to support this growing ministry. Today, Angel Food East continues operating as it’s own program, serving and delivering 5 meals every week to approximately 70 homebound clients.

Rev. Vincent resigned in 1996 to take another call. In 1997, the vestry organized a committee to oversee the renovation and enlargement of the kitchen to support the continued growth of Angel Food East’s ministry. Then, in 1998, the vestry called the Rev. Joan Jackson as the next rector and parishioner Sue Bonsteel, an active vestry person and lay leader, was ordained to the diaconate. Throughout her ordained ministry, Deacon Sue would serve St. John’s as well as Christ the King in Stone Ridge before retiring from active ministry in 2021.

The 21st Century

The St. Francis Memorial Garden and Columbarium.

The coming years saw the expansion of the pastoral care team, the purchase and installation of the columbarium, the development of the St. Francis Memorial Garden, the overhaul of the church bell to include a digital controller, and the renovation of the Altar Guild closet. Rev. Jackson retired in 2002 and Stephen Woods was called to be the next rector in 2003.

Then, in 2004, the Rev. Duncan Burns was called to be rector. During his tenure, St. John’s developed a Godly Play program that included a significant effort to create all the materials needed. Under Leah Siuta’s direction, our Godly Play program still continues today. St. John’s participated in a mission trip to Tanzania, under the leadership of Suffragan Bishop Catherine Roskam, and the vestry embarked on a restoration project of the stained glass windows. Other projects were accomplished at this time thanks to significant bequests given to St. John’s. In 2014, Rev. Burns resigned and, during the interim, the vestry approved a partial renovation of the St. John’s rectory to upgrade the bathrooms and kitchen.

Summer Pride at St. John’s.

Over the previous decade, the larger Episcopal Church had gone through a number of battles in its journey for full inclusion of  LGBTQ people, brought to a head in 2003 when the Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay man as it’s new bishop, an event that rocked the larger Church. Rev. Burns married the first same-gender couple at St. John’s. Then, in 2016, The Rev. Michelle Meech was elected as the next rector, the first openly gay priest to hold that position. She led the congregation during the COVID-19 pandemic and oversaw a renewal of family ministry by the full inclusion of children in worship. Rev. Meech also helped to found the Kingston Interfaith Council which was instrumental in ensuring people were vaccinated during the pandemic. She resigned in 2024.

Currently, St. John’s is in a transition period as we discern our future leadership and look toward the celebration of 100 years of ministry on Albany Ave. in 1927 and 200 of ministry as a congregation in 1932.