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Coup de grace: Bay Ridge church to close

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The Church of Generals is being decommissioned.

The congregation at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bay Ridge is decamping from the building where Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson once worshipped and combining forces with Christ Church, the priest-in-charge announced after services on June 29. A lay leader said the news was not exactly a shock.

“It’s a difficult situation but by no means came as a surprise to anyone — realities being what they are these days with people not attending church as much,” said lay leader David Chicaguala. “We’re excited and looking forward to the opportunities for ministry in Bay Ridge, and that’s first and foremost in our minds.”

The combined congregation will be able to support a full-time priest and a Sunday school, which neither church could do on its own, said priest-in-charge David Sibley, who has been working part-time jobs to support himself while leading his Bay Ridge flock. A yet-to-be-named interim priest will lead the combined congregation while it picks a more permanent priest, he said.

Soldiers from Fort Hamilton built the 180-year-old church on land donated by the Denyse family, a colonial Dutch clan that owned a ferry wharf in the 1700s. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — U.S. soldiers who later went on to fame as generals in the Confederate army — attended the church when they were stationed at Fort Hamilton in the 1840s.

Changing demographics and a 1997 scandal involving a priest who sold cocaine from the vestry contributed to declining attendance, which exacerbated the church’s financial woes in recent decades, said Sibley, who came to the church in 2011.

“Well over 30 years of deferred maintenance have led us to a point where well over $1.5 million are urgently needed to secure our physical plant, even as our neighborhood changes around us, and fewer people now attend church on Sunday,” he wrote to congregants in a letter announcing the church’s shuttering.

The Borough of Churches is changing as more houses of worship close and give way to residential development. But the Episcopal Diocese of Long island said it does not have definite plans for the church land, according to a spokeswoman.

“As St. John’s joins together with Christ Church, I will be consulting with the lay leaders of the new, joint congregation, and together we will explore the best stewardship and most appropriate disposition of the historic property that has been home to St. John’s,” said bishop Larry Provenzano, Episcopal bishop of Long Island.

The land is zoned for two-family homes.

If the church is leveled, the structure housing interned ashes will remain or be moved, Sibley said.

“No matter what happens to that building, the columbarium will be preserved,” he said.

Locals are calling for the building to remain as a historic landmark.

“There’s a lot of history there, it would be a shame if they didn’t make some effort to keep the church,” said Allison Greaker, whose daughter was baptized in the church in 1966.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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