A Brief History of Caroline Church
Caroline Church was organized in 1723, eleven years before the birth of George Washington. Today's church building was erected in 1729. To put this dusty date in context, consider this. On August 22, 1777, when wounded Revolutionary War combatants in "The Battle of Setauket" were taken up the hill to Caroline Church, they found shelter from the heat in a building that was already 48 years old.
What follows is much-abridged history of The Caroline Church of Brookhaven.
In the early 1700s, the Anglican mission at Brookhaven was named Christ Church and the building was originally known by that name. The construction of this simple yet beautiful colonial church was the product of an effort that lasted more than a decade. The work was hindered, no doubt, by the poverty and small size of the congregation, who found it difficult or impossible to meet a minister's salary.
The records are not clear as to the precise date church construction started. However, a letter written by a Mr. Campbell to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on June 1, 1730 is specific about its completion: ". . . there is a handsome country church built there with a steeple and bell which in all has cost members of the church and other benefactors upwards of 400 pounds."
Vestry minutes dated January 25, 1729-30 make it clear that the building was consecrated that very day. (The ambiguity of the year is due to the fact that England and its colonies still used the old style calendar, in which the new year commenced on March 25. Using our present calendar, the consecration date would be January 25, 1730.
The strong loyalist convictions of the original congregation are evident in its decision to honor Queen Wilhelmina Karoline of Brandenburg-Anspach, Queen of George II of England. She had given the Church altar cloths and a communion service that are still used on special occasions. The same January 25th vestry minutes record the unanimous decision ". . . that this Church and parish Shall in honour of our gracious Queen, her most Serene Britannic Majesty be hereafter called Caroline parish and Caroline Church, and this be entered upon record in Our Vestry books ad futuram rei Memoriam."
It is reported that the first ten years of the Reverend Isaac Brown's ministry, which began December 14, 1733, were so fruitful that the size of his congregation required the construction of a gallery in the back of the church in 1744. However, the town's small population, Anglican minority and the extremely close quarters in the gallery all suggest that it was added so slaves could join in worship, while remaining segregated.
The burial ground around the church was acquired in 1734. By 1741 questions of ownership of the "parsonage lots," or lands reserved for use and support of the early established town church and minister, were brought to a head. Members of Caroline Church who were heirs and assignees of the old town properties claimed their rights to the land. An agreement was reached on October 5, 1741 which apportioned the land between Caroline Church and the dissenting Presbyterian Church.
After the Battle of Brooklyn, late in August of 1776, all of Long Island fell under British occupation and remained so for seven years. A long period of constant raids from the "Christian Shore" of Connecticut followed. The Setauket shoreline was a favorite landing place for Yankee boatmen and much has been written of the "Setauket Spy Ring" that smuggled secrets to General Washington's headquarters.
One ill-fated rebel skirmish was fought within range of Caroline Church on the 48th anniversary of the church's founding, August 22, 1777. The Continentals bombarded the rebels inside the Presbyterian meeting house from a canon near the large glacial boulder in the woods west of today's village green. Within hours, the "Battle of Setauket" was concluded the rebellion put down.
During the long occupation, services at Caroline must have been officially sanctioned. However, tradition has it that a priest, probably Reverend James Lyons, "a man of wit and talent and basic virtues but with a sharp Hibernian tongue and temper," while preaching one Sunday to British army officers, interjected, "Here I am preaching the blessed Gospel to you and there are your d---d Redcoats in my garden stealing my potatoes!"
The disruption and damage to Caroline parish caused by the occupation and its skirmishes were minor compared to the problems it faced with the departure of the British troops. Many parishioners who had remained loyal to the crown were forced to emigrate, typically to Canada and Nova Scotia. This resulted in a sharp decline in the size and resources of the Caroline congregation, who struggled on to rebuild their humble church.
While the Church of England in America had suffered a devastating blow as a result of the Revolution, meetings soon convened to organize a new "Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America." Its first General Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1785.
Samuel Seabury, who had been consecrated in Scotland in 1784, became the first bishop in America. At a convention in 1789 an agreement was reached that brought the Protestant Episcopal Church into existence.
To repair Caroline Church and reinvigorate its congregation, the wardens and vestry made application for financial help in an undated letter to Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. ". . . At the close of the late Revolutionary war their church which was before flourishing was left in a very destitute condition -- the building was very much injured -- some of the most wealthy & respectable of the congregation went from the country, & those who remained were left as sheep without a shepherd."
This abject request probably saved the Caroline Church mission from extinction. The Trinity Church congregation responded with 160 pounds in 1807 and another 200 pounds in 1811. Soon thereafter Charles Seabury, son of Bishop Seabury, brought the first real stability to Caroline Church, serving as rector for 30 years, until shortly before his death in December 1844.
The original colonial church of 1730 was a wooden building 30 by 46 feet, the same as its present size. The square tower that carries the steeple, formerly 15 feet higher than today, is just as old. Time has twisted the steeple's flat sides and vertical lines into eccentric spirals. A major addition, the parish house, added, apparently at the turn of the 19th century.
Over the next hundred years or so the interior of the church endured many changes, the most significant in the middle of the 19th century. A false ceiling was added, beams were enclosed, new furnishings installed. As a result, the simple colonial interior was shrouded for many decades.
In 1934, in memory of Frank Melville, Jr., the Melville family, active Caroline parishioners, decided to provide resources and initiate a restoration project to return Caroline Church to its original 18th century charm and simplicity.
In 1937, the parish house was detached from the church, reestablishing the original lines of the free-standing structure. Inside, the walls were stripped away, exposing the original hand-hewn oak timbers and the sturdy barrel ceiling. In the vestibule, additional columns and beams were revealed, along with wooden retaining brackets, called ships knees, in the upper corners.
The interior was completely remodeled in the colonial style. Of particular antique significance was the restoration and electrification of the original whale oil lamps that hang over the pews today, and the return of the Sheraton chairs, previously owned by Bishop Seabury and given to the sanctuary by his son and Caroline Church rector, Charles Seabury.
After several years of work, Caroline Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Our neighbors in the Setauket Presbyterian Church were similarly honored several years later, and we remain the only buildings thus honored in the Three Villages. Caroline is the second oldest Episcopal church building in continuous use in the entire United States.