Memorial to Lost Love
By Bridget Leahy Ward
Far from the maddening crowd of the city and a scant eight miles from the Bank Corner in Haverstraw, is a touch of the past steeped in historic “Gothic Romance” so characteristic of Northern England. St. John’s Church-In-The-Wilderness with its high pitched roof, towering belfry, and handsomely cut stone walls with its loose cloak of tall leaf barren trees surrounded by the silence of a now desolate countryside, is the type of setting any of the Bronte sisters would have welcomed into their novels.
Even now, the church of St. John’s-In-The-Wilderness stands in thickly wooded seclusion – a remnant of the countryside that first attracted Mrs. Margaret Elizabeth Zimmerman to build his memorial to her late husband.
John and Margaret Zimmerman were a young wealthy couple from New York City, traveling through the Middle East on their honeymoon in 1878 or 1879 when tragedy ended their short marriage. Mr. Zimmerman choked to death on a pomegranate seed while the couple was having dinner in a small café in Palestine. The grieving widow returned to her fashionable home in New York and sought consolation from her friends, many of whom had estates in the near-by Tuxedo Park. It was during one of her visits to Tuxedo Park, shortly after the death of her husband, that Margaret Zimmerman decided to erect a church in her husband’s memory.
She chose a 250-acre parcel of land just north of Tuxedo in an unnamed community adjacent to the Sandyfield – Johnsontown area. She had undoubtedly ridden through this particular wood many times by carriage, and hiked through the hills as a respite from city life. The tradesmen of this tiny pre-Revolutionary community were likewise familiar with Tuxedo Park and its wealthy residents. They were the carpenters, masons, and woodcutters who built and maintained this elite village that sprang up during the prosperity of the era, walking to and from Tuxedo Park each day.
A hard way of life was the proud trademark of these people of the Ramapo foothills. Those who didn’t make their livelihood in the environs of Tuxedo carted wood by horse and wagon down the mountain to the river’s edge in Haverstraw. The wood was used there to fuel the brick yard furnaces. A memoriam to this yesteryear community can be found at the Bear Mountain Inn. There, alongside the huge fireplace, hangs two large iron links, made of ore extracted from the St. John’s area which formed part of the chain stretched across the Hudson during the Revolutionary War. Charcoal pits, also a by-product of this era, can still be found in the vicinity of St. John’s Church.
In 1879 Mrs. Zimmerman purchased the land for the church from John A. Conklin also of New York. Margaret Zimmerman had originally intended to build a sturdy wooden church made of native timber. However, Ralph Townsend, a New York architect suggested that the plentiful fieldstone of the area be utilized. Once the decision to use the native “hornblend” granite was made, Mrs. Zimmerman selected a design to compliment the feeling of such solid stone. The architecture was typical of Northern England. It had a decidedly “up-country” look reflective of Mrs. Zimmerman’s English heritage and youthful travels.
Cornerstone Laid in 1880
The Episcopal Diocese of New York already aware of the area’s ministerial needs was eager to have a church built. A Reverend Guy from Tomkins Cove and his assistant, Mrs. Carey, had been asked by the Diocese to tend to the spiritual and corporal needs of this small community as best as they could. Fr. Guy conducted occasional services in homes. Mrs. Carey performed what nursing duties she could as well as doing some teaching. Through the Diocese, Mrs. Zimmerman made the acquaintance of Mrs. Carey. Mrs. Zimmerman then employed Mrs. Carey as directress of the St. John’s complex when it became a reality in 1880.
On June 23, 1880, the cornerstone was laid, and the church officially named for its patron saint “St. John The Evangelist” under the auspices of the Rev. Henry C. Potter, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Timely religious sentimental articles were sealed within the cornerstone. Encased in the granite are: three coins to mark the year, Wayne’s Centennial Medal, a copy of the Centennial Bible, a church hymnal, “The Churchman” of June 19, 1880, a New York Herald of June 23, 1880, a report of the House of the Good Shepherd, the Rockland County Messenger of June 10, 1880, a photographic likeness of the “Founder” and her late husband. Lastly, a silver plate was placed on top with the inscription “To the glory of God, and in memory of John Edward Zimmerman, this church of St. John the Evangelist is erected by his wife Margaret Elizabeth Zimmerman, nee Furniss. Cornerstone laid June 23, 1880.”
On November 15, 1880, the church proper was dedicated and opened for public worship under the ministerial leadership of the Rev. A. Warren Merrick. Shortly thereafter, a school for the neighborhood children was begun at the church and a post office opened, where the mail was carried on horseback from Thiells until 1914. Mrs. Elizabeth Luther of Congers, whose family was among the original congregation, holds the last known postmark from St. John’s community, dated June, 1912.
Mrs. Carey, under the sponsorship of Mrs. Zimmerman, directed the founding of a school for orphaned boys at St. John’s in 1883. A dormitory for eight to ten boys brought to the country from Sheltering Arms Orphanage in New York City, added to the growing community center. During the succeeding years, Mrs. Carey also added a library and reading room to accommodate the small, tight-knit bundle of homes that stretched from Gate Hill around to the back of Beaver Pond (the name then for what was to become Lake Welch).
Through the years 1880 to 1910, the St. John’s church and school complex along with surrounding countryside was self-supporting and thrived. But eventually Mrs. Carey’s health began to fail and she returned to her native England in 1914. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Zimmerman procured the services of a Mrs. North as directress of St. John’s. But, like Mrs. Care, her health too failed, and in 1918 the church had to discontinue educating the boys from Sheltering Arms. At the same time, the advent of a neighborhood public school system in the area convinced Mrs. Zimmerman that it would be in the best interest of the local children to close down the St. John’s school. Due to Mrs. Zimmerman’s own poor health and increasing years, the Diocese of New York accepted direct support and sponsorship of St. John the Evangelist Church in the Wilderness until sometime in the early 1920’s.
In keeping with the early romantic beginnings of St. John’s, and unknown passerby left the words “St. John’s In-The-Wilderness” affixed to a white tag hung on the vestibule doorknob. The priest in residence at that time, the Rev. Philip K, Kemp, was taken with the notion of calling the church “St. John’s In-The-Wilderness,” and so it remains. Few changes have taken place in the quaint country church over the years. Essentially it remains the same. The carved brass kerosene lamps used to illuminate the church in the early 1900’s are still to be found, although they’ve been converted for electrical use. Beautifully preserved carved wood pews line the church interior. Church history is recorded on gracious stained-glass windows. A brass plaque installed at the request of Mrs. Zimmerman in memory of her husband, John Edward Zimmerman, hangs in front of the church near the altar. A small and dedicated congregation is committed to preserving the simple majesty of this very English, very lovely church.
A brief look at the church’s guest register is evidence of the continuing charm of this house of worship. Intriguing visitor’s signatures that are from all parts of Rockland County, New York City and the United States abound whom happen by the historic St. John’s Church in the Wilderness nestled in the seclusion of Harriman State Park.
A visit to St. John’s is a walk through another place in time.