A Detailed History of The First Reformed Church of Fishkill
Dutchess County was established in 1683, and originally included all of present day Dutchess County, Putnam County and part of Columbia County. It was named for Maria Beatrice D’Este, wife of James Stuart, Duke of York, who would become King James II. The “T” in Dutchess reflects the former spelling of the title, and has nothing to do with the Dutch. The Rombout Patent, consisting of about 85,000 acres, and encompassing the present towns (townships) of Poughkeepsie, LaGrange, Wappingers, Fishkill, East Fishkill, and Beacon, was bought in 1683 by three New York businessmen. The partners never lived on the land, and probably never intended to. One of the partners, Francis Rombout, died shortly afterward and left his portion to his four year old daughter, Catheryna. At 16 she married an Englishman, Roger Brett and became the first white women settler in the county. Her house, begun in 1709, is the oldest in the county. Widowed in 1718, Madam Brett was one of the most important and influential people in early county history, until her death in 1764 at age 77. Her 1/3 of the original patent consisted of about 28,000 acres, extending from the Wappingers Creek to the Fishkill Creek, and inland to Stormville. Selling portions of her property, she induced many Dutch settlers to move from Long Island, New Jersey, and New York City. This was a different approach from that of many other patent holders, such as Beekman and Phillipse, who chose to lease their land while retaining ownership.
By 1716, the population of the area had grown enough (though the whole county had only 440 inhabitants) that the settlers wanted their own church, instead of having to cross the river to New Paltz or Kingston, where the two closest Reformed Churches were located. Therefore, on October 10, 1716, the Rev. Petrus Vas from Kingston, under the direction of the Classis of Amsterdam, started two Dutch Reformed Churches, one in Poughkeepsie and one in Fishkill.
While Poughkeepsie began building immediately, Fishkill did not begin building until 1725. Tradition, and most published sources have it that Madam Brett, by now a widow and the wealthiest landowner in the area, gave land for a churchyard while the land the church occupied was given by Johannes Ter Boss. However, two deeds registered at the County Courthouse tell a different story. The first parcel of land, " it being that certain piece of land on which the Dutch Church so called now stands" was given by Madam Brett, through Jacob DuBois, it being the intent of him that the Reformed Nether Dutch Congregation of Rumbouth (sic) precinct "always be kept and preserved as a church or public edifice for the particular sole and only use and benefit of the aforementioned church to worship the Almighty God, in and to and for no other ends purposes, use or uses whatsoever.” The second deed states that Obidiah Cooper, and Esther his wife, gave another small parcel of land to the church. These records were written 30 years after the fact, and not filed in Poughkeepsie until 1915.
There is also a deed from 1747 in which Johannes Ter Boss sells a parcel of land north of the Fishkills, reserving 1 acre for a meeting house. Every published history has this acre being for the Rombout Presbyterian Church, which was built in 1747 about 3 miles from First Reformed. So it would appear that there was confusion between DuBois and Ter Boss, probably due to the old handwriting, and a Frenchman, born in Leyden, Holland, and a Dutchman. Another supporting piece of information is that there is no Ter Boss listed in the church records of The First Reformed Church, while the DuBois family is prominent, starting with Peter DuBois, our first Elder.
It took 7 years to build the original sanctuary. Field stone was brought by ox teams, and the local inhabitants, and their slaves, did the building. Work proceeded slowly, because the men had fields to tend and families to support and defend. The sanctuary was a small, square building with a hip roof and a cupola in the center, which supported a bell. The central door opened onto the street, as our side door does today.
At that point, the Fishkill and Poughkeepsie congregations each had a building, but no minister. On April 13, 1730, the two churches issued a call for a pastor. As there was no one suitable in this country, and they were unaware of candidates in Holland, they sent a Power of Attorney to some clergymen in Amsterdam whose judgment they respected. They requested these clergymen select someone suitable, install him in Holland as the pastor, and send him here. They promised to pay a yearly salary of 70 pounds, New York money, beginning with the lifting of the anchor in Holland, a house in either Poughkeepsie or Fishkill, his choice, firewood, a horse, bridle and saddle, a pasture, a fenced garden, and an orchard planted with 100 fruit trees. 14 months later, the congregations received word that the Rev. Mr. Cornelius Van Schie had been selected, and after a 3 month journey, he arrived on Sept. 30, 1731. He served from 1731 to 1733, before accepting a call from the church at Albany.
It took 11 years to find a second minister. The churches sent several letters to the Classis of Amsterdam, to Germany, to an irregularly ordained man in Port Jervis, and then again to Holland. Over the years the salary offered gradually increased from 70 to 110 pounds. Finally their prayers were answered and the Rev. Mr. Benjamin Meynema arrived in 1745.
In 1757 the Church Society of Hopewell was organized by 19 persons from the Fishkill Church. The New Hackensack Reformed Church was organized as a separate congregation in 1758. The Rev. Dr. Isaac Rysdyk was called in 1765. He was installed as pastor of the Poughkeepsie, Fishkill, Hopewell and New Hackensack churches. During his pastorate the union between Poughkeepsie and Fishkill was dissolved (1772). He initiated the alternate use of Dutch and English in divine services, and had charge of the first academy in Dutchess County, located in Brinckerhoff. He was considered the most learned theologian in the Dutch Church, and was fluent in Dutch, English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He would eventually be buried in New Hackensack.
Fishkill played an important role during the Revolution. The Van Wyck House stood in the center of the Fishkill supply depot, which occupied a crucial pass on the road between New England and the rest of the colonies. The 4th New York Provincial Congress, driven from White Plains in August 1776, met first in Trinity Episcopal Church. When the delegates complained of birds flying in and out of the glass-less windows, and of the lack of pews and other comforts, they moved down the street to the Fishkill Reformed Church. Part of the New York Constitution was written here, though some suggest that it may have actually been written across the street in Connors Tavern (where Ketcham Motors is now located), which offered tables, heat, and tankards of inspiration.
Among the delegates were John Jay and Robert Livingston, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence. The renamed New York Provincial Convention moved to Kingston in February, 1777, and Fishkill's brief role as the capital of New York ended. Later during the Revolution, the church was used as a prison by the Continental Army. Enoch Crosby, an American spy, was allowed to escape by orders of the Committee of Safety and General Washington.
In 1785 the congregation decided to enlarge the original building. The east and west walls were taken down, and the building was lengthened. A second story was added, and balconies suspended by iron rods were put in to seat slaves. The tower and steeple, made with beams 18" square and 80' long, rose 120 feet above the ground. The west end had four small windows. In the midst of the reconstruction, John Strickland, an English traveler, wrote, "Here is a large Dutch Church, rapidly going to decay, probably never to be repaired." However, construction continued, and the consistory hired Abraham Brinckerhoff Rapalje, who lived next door, to build a new pulpit, new pews, and to enclose the square lower section of the tower. Five years later, in 1795, they hired him again to shingle the spire. With construction finished, the spire was topped with a gilded cock, symbolic of Peter's denial of Jesus. It is actually about 3 feet high. Once found on most Reformed Churches, ours is one of the few left.
The Union with Hopewell and New Hackensack Churches was dissolved in 1805. In 1813, Beacon Reformed Church was established as another daughter church, which became independent in 1823. In 1837, the church in Glenham was formed. The Glenham church merged back into the Fishkill church in 1976.
The expanded sanctuary was remodeled in 1806. Columns were added to support the balconies, and the pulpit and side pews were lowered to the level of the rest of the sanctuary. More alterations were made in 1854, when the balconies were narrowed and lowered. An alcove was made in the West end for the pulpit, and the four small windows were replaced by a stained glass and painted window. The alcoves and doors on each side of the tower were added. The chandeliers, imported from Holland, can be lowered by chains to the level of the pews for service. Gas replaced candles in the chandeliers in 1858. The destruction of the gas works in the Fishkill Fire of 1873 led to a switch to kerosene. In 1908 they were electrified. In the late 1800’s most of the “extra” original property was sold for building lots at $100 each, no one foreseeing the need for parking lots and such in the years to come.
The 20th century brought additional changes to the property. Some grave stones were moved to make space for the Christian Education Building, which was constructed in 1964. The old chapel, a 19th addition to the property, was torn down. The playground is now located where the chapel was. A memorial garden was added to the cemetery in 1980, and includes a columbarium for cremains. The sanctuary’s exterior was refurbished in 1975, the steeple reshingled and the rooster regilded in 1984, and interior plaster repairs were completed in 1989. In 1992 a condition survey was done (the church is the centerpiece of the Fishkill Village National Historic District). This report concluded that the sanctuary is one of the most significant non residential 18th century buildings in New York, if not the country. The framing is a perfect example of an upside down boat. Trinity Episcopal, down the street, is a perfect example of a cow barn. While we were urged to pursue National Landmark Status for the church itself, it has not yet been done. In 1995 a report on the preservation of cemetery gravestones was done. A slate roof was installed on the sanctuary in 1997, all of the windows were rebuilt in 2002, and the doors were replaced in 2003. A Boy Scout Eagle Project, in 2002, recorded pictures and inscriptions of each stone in the cemetery, and created a finders map of the cemetery. The kitchen in the Fellowship Hall had extensive renovations in 2003.
We expanded our property in 1991, with the purchase of DuBois House (named for our founding elder.) While we can find no record of when it was built, structural similarities to the Van Wyck House make us think it was built in the mid 1700’s. We do know that Abraham Brinckerhoff Rapalje purchased the house, with 54 acres of land, from his uncle Abraham Brinckerhoff in 1790. Rapalje was the man hired by the consistory to do finish work after the church was enlarged following the Revolution. The house served as the hearing room for court proceedings of the Committee of Safety over which John Jay, who would later become our nation’s first Supreme Court Justice, presided. The Committee of Safety played an important part in the story of Enoch Crosby, the Revolutionary Spy. The house was originally located east of its present location, and was moved in 1929 to make way for the expansion of the Albany Post Road, Route 9. We use the building in our service to the community and the church. It contains the church parlor, and offices for the Minister and Secretary on the first floor, and office for the Music Director and meeting space on the second floor. Our most recent purchase, in 2001, was a restaurant that stands behind the cemetery. This building now houses our Fishkill Food Pantry and the parking lot supplements a small lot behind DuBois House.
Visitors from around the world come though our doors to visit the church of their ancestors, to trace their roots, and to study its history. Our churchyard, while no longer used for burials, has many well preserved stones dating back to the mid 1700’s, and attracts its own visitors. As a congregation, we are most proud of our heritage of God’s blessings and want to share it with all who visit.