|The History of West Hills UMC|
The beautiful area known as West Hills was given its name by the early settlers who came to Huntington during the early 1650s. The name was inspired by the highlands extending from the north to the center of the island, now known as the Ronkonkoma Moraine. This picturesque region attracted many people, not only for its beauty, but for the many unfailing streams of pure water, and the bountiful hunting.
It wasn't until 1818 that the people of West Hills came together in worship. At first, meetings were held at private homes in East Woods, today known as Woodbury. In 1835, the meetings were moved to the Woodbury schoolhouse, where preachers from the Woodbury circuit would conduct services on a fortnightly basis. This was the same schoolhouse that Walt Whitman taught in during the summer of 1840. A short time later, the schoolhouse was enlarged and services were held weekly. West Hills Methodists continued to meet there until their numbers were greatly increased by a general revival in the area. During the winter of 1843-44, meetings were held in West Hills at the house of Elias Brush. Meetings were then moved to an unoccupied house owned by Aaron Oakley, which used to be at the corner of Jones Road and Jericho Turnpike. As membership increased, the need for a permanent church home was realized.
On September 9, 1844, a meeting was called for the purpose of electing a Board of Trustees to preside over what would become the Methodist Episcopal Church of West Hills. The first trustees were Elias Brush, Derrick Ireland, Walter B. Hill, David Valentine, and Israel Oakley. This was recorded in the office of the Suffolk County Clerk on September 23, 1844. The church at West Hills had officially been born.
Following this, the congregation came together to build a place of worship. Land was acquired from Aaron Oakley for $25, upon which the church was built. The Oakley family itself dates back in West Hills over 250 years. The deed, signed in 1845, allowed for the purchasing of 1/2 acre, on which the trustees "shall not erect any dwelling ... except a house for Public Worship and horse sheds with the appurtenances..." The building itself was erected at a cost of $600, which was a considerable sum at that time. The church was not much more than a pill box. It was a single room building with a straight ceiling, which was later arched. As Elmira Oakley, a much later ancestor, wrote in 1932...
"T'was not a structure grand and tall, this church of long ago
T'was just a place where God to man, his blessing could bestow.
And humble folks assembled here, to sing and praise and pray
To listen to the Lord's command, to live and love away."
The church was first heated by a pot-bellied stove. The small, round metal plate above the altar area is where the pipe passed through to the outside of the building. The altar furniture consisted of a love-seat and two chairs, direct from someone's parlor. The people who came to the three o'clock worship services came from many miles away and left their homes after the morning farm chores were completed. Upon arrival at church, they entered and turned their trolley-like pews so that they faced each other and then spread their noon day meal for all in the family to partake. When the meal was concluded, the swung their pews back and all faced the altar to hear the words of the minister who was now preaching at his third church for that day.
In 1853, the preaching circuit consisted of Cold Spring Harbor, Woodbury, and West Hills, with the pastor residing in Cold Spring Harbor. In 1875, the circuit was reduced to Woodbury and West Hills with the pastor residing in Woodbury. This circuit lasted well into the 20th century, until finally West Hills was served alone by a minister. On March 16, 1881, more land was added to the church property. Israel and Phebe Oakley deeded, for one dollar, additional acreage for burial purposes. The first interment in the cemetery was Aaron Oakley, in 1846. Any earlier tombstones indicate removal from family plots to the church cemetery, which was not uncommon. After this addition, the church property consisted of what today is the church cemetery, with the church sitting along Jericho Turnpike, opposite "OTB."
But property was not the only donations given by the congregation. Other legacies, including money left by Harriet Oakley, Elizabeth Oakley, and Israel Oakley, were used for further improvements. Money was used to build a steeple, a picket fence, and a new roof. Also, money was used to raise the ceiling inside the church during the late 1800s. This beautiful arched ceiling that is still there today was quite a remarkable feature for that time. A new horse shed was also built and between 1922-25 electric lights were installed.
The ministers during the 19th and early 20th century (and still today) received very little in the way of a pay check. Instead, they were supported in every means by the congregation. Harvest suppers were held to raise money and the parsonage cellar was packed with foodstuffs.
Heavy snowstorms rarely stopped a big turnout at church functions, such as donation dinners and Christmas presentations. Another important feature of the church was the revival meetings held in association with the Woodbury Praying Band. These meetings often lasted two or three weeks and were well attended.
On November 5 and 6, 1932, the church celebrated its 100th anniversary. Celebrated 100 years after the first prayer meeting held in Woodbury, the anniversary was a grand festival. Elmira Oakley wrote the first history of the church, Grace Jackson created a beautiful poem, and pastor A. J. Martin preached on "Opportunities for Religion in the Next Hundred Years."
But the next 25 years would not bear well on West Hills. The church saw the Great Depression and World War II become history. The automobile and electricity had become common place. The population began to greatly increase on Long Island, but the congregation at West Hills was shrinking. By early 1958, the Reverend James C. Watson reported that there were only 28 members, with many times only seven active participants. (In 1994, Rev. Watson returned to West Hills to deliver the Sunday sermon and baptize his fourth grandchild, Lucas, son of Doc and Jolaine Stewart Watson.)
In May of 1958, James Boyd became pastor. His enthusiasm for redeveloping the church was contagious and spread among his congregation. New committees were set up, including a Sunday School and a Membership and Evangelical committee. A morning service was added to increase membership. Within 10 months, 62 persons were received into the church. Soon, expansion was needed. The little red schoolhouse across the street was being used as a supplemental Sunday School. A building committee was established. Then, on land provided by Harry Jones, the church was moved off of Jericho Turnpike to its present location, and enlarged. The sanctuary itself was enlarged by several feet, and two wings were added to the structure, providing offices and classrooms. A fellowship hall and kitchen were also added downstairs.
In the early fall of 1960, the first sermon was preached in the new church. The original sanctuary was retained: the same arched ceiling and wainscoting, the identical altar and pews. But soon, other things were added. Additional pews were purchased from the East Meadow Methodist Church and new lighting fixtures from the Valley Stream church. Many hours were spent by the members installing the basement tiles and the kitchen ceiling. Also, funds were raised by the Woman's Society of Christian Service though festivals, fairs, and other sales, with the money used to purchase kitchen appliances.
Rather than see the beautiful white picket fence that had surrounded the original building go to waste, Mr. Morrison took the tops of the posts at the entrance to the grounds and made them into the lamps that now are in the Morrison Room (formerly known as Rachel Parlor). Also, when the church was moved and expanded, the two front windows that had been on each side of the front doors had to be removed. One was relocated to the far end of the north wing where it still is today.
Not only was the building expanding, but so was the congregation. Between 1961 and 1962, 99 people were received into the church. By 1964 the total church membership was 302, a gain of 293 since June 1958. Enrollment in the elementary school division topped 150.
During the 1960s, the church committees came to life. The Literature Committee reported 300 books with an average circulation of 70 per week. Periodicals, pamphlets, college bulletins, film strips, records, pictures, and maps were made available. The Men's Club represented 25% of the male membership and provided funding (through fund raisers) for new kitchen cabinets, blackboards, and bulletin boards. In 1964, the "Mother's Day Living Memorial" was instituted through the efforts of Thelma Corey, Janet Wocel, and Josephine Parkhurst George. Listings "In Honor of and "In Memory of still appear in the Sunday Bulletin distributed at the worship service each Mother's Day, with proceeds going to "where they are most needed in the church.
By 1968 total membership peaked at 442. A full nursery school program was soon initiated. But leaner times were ahead. Though most churches had expanded throughout the 1950s and 1960s, things started to change. During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, church membership nationwide steadily declined. West Hills began to lose members through deaths and relocation. Even though the economy expanded greatly on Long Island during the 1980s, church membership contracted. The recession of 1990 hit the area hard and forced many families to move. Though the membership of West Hills is now under 200 persons, the church is still a vital part of the community. The building itself is the site of many community meetings, such as Al Anon and L.O.V E, Inc. Many programs such as the Church Fair and the annual outdoor Christmas Pageant are open to the community. Fiscal woes have led to the sharing of the building with other congregations to defray costs, such as the Korean Methodist Church and Seventh Day Adventists and have now have moved from a full time pastor to a part time pastor.
Though less in number, the members of West Hills still forge ahead with ideas for a better church. The first annual outdoor Christmas Pageant was held in 1989, and 1994 saw the rebirth of the West Hills Vacation Bible School, which was very well attended. A new church-wide family retreat during October echoes of past revival meetings. The Stephens Ministers helps bring compassion to members who are in need. The members of West Hills, whether they number nine, ninety nine, or three hundred and nine, have never been idle. Their hands are always working on some new idea, some new way of making the church a better place to worship the Lord together.
For over 150 years, the people of West Hills have gathered in this small white church to worship together in faith and fellowship. The West Hills United Methodist Church has played an important role in its community, uniting hundreds of people to honor our Lord. For over 150 years, the congregation has come together, in good times and bad, times of peace and times of war, times of happiness and times of grief. The people of West Hills have brought new meanings to the words family, fellowship, kindness, and love. Throughout the years, the Lord has seen to it that this church, no matter what the conditions, has survived. It has both struggled and flourished, prospered and endured, yet no matter what, the church has stood as a beacon of light, shining its message of hope and love into the darkness of the world.
Bibliography: Elmira Oakley (1932), Minnie Tranter (1962), Grace Hardgrove (1970), Todd Winch (1994), Doris Schielke (1994) Todd Winch (2005)
This site was last updated 12/28/08