By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – Perched above the Navesink section, the Old Stone Church remains – as it has for just about a century-and-a-half – a place for its members to worship, take part in programs and to offer support for the community.
Members of All Saints’ Memorial Episcopal Church at 202 Navesink Ave., located on a 7-acre elevated slope, will be celebrating its 150th anniversary on Monday, Oct. 7, with a yearlong series of events highlighting – what its interim rector called – the church’s “deep roots” in the community.
“It has been at the heart of this community, with its beauty, its history and what it offers,” said the Rev. Deborah Piggins, who has been the church’s interim rector for a year and nine months. (“But who’s counting?” she said with a smile.)
The church was designed and built by noted 19th century British architect Richard Upjohn, who also designed Trinity Episcopal Church in New York’s financial district. All Saints’ was built in the Gothic stone style, using fieldstone, which gave rise to the church’s common moniker of Old Stone Church. Its cornerstone was laid on Oct. 7, 1863, and it has been listed as a National Historic Site since 1974 and as a National Historic Landmark since 1982.
The church became a reality through the efforts of the Milnor and Stephens families, two prominent families at the time, and was built in memory of Stephens’ daughter, Jeanette Stephens Edgar, “Who died too young,” Piggins said.
The church is one of a collection of Episcopal churches that populate the area and was built at a time when travel was much more time consuming. The proliferation of Episcopal churches was due, in large part, to the imprint of British cultural and life, and the Anglican Church, dating back to before there was a country, Piggins said.
The relatively small church continues to thrive and draws far beyond the immediate – formerly rural now suburban – area, Michael Stasi, the church’s senior warden, said.
Stasi, a Red Bank resident, suspects quite a few of the church’s members, numbering about 200 on the books with about 100 regularly attending services, have a story similar to his.
“We were looking for a church community we could identify with,” he said. “We came here a number of times and stayed.”
People “come for the external beauty” of the church building and grounds, “but they stay for what they’re getting here,” said Stasi, who has been a member for 27 years.
Valerie Schauer, who grew up in Navesink and still lives there, has been a member since 1956. She had belonged to another area Episcopal church but she felt “you were judged by what you wore as opposed to what you did,” she remembered. “This church has been so warm and nonjudgmental. It’s been my home.”
Members are involved in community service, regularly volunteering and cooking for the Kitchen at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Keansburg. Since Super Storm Sandy, there have been a number of outreach programs sponsored by the church to assist area residents. The church’s twice-monthly dinner and a movie night on Fridays was modified and aimed to assist Sandy victims, Piggins said.
As part of its sesquicentennial anniversary year, church members will be partnering with Dress for Success, a women’s employment preparation program. They also will sponsor a series of community forums on a variety of issues, the first being a discussion on human trafficking.
The anniversary celebration will begin this weekend with the Stone Church Players’ production of Our Town, performed in the church at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 5 and 6 and Oct. 11 and 12, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7 and 13.
Plans also call for a candlelit concert on Dec. 1 and a Dec. 15 children’s Christmas show.
In 2014, plans call for the traditional “Kirking of the Tartans,” featuring lots of bagpipes in a celebration of the Episcopal Church’s connection with the Scottish Church, Piggins said.