After the small congregation of Baptists went to in Northport to keep their little church on the corner of East Main Street and Prospect Street in Port Jefferson going, members took on the responsibility of restoring the building to its former glory. they eagerly opened the doors, offering the public a peek at how the restoration job transformed the historic church.
On Sunday, the celebrated one year of service in the village. Pastor Pete Jansson said that from the mayor to the visitors who came in during the Dickens Festival, the community has been more than welcoming.
“It’s been a whirlwind of a year,” Jansson said during an interview on Saturday. “This is my first time opening a church and moving it forward.”
A Huntington Station resident for 34 years, Jansson’s official title is Campus Pastor. He’s been on staff at Island Christian Church (formerly the Northport Baptist Church) for 24 years. His wife Cheryl also works at the church. The Jansson’s have two grown children and five grandchildren. He called ministering a family affair. His son is a pastor in Nesconset and his daughter married a man who runs the youth program at the Baptist church in Northport.
It’s been a year of growth for the church that sits on a hill overlooking the village and used to provide a point of reference for ships coming into the harbor. Symbolically, the church provided refuge to the souls of Baptists when they bought it back in 1861, serving as the First Baptist of Port Jefferson.
Being steeped in the history of the village, Jansson said there was a lot to live up to when they chose to take it over. One of the best things about the past year has been increasing the congregation.
"I think there has been a great excitement as the people that were with me from the beginning saw the continual growth and improvement," he said.
Jansson said that he tries to get an understanding of who comes to the church and why they decided to stop by.
“I love it when I see written on the card: Heard about what was going on and wanted to see for myself or heard the music and decided to stop by,” he said.
As well as reconstructing the physical church, the hope is to build up involvement in the community by offering services the community can use and benefit from, including elementary age group programs, a youth ministry, adult ministry and a singles ministry. Jansson even talked about his hope of fulfilling the spiritual needs of students from nearby Stony Brook University and offering "some sort of encouragement to the healthcare community with the three hospitals so close by.”
It’s not just about throwing open the doors and inviting people to sit in the pews.
“We want to become a fabric of the community and ministry we serve,” he said.
Even after a year, construction is still ongoing. Jansson said there are always odds and ends to finish up. Some of the projects are small, like a chandelier that they are still deciding how to install.
Others are a little more ambitious.
Back in 1898, John Biddle, a wealthy piano manufacturer and summer resident of the village, donated an ornamental fountain that sat in front of the church for two decades. According to historian Ken Brady, the fountain was removed in 1919 when the roads were widened and sidewalks were installed. The fate of the fountain itself is still a mystery.
Jansson said that the church is working with Brady and Port Jefferson resident Kathleen O’Sullivan to see if there’s community support in putting another fountain in front of the church. If so they’d start a fundraising effort to either build a new one or, better yet, find and restore the original fountain. They hope to track it down. The thinking is that it might be in someone’s backyard or disassembled and sitting in a crate somewhere.
“That’s a long shot,” Jansson admitted. “The next best thing would be to find something to replace it.”
Meanwhile the church has been updated with heat and air conditioning, upgraded electric and other modern conveniences while keeping a historical look and feel. Growth is definitely a part of the plan, with members traveling from all over the Island to come to the church.
Word of mouth been just about the only advertising they have done. Jansson called it “elbow ministry.”
“We ask members who’d they'd like to invite to come in on their elbow,” he said.
The symbolism in the church opening up around Easter Sunday–a time celebrating rebirth and renewal–last year was not lost on Jansson who said the timing was ideal. He also believes that the past year has all gone according to plan, perhaps even becoming part of a greater plan.
“I don’t think it could have been scripted any better,” he said. “I believe God put all the pieces together so far and there’s no reason to think He’ll stop doing it.”
Click through the photo gallery to see some historical photos of the church and the Biddle fountain. Photos from the official Port Jefferson village historical archive.