The Country Church on a Hill gets its own pastor

Stephen Hanson (below) sits in the High Woods Reformed Church. The church was organized in 1850, and the structure was built 18 years later

Stephen Hanson (below) sits in the High Woods Reformed Church. The church was organized in 1850, and the structure was built 18 years later (photos by Will Dendis)

People from highwoods reformed HZT-Saugerties emphasize the “Saw” when they say their hometown’s name, evoking (consciously or not) the settler who gave the town its name: Barent Cornelis Volge, the original “little sawyer.” Like most of the town’s first white settlers, he was Dutch. Though the community later saw waves of immigration from all corners of Europe — from the German war refugees who settled in West Camp, colonial-era Englishmen who built the industry, the Irish who worked in the mills, and the Italians who worked in the brickyards — it has retained its Dutch roots. When Saugerties had an amateur adult baseball team, it was quite naturally dubbed The Dutchmen.

Churches are another legacy of the community’s roots. Like the old schoolhouses, their number is a result of the rigors of 18th- and 19-century transportation. But unlike the schoolhouses, which were consolidated in the mid-20th century, the churches have clung to their independence.


The High Woods Reformed Church, which sits across the street from the old High Woods schoolhouse, on Church Rd., off Glasco Turnpike, is a testament both to the fragility and unique potential of a small country congregation. In the 1970s, the church had to close for several years. Then it bounced back in the ’80s, with enough energy to construct the beautiful Oudemool Hall (named for a former pastor) on the grounds which now serves as a center of community life, with extremely popular dinners.

The congregation now numbers about 30, and judging by its decision last year, the consistory wants to spur another renaissance. The decision was the hiring of Reverend Stephen Hanson, 68, a native Saugertiesian who spent 25 years as an area banker before he felt the calling. He served as a pastor in New Jersey, the town of Rochester and Rosendale before coming to High Woods Reformed last fall. Though the position is part-time, it still represents a significant investment by the church, which had got by for the last several years without its own pastor following the departure of Rev. Howard Smith.

Saugerties has six Dutch Reformed churches: High Woods, Blue Mountain, Flatbush, Plattekill, Saugerties Reformed and Katsbaan. Hanson pronounces the last “Kuts-bun,” and for a moment one can picture him in Dutch Colonial garb. Though he spends half his time in New Jersey, he’s a true Saugertiesian.

Although church attendance is down and the American people are becoming more secular, Hanson sees signs of hope in the positive reaction to the leader of another branch of Christianity: the Roman Catholic pope. Perhaps people are ready to put aside the divisive issues of the culture wars and embrace the moral and compassionate aspects of religion.

Hanson planted the seeds of his own career change in a sermon he gave at Saugerties Reformed Church as a layman 20 years ago. It was called, “Are You a Weekend Warrior for Christ?” He took the name from a pejorative for the National Guard, of which he was a member. His sermon asked if his fellow congregants took the message they heard each Sunday and put it to practice the rest of the week. He realized for him, the answer was no.

“In many instances you get into bad habits, and I was certainly guilty of that,” he said. “That was basically the thing that started me down the path.”

He said he “slowly evolved this feeling of a desire to do something useful, [something] faith-based.”

He took the idea to former Saugerties Reformed Church Rev. Richard Rockwood, who told him he should pursue it. Then he asked his wife, Linda. Same answer. Finally he asked his mother, and when she agreed it was the right path, he made the choice to attend New Brunswick Theological Seminary. The program was three years, full-time. He was in his late-50s, but didn’t feel out of place. The seminary attracted many who spent several decades in the professional world before turning to ministry as a second career.

Hanson is in Saugerties from Saturday through Tuesday. The church has one service, Sunday at 10 a.m., and he gives one sermon for the adults and another for the children at Sunday school. He says the kids version is harder to prepare. The rest of his time is spent ministering to congregants, visiting the sick and counseling. He lives in a parsonage in Rosendale, vacant because that church’s pastor has a home in the community.

He has two grown children. His son, David, lives in Pittsburgh and his daughter, Christine Spallino, lives in Saugerties, near Seamon Park.

Hanson says Saugerties has seen many changes since “the time when it was a bedroom community for IBM.” With so many of the residents of working age, with good, stable incomes, that was the best time for churches, fire companies and various civic and fraternal associations.

“We’ve all come to a point in the road where we have to decide what’s going to happen,” says Hanson.

The hope in High Woods, among its new pastor and devoted church members like Elder Herb Krein and event organizer Marion Ostrander, is that the community will continue to have a place for its little church.