The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is surely one of the smallest churches ever built, but its significance is large, since it has spanned a range of periods of Woodstock history that justified its designation as a historical landmark in 2005. Also recognized as a rare surviving example of Gothic Revival architecture, the church has not displayed its landmark status, but a plaque will soon go up in front of its perch, high on Meads Mountain Road, calling attention to its role in the heyday of the Catskills resorts, the Byrdcliffe colony, and the Woodstock Festival era.
Town historian Richard Heppner obtained a grant from the Pomeroy Foundation in Rochester, through a program that funds the casting of markers, which cost $1300 each. The pole and plaque will be installed once the ground thaws.
“I’m not a big sign person,” Heppner observed, standing in the wooden church on a sunny afternoon before the gilt-trimmed altar screen, “but it’s important to make these things known to people. This is an important church that ties Woodstock history together.”
The church was built in 1891 by George Mead, proprietor of Mead’s Mountain House, so the summer patrons of his resort, as well as of the Overlook Mountain House, would not have to trek down to town by foot or by carriage to attend services. Dubbed “Chapel of Ease,” the church was originally Episcopalian.
When Ralph Whitehead founded the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in 1902, the 1200 acres of land he purchased included the rustic chapel. After his death in 1929, his widow, Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, invited William Henry Francis Brothers, the legendary Father Francis, to preside over the church in the hope that he could help her son Peter conquer his alcoholic tendencies. Musician, artist, and bicycle doctor Michael Esposito, who lived on the church grounds for ten years in the 1960s and 70s, is doubtful that Father Francis was much help to Peter, but the man also known as the Archbishop or the Hippie Priest created a vital spiritual community inspired by his learning, irreverence, and compassion.
Father John Nelson, often seen in town in his black robes, is the bearded deacon who now runs the little church in the absence of its nominal head, Metropolitan John of New York. The latter represents the Old Catholic tradition that is associated with a tangle of Orthodox lineages but divided from some of them by theological hairsplitting that dates back to the eleventh century. “Father Francis was basically an Anglican archbishop,” said Father John. “He came from a well-to-do English family. He was friends with Clarence Darrow and helped out with the Scopes trial. He was the roommate of Kahlil Gibran and was asked to marry the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor.”
But Father Francis also worked to protect European Jews during World War II and spoke up when Woodstock changed in the 1960s, and hippie kids were camping out in the woods and fields. Some townspeople wanted to kick them out, and he sheltered the youngsters at the church. On Saturdays, he opened up the building to a Jewish congregation for their services, although Ralph Whitehead had made explicitly anti-Semitic statements.
ather John, who had trained as a Methodist minister, was drawn to the town soon after the 1969 Woodstock Festival. On his first visit to the church, he recalled, “I was immediately struck by the reverence being shown toward God, something that did not exist in typical American churches. It was something very old, and you could feel it.”
Esposito, having left his job as lead guitarist for the psychedelic rock band Blues Magoos, could feel it too. “I had been reading St. Francis and other saints,” he remembered. “I went up to the church on a whim. A year later, I became a priest and moved in. I’d been reading about it, and now I got to live it. Someone gave me a medieval robe that I wore for five years.”
He lived under a piece of plywood, mounted on four sticks, against the side of the church. “It was another world, primitive and cold,” he remarked. “It was all about suffering. But we had a family of people.” Jed Welsh, choir director at Yale, led the church choir, known as The Last Temptations. The old pump organ wheezed, its bellows leaking air from holes eaten by mice.
Esposito remembers Father Francis as an iconic figure, beloved by the whole town. “Everybody in Woodstock came there — musicians, artists, rock stars. It was his show, and he was having fun. He had the joy spiritual writers talk about, without the smarmy spiritual overtones. After the Tibetan Buddhists moved in next door, I’d take him up to have tea with the lamas. They’d make fun of each other’s religions and the whole business of religion, with awful puns.”
Father Francis had set up a little study behind the back wall of the altar. Before Esposito’s time, it was said that Bob Dylan used to sit in the study during mass.
During his years at the church, Esposito kept a diary, in which he described one dark, snowy Sunday, of the kind that attracted few congregants. Nevertheless, Father Francis, as always, lit the two big stoves and laid his vestments “carefully out of the way of the roof leaks in the tiny sacristy, and incense was prepared as usual. This Sunday no one came, due to the weather. As we quietly spoke the liturgy, one wondered: Did God want this little man all to himself today?”
In the mid-seventies, Esposito drifted away from the church and into bicycles, setting up the Old Spokes Home in the middle of Woodstock. He figured he was offering a direct service to people who couldn’t afford the usual kind of bike repair shop. When Father Francis died in 1979, religious worthies from various Orthodox branches tried to take over the church, and amidst bitter arguments, the congregation fell apart.
This winter, only four or five of the faithful have been braving the weather and the snowy pathway to worship in the church. But Father John continues to hold services in the beautiful little chapel that holds so much history in its boards and beams.
The Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount is seeking donations to restore portions of the historic property. Services are open to the public at 325 Meads Mountain Road, Woodstock. For information, contact Father John at 845-750-9303 or firstname.lastname@example.org.