In 1917, when Woodstock’s growing Christian Science congregation took over the building at 85 Tinker Street from the Art Students League, the religion was popular with local artists, who were drawn to its emphasis on a personal relationship with God and a radical approach to problems of existence. But spiritual tastes change, and today, the church has a small group of devoted members.
Like many congregations in the area, the Christian Scientists have responded to a reduction in numbers by opening their doors to the general public for programs that carry out their mission of serving the community. The Woodstock Christian Science church is offering a free lecture, “Spiritual Discovery: How You Can Better the World,” by Christian Science lecturer and teacher Tom McElroy on Saturday, May 4, at 4 p.m. The next day, the church will host a benefit for the Historical Society of Woodstock, a fashion show featuring recreations of the 1920s Woodstock Dress, on Sunday, May 5, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Regular schedules of public offerings available in Woodstock include the soup kitchens and other community services at the Lutheran and Reformed churches. St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church has a public garden and labyrinth, while the Overlook Methodist Church contains a day care program. All these houses of worship host concerts and lectures not directly related to their respective faiths.
“It’s a throwback to the old days when the churches and schools were the only gathering places in a community,” said Jean White, a lifelong Christian Scientist. “In my grandmother’s stories, whenever they were going to a dance or ‘donation’ — what they called a fundraising event — it was taking place in a church.” One winter evening, over a century ago, her McDaniel ancestors came down the mountain from their farm to attend a donation at the Methodist Church that is now the theater for Upstate Films. That night, the blizzard of 1888 hit the northeast, and the family was stuck in town for a week, staying with their friend Dr. Hall.
The Methodist church in Phoenicia, despite its small congregation, is truly a community center, with a thrift shop, a food pantry, a seniors lunch, zumba classes, and twelve-step meetings. The popular Flying Cat Music concert series will shift its performances to the Methodists’ lovely wood-lined sanctuary, starting on May 4.
“Methodist churches have always had community functions in their buildings beyond the local congregation,” said Reverend Paul Smith, minister of the Shady and Overlook Methodist churches. But for the Christian Scientists, use of their building by the community is fairly recent. According to White, the family of Christian Scientist Marion Eames owned the Comeau Property, which included the home that is now the historical society museum, as well as the Art Students League building. When Eames sold the latter structure to the church, the deed stipulated that it was to be used only for religious purposes.
“People would call and ask to rent the church for a dance class,” recalled White. “We felt so bad because we couldn’t do it.” At some point, the church members decided to call headquarters, the Mother Church in Boston, to ask if the limiting clause could be removed. “They said the intent was that the Mother Church would take over the property if the congregation was phased out. If it was sold, the money would go to them. They couldn’t remove the clause, but we could use the building for anything we felt was appropriate.” Since then, the church has welcomed concerts, weekly Buddhist meditations, a writers group, a library book club, and other gatherings.
The May 4 talk will be given by a practitioner of Christian Science healing, with content geared to be relevant to the general public. “Spirituality often gets relegated to the realm of something between dangerous and useless,” said McElroy, “or at best, it’s seen as positive thinking.” He cited the reaction around the country to a variety of recent tragedies, when objections were raised to the expression “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
“Many people are tired of hearing that,” McElroy said. “Can someone’s spiritual practice really make a difference for the better? There are ways we can look at spirituality that explain the practical impact it can have in life, and not just for certain people but for anybody, whatever their background. I’ll show there’s a logic to it and, hopefully, value and a voice at the table.”
McElroy will address such questions as: How does genuine healing happen? What makes our lives progress? What defines us as individuals? What is prayer? Then he will examine how answers to these questions can go beyond self-help to address situations that are societal, national, and global.
Tom McElroy will speak on “Spiritual Discovery: How You Can Better the World,” on Saturday, May 4, at 4 p.m. Admission is free. A Woodstock Dress fashion show benefit for the Historical Society of Woodstock will be held on Sunday, May 5, from 3 to 5 p.m. Tickets for the fashion show are $20.00 and can be bought at the door or online at www.historicalsocietyofwoodstock.org. Both events will be at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Woodstock, 85 Tinker Street. Woodstock Dresses will soon be available for purchase at https://workdaywear.com.