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Long Running Church Served Immigrant Community

Wantagh/Levittown Historic Landmark

This is the 23rd piece in a series that I have written about Long Island’s historic sites. It has been on my “to do list” for a while. The little chapel in the photo was built circa 1865, and is the second oldest church structure remaining in the Wantagh/Levittown area and the surrounding communities. This small, sturdy, wood-sided church is one of the few buildings still remaining from the time when present day Wantagh was known as Jerusalem. This story touches my heart because my great grandfather, and several members of the Meyer family, are interred in the cemetery that surrounds the little chapel known as the St. John of Jerusalem Cemetery.

The chapel was originally the home of the German Methodist-Episcopal Mission. During the mid 1800s, Johann D. Bulling moved from New York City to Jerusalem. Several of his friends, all members of the German Methodist Church of America, followed and settled nearby and became neighbors. However, clearing and plowing land to grow crops and building their homes and farm buildings didn’t leave them much time to socialize. Their first religious services were held in the homes of the German-speaking residents. Many of the Amish communities throughout the United States continue that custom. Usually, the men would read from the Bible and the host family would serve breakfast. The religious service would be held at a different family home each week.

Soon, the community decided that a German preacher was needed. All of the neighbors agreed, and petitioned their former congregation for a minister. Their request was granted in 1854, and the Rev. George Able was assigned to the community of Jerusalem Methodist-Episcopal Church, as the first German missionary of the Washington Street German Methodist-Episcopal Church.

Two years later, in 1856, the Town of Hempstead gave one acre of land to the mission, on which to build a church and lay out a cemetery. This was the origin of the present day St. John of Jerusalem Cemetery, and I am proud to be a member of their board of directors. The chapel and cemetery are located at 500 Wantagh Avenue, Levittown, about one-half mile north of North Jerusalem Road.

The official records and minutes of the early board of directors meetings aren’t all recorded and not in our possession at this time. It is not known what the cost of the building’s construction was, or the names of the members of the congregation who contributed to the building fund. It has been assumed, from notes and sketchy minutes of quarterly church meetings, that just the shell of the church building was built in 1865. The interior finishing was done in various stages during the later years, and as funds became available. As you can imagine, the members of the congregation were hard-working farmers of little means. They were generous to their church, but as recent immigrants from Germany, their first concern was to establish their own farms and provide for their growing families. Their task was made even more difficult by the beginning of the Civil War and the depression which followed. As a result, neighbors joining the congregation and the work on the church moved at a snail’s pace.

In December of 1862, the year my great-grandfather came to this country from Hanover, Germany, the cemetery grounds were surveyed and measured in 40 lots of eight graves each. The first lots were sold for $5. Records show that the first burial was Frederick Doscher, born Dec. 9, 1814, and died September, 1862. Records of the cemetery kept by a few faithful members indicate that the price of lots increased during the 1860s, until they had doubled in price by 1872.

During the years that followed, the cemetery trustees decided that non-members of the congregation could not inter their loved ones without a death certificate signed by a doctor. The trustees also set rates for opening a grave at $2.25 in 1896 and provided, for an additional charge of 25 cents, to ring the church bell during a burial service.

As the 20th century progressed, the younger generation became unwilling to accept the services being held in High German, and also that the records were being kept in German. The congregation grew smaller and smaller. The last entry in the German Methodist-Episcopal Mission Church record is dated Aug. 1, 1912. No other records can be found regarding the church or cemetery after that date. Records, however not clear, show that the cemetery was fenced during 1929 and 1930.

The church remained unused from 1912 to 1926, when permission was given to the local Lutherans to use it for their services as a Lutheran mission church, under the guidance of Pastor Miller from Freeport. The first service was held on Thanksgiving Day, 1926. The Lutheran services were held in the church building for 14 years. In 1940, the Lutheran congregation moved into their own new church building on Hyland Road in Wantagh.

The church once again remained idle until 1949 when a United Christian group obtained permission to use it. This congregation prospered for some years, but ended in 1969. For the past 45 years, the cemetery under the guidance of the current trustees, have kept the grounds maintained and in excellent condition. Burials are still conducted, along with memorials of family loved ones interred there. The St. John of Jerusalem Cemetery was incorporated in 1939, the current board of trustees is currently planning to have the exterior of the chapel repaired and painted. Future plans are to restore the interior for possible weddings, christenings and funeral services.

The little chapel and cemetery has an abundance of local history, and is an important piece of southeast Nassau County history. Soldiers interred in the cemetery are from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. For information about purchasing a plot, call Diana L. Geddes at 809-6334 or (cell) 710-9859 or 785-0312.