Far from the maddening crowd of the city and a scant eight miles from the Bank Corner in Haverstraw, is a touch of the past steeped in historic “Gothic Romance” so characteristic of Northern England.
Even now, the church of St. John’s-In-The-Wilderness stands in thickly wooded seclusion – a remnant of the countryside that first attracted Mrs. Margaret Elizabeth Zimmerman to build this memorial to her late husband.
John and Margaret Zimmerman were a young wealthy couple from New York City, traveling through the Middle East on their honeymoon in 1878 or 1879 when tragedy ended their short marriage. Mr. Zimmerman choked to death on a pomegranate seed while the couple was having dinner in a small café in Palestine. The grieving widow returned to her home in New York and sought consolation from her friends, many of whom had estates in the near-by Tuxedo Park. It was during one of her visits to Tuxedo Park, shortly after the death of her husband, that Margaret Zimmerman decided to erect a church in her husband’s memory.
She chose a 250-acre parcel of land, which had formerly been a wetland, just north of Tuxedo in the then town of Johnsontown.
In 1879 Mrs. Zimmerman purchased the land for the church from the John Nicholas Conklin, of Johnsontown. Margaret Zimmerman had originally intended to build a sturdy wooden church made of native timber. However, Ralph Townsend, a New York architect suggested that the plentiful fieldstone of the area be utilized. Once the decision to use the native “hornblend” granite made, Mrs. Zimmerman selected a design to compliment the feeling of such solid stone. The architecture was typical of Northern England. It had a decidedly “up-country” look reflective of Mrs. Zimmerman’s English heritage and youthful travels.
The Episcopal Diocese of New York already aware of the area’s ministerial needs was eager to have a church built. Reverend Guy from Tomkins Cove and his assistant, Ms. Ada Bessie Carey, had been asked by the Diocese to tend to the spiritual and corporal needs of this small community as best as they could. Rev. Guy conducted occasional services in homes. Ms. Carey performed what nursing duties she could as well as doing some teaching. Through the Diocese, Mrs. Zimmerman made the acquaintance of Mrs. Carey. Mrs. Zimmerman then employed Mrs. Carey as directer of the St. John’s complex when it became a reality in 1880.
On June 23, 1880, the cornerstone was laid, and the church officially named for its patron saint “St. John The Evangelist” under the auspices of the Rev. Henry C. Potter, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Timely religious sentimental articles were sealed within the cornerstone. Encased in the granite are: three coins to mark the year, Wayne’s Centennial Medal, a copy of the Centennial Bible, a church hymnal, “The Churchman” of June 19, 1880, a New York Herald of June 23, 1880, a report of the House of the Good Shepherd, the Rockland County Messenger of June 10, 1880, a photographic likeness of the “Founder” and her late husband. Lastly, a silver plate was placed on top with the inscription “To the glory of God, and in memory of John Edward Zimmerman, this church of St. John the Evangelist is erected by his wife Margaret Elizabeth Zimmerman, nee Furniss. Cornerstone laid June 23, 1880.”
On November 15, 1880, the church proper was dedicated and opened for public worship under the ministerial leadership of the Rev. A. Warren Merrick. Shortly thereafter, a school for the neighborhood children was begun at the church and a post office opened, where the mail was carried on horseback from Thiells until 1914.
Mrs. Carey, under the sponsorship of Mrs. Zimmerman, directed the founding of a school for orphaned boys at St. John’s in 1883. A dormitory for eight to ten boys brought to the country from Sheltering Arms Orphanage in New York City, added to the growing community center. During the succeeding years, Mrs. Carey also added a library and reading room to accommodate the homes that stretched from Johnsontown Road around to the back of the town of Sandyfields (the name of the town that was demolished to build Lake Welch).
Through the years 1880 to 1910, the St. John’s church and school complex along with surrounding countryside was self-supporting and thrived. But eventually Mrs. Carey’s health began to fail and she returned to her native England in 1914. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Zimmerman procured the services of a Mrs. North as directress of St. John’s. But, like Mrs. Carey, her health too failed, and in 1918 the church had to discontinue educating the boys from Sheltering Arms. At the same time, the advent of a neighborhood public school system in the area convinced Mrs. Zimmerman that it would be in the best interest of the local children to close down the St. John’s school. Due to Mrs. Zimmerman’s own poor health and increasing years, the Diocese of New York accepted direct support and sponsorship of St. John the Evangelist Church in the Wilderness sometime in the early 1920’s.
In 1942 the towns of Johnsontown and Sandyfields that had once been home to most of the congregation of St. Johns were demolished. This was to make way for the use of the land as a state park. Those living in these towns were given payment for their homes and land and evicted under the act of eminent domain. Their homes were burning during the winter months, with the town of Sandyfields becoming what is now Lake Welch. St. Johns was not demolished during this time because of its cemetery. St. Johns has been since then, and is still now, the only private land within Harriman State Park.
Few changes have taken place in the quaint country church over the years. Essentially it remains the same. The carved brass kerosene lamps used to illuminate the church in the early 1900’s are still to be found, although they’ve been converted for electrical use. Beautifully preserved carved wood pews line the church interior. Church history is recorded on gracious stained-glass windows. A brass plaque installed at the request of Mrs. Zimmerman in memory of her husband, John Edward Zimmerman, hangs in front of the church near the altar. A small and dedicated congregation is committed to preserving the simple majesty of this very English, very lovely church.
A visit to St. John’s is a walk through another place in time.