Historic church in Huntington looks to the future

After just a few weeks as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Rev. Amjad Samuel has a strong idea of what makes his congregation unique.

“What I like about the church is that they’re rooted in prayer and active participants in the life of the community,” Samuel said. “Their sense of responsibility for the community is rooted in a deep spiritual life.”

Samuel said he’s heard that the church has “an iconic presence in the community,” symbolized by its presence on the historic Huntington Green.

St. Paul’s was established as an Anglican church in 1722 when the first service was conducted in Ripton, the town’s original name.

The parish was established as part of Christ Church, Stratford and separated from that church in 1739. Construction of the church building began 1740, when it became a bona fide parish.

The church closed down during the Revolutionary War.

“They shut us down because we were loyal to the king,” said Byron Peterson, interim parish manager, chairman of the church finance committee and vestry member.

Historic cemetery

Many Episcopalians and Congregationalists are buried in the cemetery next to the church, he said, including a Jewish member of St. Paul’s from Derby, who was a loyalist during the Revolution and fled to Canada.

There are also Civil War veterans, including two from the “colored” regiment, and slaves of church members, Peterson said.

The original church building burned down in the early 1800s when someone used a flintlock to chase pigeons out of the steeple, and the structure caught fire.

The current building was built in 1812, and in October 2012 church members celebrated its 200th anniversary, said Steve Johnson, senior warden at St. Paul’s.

‘Warmly welcomed’ at the congregation

Johnson’s family moved to Shelton 10 years ago. “We made St. Paul’s the first of our [church] visits,” he said. “We were so warmly welcomed. We never considered going anywhere else.”

Peterson has been a member for 34 years, since moving from Michigan. Like Johnson, St. Paul’s was the first church Peterson’s family visited.

“We stepped out of the car,” he said, and the Van Gelder family — members of the church — welcomed them and whisked the Peterson children off to Sunday school. Three hours later, the Van Gelders showed up at the Petersons’ home to help them unpack.

The church decision was made for them. “We never left,” Peterson said.

“This church is a very caring church,” Samuel said. “When you walk into the church, you become a part of the family.”

Facing a changing world

With thoughts of the long history of St. Paul’s in mind, Samuel said, he’s facing challenges of moving the church into a rapidly changing society.

“The way communities are formed are shifting,” he said. “Revolutions are done online, not on a town green. The challenge is how do we understand and retain what we’ve always been in this changing world.”

Church members are discussing “ a stronger website presence,” he said, with an aim to maintain a spiritual life that “can’t be captured in a sound bite.”

A personal challenge is to reach out to people in their 20s and 30s.

“The depth of spiritual questioning they have is absolutely amazing,” Samuel said. People at that age are yearning for spirituality, but may not look for it in a church building or other “big box” facility.

“Young people want to tell us what that box should be,” he said, and in other parishes, he has met up with younger folks in cafes, restaurants and bowling alleys.

New pastor grew up in Pakistan

Another challenge is living in a “multi-faith world,” he said. “I come from a 98% Muslim society,” Samuel said. “It’s very difficult to be a Christian in that context.”

Four generations of his family were Christians in Pakistan, Samuel said. He attended Alma College in Michigan, returned to Pakistan and came back to the United States in 2006 to receive a degree from Duke University Divinity School.

He was ordained to the priesthood in 2009 and served in Episcopal parishes in Stonington and Ohio.

“We Christians want every religion to be just like us,” he said. “That’s not fair.”

He hopes to host a forum on the multi-faith world that may be open to the community.

Serves seniors to youth, counseling center

Currently, St. Paul’s hosts Family Table, a meal prepared each month for senior citizens, and sponsors MAFIA (Many Amazing Friends in Action), a youth group that includes young people from different churches in Shelton and travels on mission trips each summer around the country.

“The church a very strong tradition of vacation Bible school,” said Samuel, serving about 120 youngsters from the community.

St. Paul’s takes part in ecumenical Thanksgiving and Good Friday services, and started a Christian Counseling Center 30 years ago that has “legally separated” from the church but has a parish member as its executive director.

St. Paul’s opens its doors to Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous and a Polish school during the week. “The building is always in use,” Johnson said.

Church services twice on Sunday

A traditional worship service takes place Sundays at 8 a.m., and there’s a family service that offers traditional and contemporary worship on Sundays at 10 a.m. in the chapel.

Eucharist is offered at a service on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 7 a.m., and there’s a monthly church service led by lay members at Gardner Heights, a nursing home and rehabilitation center in Shelton.

Samuel sees his goal as “reviving the spirit of the church” following its lengthy pastoral interim period.

“I’m reaching out to people who are here or have been here, to meet them and learn about the life of the church,” he said.

Although the number of “core” church members is large, outreach is needed, he said.

From his office, he listens to the carillon that was installed on church grounds a year ago. Listening to the chimes “reminds me that we’re a member of the community,” he said.

“We left a legacy,” Peterson said. “We are here for all who want to seek the Lord.”