Much is underway at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, the historic stone house of worship in northern Westchester that displays world-class art by famed artists Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse. A new pastor, the Rev. Patricia Calahan, started working there at the end of August and has plans to spread the word about the church and all it has to offer to its congregants and to the public.
The non-denominational Protestant congregation was founded in 1915, and moved to its present location in 1922 on land donated by John D. Rockefeller Sr. Upon the death of Rockefeller’s wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, in 1948, their son Nelson Rockefeller had Matisse design the church’s rose window in her memory. It was the last work by Matisse before his death. When John D. Rockefeller Jr. died in 1960, his five children approached Chagall to create nine windows for the church, including the Good Samaritan window, dedicated to their father, and eight smaller windows that run along both sides of the church.
A native of Sacramento, California, Calahan grew up in a family that was Presbyterian and very fundamentalist in its religious beliefs. “I was a religiously serious kid and read the Bible all time,” she says. Calahan discovered at an early age that she was also drawn to music. “I saw Itzhak Perlman perform the violin on Sesame Street when I was five and I was determined to play. My great aunt gave me a violin the summer before fourth grade. So the violin was my other love. As I grew up, I was practicing four to five hours a day.”
Calahan went to college at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she graduated with a bachelor of music degree in violin performance and a master of music in violin performance and Suzuki pedagogy. (The Suzuki method is a specific musical curriculum that was developed after World War II by Japanese violinist, Shinichi Suzuki.)
While at CIM, Calahan was involved in a local, very conservative Presbyterian church. “I had a conversion away from all of that while in college, largely because of their views on women and their role in the church, the family, and society. I discovered that the God they were proclaiming was not the God that I knew,” says Calahan.
While she didn’t go to church for a couple of years, she was always reading books about theology. “I had rejected a very codified view of Christianity and I didn’t know what to replace it with, but I never left my faith,” she says. She started visiting different churches and found her way to Lyndhurst Community Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, where she became the youth director.
Calahan began teaching the Suzuki method of violin at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. She also was devoted to continuing her online research about various theological books to read, and that’s where she came upon information on master of divinity programs. “I said, ‘Wow, this is all the stuff I want to learn,’ and it all coalesced for me,” says Calahan. She started at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2001 and earned her master of divinity degree in 2004. “I was really influenced by Union’s commitment to economic and social justice and its academically rigorous programming. Plus, it’s uniquely diverse population caused me to have a better appreciation for who is sitting in the pew and what their needs are,” she says.
Calahan then worked at Brick Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and the Davis Community Church in California. Most recently, she joined the Cornwall (New York) Presbyterian Church in 2011, where she served as pastor until this past July.
Calahan was looking for a new call, and heard about the opening at the Union Church. “Union Church clearly has this legacy with the arts and music, which is obviously something that drew me there,” she says. “They are a broadly inclusive community, which is also something that is important to me. In addition, there was such a tangible warmth to the committee that I met with and I really liked them.”
As far as what Calahan hopes to accomplish, she says: “The church has a rich legacy that is very valuable as it is now, but I see a lot of potential for growth. I think many people don’t know there is a church there and often see it as a museum [run by Historic Hudson Valley] with these masterpieces by Chagall and Matisse,” she says. “However, there is a really vibrant church community there that needs to become known so that they can offer all their resources and programs to the outside community.”
More information at ucph.org.
Laura Joseph Mogil is a freelance writer residing in Briarcliff Manor, NY.
Photo credit: Rebecca Kashinski.