Visitors driving past the Union Church of Pocantico Hills on Bedford Road could be excused for viewing the village’s house of worship as a charming local building and not much more. Its sweet but modest façade scarcely hints at the world-class works of art inside.
But the Union Church is a remarkable place. And with the arrival of its new interim pastor, the Reverend Doctor Lindley DeGarmo, it is beginning a fresh chapter under the guidance of a minister whose spiritual role was reached, unconventionally, after a highly successful career in the world of finance.
Money and faith have intersected in Pocantico Hills’ church since its construction in the 1920s. What began as a Sunday school in the 1880s evolved into a community center and place of worship, called the Library, in 1891. But the shift from that building – now the site of the Pocantico Hills Fire Department – into a stone-built church with steeply pitched gables and bell tower in the 1920s could not have happened without donations from two local patrons, Barron Collier and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Rockefeller not only made his contribution to the building costs but matched all funds raised by the congregation.
The involvement of subsequent Rockefeller generations lifted the little building into the artistic stratosphere with two gifts of stained glass. The simple but glorious rose window above the altar, installed in memory of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, is by Henri Matisse. In fact, it’s the artist’s final commission, its design completed only four days before his death. The pattern, color scheme, and glass Matisse selected were installed by his daughter Marguerite Duthuit, and dedicated on Mother’s Day 1956.
The arched Good Samaritan window at the foot of the nave is by Chagall and was commissioned as a memorial to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., after his son David saw the artist’s work exhibited in Paris. A vision of blue, red and gold, with a few clear panes allowing glimpses of trees and clouds, the window lends glowing light to the space. “It’s always humbling to get up and preach the Gospel,” says Dr. DeGarmo, “but all the more so when standing in front of a Chagall.”
Eight more Chagall windows line the nave and are the only cycle of windows by this artist gracing a Christian church in America.
DeGarmo is a large yet softly-spoken figure who seems relaxed in his new role, while energized by its opportunities. He has taken over from Pastor Paul DeHoff, who retired in June after twenty-seven years of service, but only expects to stay for two years himself. “As interim pastor, it’s my job to see the congregation through the transition and prepare them to receive their next permanent pastor, to find out where their strengths are and to build on them,” DeGarmo explained.
Born in Pine Plains, Dutchess County, DeGarmo grew up in an active Methodist community but was keen to escape his small town and in his early adult years fell away from the church, pursuing a career first at Exxon and then at Salomon Brothers. A friend’s suggestion that he check out First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village, New York, created the junction between a fast-paced life of travel and business, and the spiritual existence he had been missing.
In his thirties, DeGarmo became a Presbyterian church elder, and married Sarah Finlayson, but it was the birth of their daughter Ellie that crystallized his dissatisfaction at work and “the nagging sense that business wasn’t exactly what I was meant to be doing.” Then he lost his job at Salomon Brothers. “And suddenly a door was open. What was I going to do?”
After a Masters of Divinity degree, he was ordained in February 2000, spent three and a half years as Interim Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian, and then gained his own parish at Towson Presbyterian in suburban Baltimore, serving there for 12 years and retiring in 2015.
The out-of-the-blue invitation to apply for the local interim role “came along at just the right moment,” DeGarmo said. “My hope is to see Union Church build up its outreach to the community, its relationships with our neighbors,” he expanded, mentioning its remarkable music program, now under the leadership of Richard Coffey.
And what special skills does he bring? “I’m a cheerleader, a coach. The role of an interim pastor is to listen and reflect back, to try to be constantly asking questions.”
To remind himself that his role in Pocantico Hills is brief, DeGarmo keeps his parting gift from Towson, an elegant walking stick to be used when he finally walks the Camino di Santiago in Spain, propped behind the altar. His tenure locally may be temporary but the interplay between the exceptional non-denominational church, which welcomes all worshippers, and the enquiring new pastor could well generate enduring benefits.
Union Church of Pocantico Hills
555 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, NY
For information about tours, events, and worship services, visit ucph.org.