Old Steeple Church member Keith Young opens the time capsule found in the spire at Old Steeple Church. Photo: Gail Evans

A time capsule found in the steeple of an Aquebogue church during renovations last month provided the congregation with a peek into the past when it was opened after Sunday’s worship service this week.

Workers at Old Steeple Church discovered the locked wooden box tucked away in the structure as they prepared to dismantle it to make way for a new steeple. It was a surprise to church staff and members.

The steeple was built in 1939 to replace one that was destroyed by the 1938 hurricane. It was restored in 1978 to repair and replace decaying wood.

It was a mystery whether the contents of the capsule dated back to its installation in 1939 or the renovation in 1978. It turns out that the capsule contained documents from both. The contents were a subject of much speculation among Old Steeple congregants for a month. The wood box looked old and it was heavy.

“We were joking that maybe the only thing inside was an old Bible,” Old Steeple office administrator Gail Evans said last month as she watched a crane lower the new steeple onto the belfry. See Aug. 26 story, “Old Steeple Church gets a new steeple.”

Keith Young sawed open the sealed box. Photo: Gail Evans

On Sunday afternoon following the weekly service, members of the church gathered outside the front entrance of the Main Road church to watch Keith Young cut open the sealed box.

He opened the box’s hinged lid to reveal items dating back more than 80 years. Among them: receipts from Harold Reeve and Sons construction company, based in Mattituck, which worked on the steeple in both 1939 and 1978. One document is a list of the men who worked on the steeple’s installation in 1939, while another is a receipt dated Dec. 1, 1977, when the church hired the company to do the renovations, which cost $7,200.80.

The capsule also contains newspaper clippings from editions of The County Review newspaper in 1938. One of the clippings, dated Sept. 29, has photos of buildings in Riverhead damaged by the historic hurricane, including the church. 

“Everybody was very curious to see what was in it. We had no clue what to expect,” Old Steeple Pastor Anton DeWet said. “It was obvious when we opened it that it really belonged to the timeframe starting 1938,” he said.

“It was just amazing. To think about it in terms of history, to realize that this happened even before the Second World War had taken place, this is truly historical,” DeWet said.

The box also contained a four-page, hand-written document titled “A Record for the Future,” written by the Rev. Herbert Storey, pastor at the church from 1938-41 and dated March 8, 1939. The pastor explains that “the historic steeple, “which had crowned the Aquebogue Congregational church for seventy-five years, was demolished by the most violent hurricane ever known on Long Island” on Sept. 21, 1938.

Old Steeple Church Time Capsule by RiverheadLOCAL on Scribd

Storey talks about the rebuilding project and the history of the church, including the building of the current structure, which was dedicated in February 1863.

“It is our hope that the restored Steeple will not only be admired from the outside, but that the stately spire, stronger and more durable than before, will encourage many people to enter the doors of ‘Aquebogue Church’ to worship, and find fellowship within its walls,” Storey wrote.

“You’re kind of split in awe there, just remembering the people that had come before us, upon whose shoulders we stand,” DeWet said in an interview today. “It was awesome. It was awesome. People were really thrilled to find all these old documents that reminded us of who we are and where we came from.”

DeWet said the church will add some new pieces of history to the capsule to represent the year 2021, reseal the box and place the box in the steeple for future generations to discover, as the current congregation did recently.

“Our idea is that we would put in issues that pertain to our time. We were thinking that we put in a short note with a face mask, just to explain what this was like in the midst of the pandemic at this time,” DeWet said. “We would like to add why we were replacing the old steeple and just give some facts that might be of interest. Insert a cutting from the news article that had been written on the new steeple and so on. Just to give people somewhere in the future an opportunity to remember what it was like in our time.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com