Brooklyn Heights

Plymouth Church celebrates 175 years in Brooklyn Heights with vibrant Harvest Dinner

"We are all connected, we need each other, and you can't do it alone."

November 21, 2022 Mary Frost
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BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Roughly 175 guests, dressed in “smart casual,” gathered at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights Saturday night for the church’s much-anticipated 175th Anniversary Harvest Dinner.

It was an evening of delicious food, fun and faith, but the overwhelming themes were community and history.

Before the hors d’oeuvres, Beth Fleisher, co-chair of the Harvest Dinner with Caroline Koster, gave the Brooklyn Eagle a peek at the 22 homemade apple pies baked by church members.

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“We hold a Mrs. Beecher’s Apple Pie Contest because the Reverend Beecher wrote rhapsodic things about apple pie,” said Fleisher. “Who doesn’t like apple pie at a Harvest Dinner? Especially since Henry Ward was bonkers over apple pie.”

Founded in 1847, Plymouth was known as Brooklyn’s “Grand Central Depot” of the Underground Railroad. The church’s founding pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, staged mock slave auctions where the congregation bought and freed slaves. Abe Lincoln sat in pew 89; a piece of Plymouth Rock perches in a niche in the Arcade. Members of the History Committee have been researching Plymouth’s past all year in honor of the church’s Dodransbicentennial (175th) year.

Humble Pie. This unassuming traditional apple pie won “Best Pie” out of over twenty entries in a pie-tasting contest. It was baked by Chris Owens. “I had some help,” he shared sheepishly. The homemade entries created an ample dessert spread and filled the room with the aroma of apple and cinnamon. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo

But despite its designation as a National Historic Landmark, “We are very, very proud that our church is not a museum, Fleisher said. “Even though we have this fantastic history, we are a very lively, very active community. We are a community of faith, a community of service, a community of joy and a community of love. And we like nothing more than to come together and celebrate together.”

This is the first Harvest Dinner the church has held in three years, “Which makes it even more special. And it’s a wildly special one because it’s our 175th anniversary,” Fleisher said.

“We are proud of our history, and at a time when not everybody is proud of what might have happened 175 years ago,” co-chair Koster said. “Plymouth Church’s 21 [founding] abolitionists came to form this place out of an anti-slavery belief and a belief in love and humanity, and we are very proud of that. But the thing that gives us hope for 175 more years is our glorious commitment to service, faith, joy and love.”

There’s a new generation coming in, Koster added. “One of my favorite things is when we have a traffic jam in the front of the church when all the little kids are making their way to Sunday school … It feels like the greatest problem in the world.”

Rev. Dr. Brett Younger (left), and Jeff Bollingerman (right) had the enviable job of judging the entries in the pie-tasting contest as Kimberly Kim (center) supervises. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo

“We are all connected”

“I go to Plymouth Church because of the people, the community and the quality of goodness and kindness. That is the key,” said Grace Faison, a sixth-generation Heights resident. At age 98, Faison has been an active member of Plymouth Church for 72 years.

“I have a mantra: We are all connected, we need each other, and you can’t do it alone,” Faison said. “People care about each other at this church, that’s the message I want to get out.”

Valerie Louzonis is the co-chair of the Dodransbicentennial Committee with Jim Waechter. The celebration is about “coming together,” Louzonis said. “We have former members, people who have moved away, young children — we have the entire community of Plymouth, past, present and future.”

Alex Bernath and her husband Josh have two young children. One has graduated Plymouth Church preschool, and one still attends. “Our biggest foundational teaching for our kids is based on love and kindness and respect for other people, and I think that this church really exemplifies this, and the school does too,” she said.

“Plymouth Church has always been the place that has served as the town hall for the Brooklyn Heights community,” Councilmember Lincoln Restler, who grew up in Brooklyn Heights, said. “No matter whatever the issue of the day, it’s at Plymouth that we come together as a community to tackle it, whether it was the BQE a couple of years ago, or presidents coming to speak here in years past.”

“I love it because it’s so vibrant,” said Soossan Salmassi, who joined the Plymouth congregation four years ago after attending another church. “I never knew you could go to church and sit through the whole service and be so happy and joyful.”

Minister of music, Raymond Trapp celebrated the event with his family but went back to work after dinner to provide music for a sing-along, a Plymouth Church tradition. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo

Plymouth’s commitment to social justice continues

Rev. Dr. Brett Younger has been leading Plymouth as senior minister for six years. Previously serving in Atlanta, he arrived with his wife Carol along with a distinctly southern intonation and an infectious sense of humor.

“I’m told I have an accent quite frequently,” he laughed.

“The most important thing about this church is that we are living out of a great story, the story of Christ’s that calls us to work for justice, the story that made us work for abolition, the story that made us work for civil rights, and we hope to grow in our faith and get better at it every day,” Rev. Younger said.

The church’s historical commitment to social justice continues, he said. “We have an anti-trafficking group called the New Abolitionist, which picks up on that theme of abolition that’s been such a good part of our history; we have a racial justice group that works for justice issues.”

History Committee member Philip Dempsey is writing the story of Plymouth rescuing [an enslaved girl] Rose Ward Hunt, “And I would say that’s one of the most significant stories of Plymouth,” he said.

Interim Minister of Music Raymond Trapp, who joined Plymouth on Nov. 1 (former Music Minister Bruce Oelschlager retired) helped entertain as part of a trio playing jazz and show tunes.

“The most important thing I’ve learned about this church so far is how welcoming they are,” Trapp told the Eagle. “It’s been amazing. My children [Ava is 12 and Matthew is 7] spoke about the warmth of the church and that really meant a lot, sincerely.”

He added, “The church has an amazing choral repertoire so I’m definitely embracing that and building on it.”

Congregants gathered in Plymouth Church gymnasium to dine on a hearty menu of roast pork with apple glaze, traditional corn pudding, acorn squash stuffed with quinoa, roasted brussel sprouts, and salad. Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo

Music and hors d’oeuvres

The party started with wine and a glorious spread of hors d’oeuvres put together by Starr McFlarin Clancy. Some of the highlights of the dinner included herb-marinated pork loin, stuffed acorn squash, Brussels sprouts and corn pudding.

Koster led a toast expressing gratitude to Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and Mrs. Beecher, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Jackie Robinson and other figures who have featured in the church’s history. The toast also honored Professor Donald Othmer and his wife, Mildred, who left millions to Plymouth as part of an enormous bequest in 1999. “Their generosity continues to support the church,” Koster said.

After dinner, the hard-fought apple pie contest (organized by Kimberly Kim) progressed with much tongue in cheek commentary by judges Rev. Younger and Jeff Bollerman.

“Now many of you have asked, why did Jeff and Brett get to be the judges?,” Rev. Younger said. “I’m not someone who knows how to cook. But you don’t need someone who knows how to cook. You need someone who knows how to eat.”

Amy Anderson chats with Lee Stern towards the end of the cocktail hour. Lee, a musician, and teacher knows hundreds of Brooklyn Heights children. He is the director of Music Together of Brooklyn Heights, a favorite of neighborhood families for many years. Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo

“We’ve been through a huge public health disaster, we’ve been through many crises, and you really get to know you’re a senior minister when you’ve been through the white-hot fiery crucible of a pie eating contest,” Bollerman said. The event was followed by a spirited sing-along.

Claude Scales, editor of the Brooklyn Heights Blog and his wife Martha Foley attended the evening as guests of Sadie Horton, co-chair of the Racial Justice Committee. “My daughter doesn’t understand why we don’t sell our apartment in Brooklyn Heights and move to a bigger place in the New Jersey suburbs. I told her I’d rather die,” he said.


Volunteers for this event were too numerous to list. Some of their names include Jona Brisske and her team, who transformed the Reception Room and gym, created centerpieces, and oversaw the event’s design; Becky Lewis who created the artwork; Molly Anna Martinez and Amy Anderson, Plymouth’s executive administrator and communications director respectively, who wrangled details. Spencer Harrington sourced the wine and Tony Kleckner organized bar service.

Amy Anderson sits next to long-time parishioner Carl Hodges. Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
Josh Pater (left) and Jeff Bollerman (right). Both donate their time to Plymouth Church. They serve on the human resources and nominating committees, respectively.
Jacque Jones with Molly Anna Martinez Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
Robert and Susan Egan have been parishioners of Plymouth Church for over thirty years. Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
Rev. Dr. Brett Younger is the senior minister of Plymouth Church for six years and is originally from Atlanta, GA. “I am told I have an accent quite frequently.” Here he basks in the warmth of the fireplace but also the joyous atmosphere of the 175th Anniversary celebration. Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
Brother and sister T.K. (left) and Lucy (right) Small. T.K. is a disability rights attorney. They both reside in Brooklyn Heights. Their parents were married in a side chapel at Plymouth Church. The photographer, a friend of the bride and groom, forgot to put the film in their camera. Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
Claude Scales is the editor-in-chief of the Brooklyn Heights Blog. He possesses deep knowledge and a love of Brooklyn Heights’ history. He is married to Martha Foley (pictured previously). Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
Molly Anna Rodriguez and Kimberly Kim. Molly Martinez is the executive administrator for Plymouth Church. Ms. Kim, a volunteer, oversaw the pie-baking contest. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
Soossan Salmassi beamed, “I love this church because it’s so vibrant…No matter what I co to every event, every service.” Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
From left to right City Councilmember Lincoln Restler with parishioners Jim Anderson, and Rosemary Ellis. Restler, a Brooklyn Heights native, mused “Plymouth Church has always been the place that has served as the town hall for the Brooklyn Heights community.” Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
It’s a family affair. Keith Wright, Luciana Vaz, and Chloe Vaz. Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
Grace Faison, the 98-year-old doyenne of Brooklyn Heights and Plymouth Church, and Jim Waechter make their entrance at the party. Both serve on the church’s history committee.
Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo
Tamella Trapp (left), Amiyra Mason and Tamella’s mother Deborah London. Ms. Trapp is married to Plymouth’s minister of music, Raymond Trapp. They have two children (not pictured), Ava (12) and Matthew (7). Photo by Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Beth Heller Photo

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