By Ted Waddell
CALLICOON CENTER August 23, 2005 "I always thought it would be the neatest place in the world to put a Christmas tree," recalled Tom Larsen, who along with his wife Deborah is converting St. Paul's Reformed Church in Callicoon Center into a home.
He moved to the county from New Jersey in 1973 and ran the North Branch Garage for a while before opening up Monticello Collision. In the wake of a devastating fire, the auto body repair shop reopened in Mongaup Valley.
Deborah grew up in South Fallsburg and graduated from Fallsburg High in 1972.
In their quest to restore vintage houses, the Larsens owned one of the oldest houses in Hortonville and a 1920s postcard house in Callicoon Center.
"We like to redo old houses," said Deborah.
Asked what it was like to live in a church undergoing renovation into a unique private dwelling, Larsen said it took her about a year to come to terms with the ghosts of funerals past before she felt at home.
"I have a thing about ghosts, but now when I walk through the door I get such a sense of belonging here, and I'm not in the least bit afraid," she said. "It's a real peaceful place."
As work progressed, the original wood floors were sanded and refinished, all-new electric and plumbing was installed and a modern kitchen accented with antiques was built.
According to Tom, 80-year-old handyman "Uncle Donald" Cook of Youngsville ("my right arm he's just like a father") has been working on the project ever since the couple bought the church a couple of years ago.
"He gets a lot of credit. At 80, he's plugging right along," said Larsen.
The Larsens preserved the original stained glass windows dedicated to the memory of August H. Ruppel, Mary Helck (1834-1873), John M. Helck (1827-1897), Caroline C. Zellhoefer, John and Louvsa B. Staib and "Zur Ehre Gottes und zum anderken an Die Grunder dieser Gemeinde 1857-1907." Other windows were provided by the choir and the Willing Workers.
In 1856, a group of "interested Protestants" were divided into two groups, Dutch Reformed and Lutheran, but since neither party had enough money to construct its own church, they decided to build a shared church for both denominations.
St. Paul's Church was organized in 1856 as the German Evangelical Church of Thumansville (as the area was unofficially known at the time).
According to a brochure published on the church's centennial celebration program (October 6-7, 1956), "a copy of the original deed states that the property on which the church building was to be constructed was sold to the trustees of the church, Peter Wolf, John Weyrauch, Ludwig Dantzer, Henry Becker and Valentine Hessinger, by Christopher Kastner and his wife Margaretha, for the sum of $1 on October 6, 1856."
The foundation was laid by John Wilfert, while Andrew and Christopher Kastner worked as builders.
As Reformed members of the church grew in fellow congregants and wealth, they gained support from other churches in the Classis of Orange which helped them pay off the mortgage, paving the way to become St. Paul's Reformed Church.
In 1876, an open cupola and bell were added. In 1885-86, the church was remodeled, and Andrew Yager built the present pulpit. The Willing Workers were founded on January 19, 1899.
In 1906, a year after Callicoon, unofficially known as Thumansville, was changed to Callicoon Center and Callicoon Depot to Callicoon, the church's early records were destroyed in a fire.
On August 4, 1907, St. Paul's Reformed Church celebrated its 50th Anniversary.
Until 1918, services were conducted in German, but after that time they were held in English up until the church closed its doors.
The Flood of 1947 caused $1 million in damage to the village and its environs, but the waters never reached above the outside sills of the sanctuary windows.
"The flood was respectful of the church," one of the elders remarked at the time.
For about a year during the late 1990s, services were conducted under the auspices of John 17:23, "when we used it for the Lord's glory," said Gloria Paquet.
The other day, Gloria and her husband Bob stopped in to give the Larsens a small album of photographs documenting the everyday life of the old post-and-beam church.
"We went for a walk one night, and I said, 'I'm going to find out about that old church'," recalled Larsen. "I always wanted to have an old grange, schoolhouse or church . . . and we hung in there for two years because the Kastner family [the church eventually reverted back to its original owners] was all over the United States."
(Larsen asked that if anyone has historic photos of other memorabilia related to the old church, please give him a call at 482-5141 so they can be copied for the archives.)
Last year, 47 folks sat down at the Larsens table for a good, old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner, and looking up at the 16-foot-high ceilings, it's a good bet that Tom Larsen will get his wish for a tall Christmas tree.