Celebrating community and history, Church of the Master approaches its centennial

1923 and 2023 COTM
The Church of the Master in 1923 (left) and 2023 (right). The church, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, was originally built on Bruckner Boulevard before moving to its current location on Lafayette Avenue.
Photos courtesy Ed Bungert

Church of the Master (COTM) in the Bronx, with its white wooden doors and triangular façade pointing up at the sky, sits on the corner of Lafayette and Swinton avenues, looming over passersby. Next to the building is a billboard, which gets updated every week.

This week, it reads, in wide block letters: “IF GOD IS YOUR CO-PILOT, CHANGE SEATS.” 

The brains behind the sign is Deacon Janet Koys. She flips through magazines, researches past billboards of various churches, and goes down an archived list before settling on her inspirational message of the week. 

“People stop and take pictures of them, I guess to share, so they may not always come into our church, but at least hopefully the message is reaching them,” Koys said.

Koys has been involved with the church since she was a newborn — perhaps, in a way, even before that. 

“My parents were members of the church,” she said. “When they were teenagers, they met here, and they got married here … I was confirmed here. My husband and I were married here. My children were both baptized here. My daughter was married here. And her children were baptized here.” 

On Sunday, Sept. 24, Koys will join many of her fellow churchgoers, including Rev. Melva J. Hayden, in celebrating the Throggs Neck church’s 100th anniversary. The church is part of the Reformed Church in America, a mainline reformed Protestant denomination

Members of the Church of the Master breaking ground on Bruckner Boulevard, circa 1957. Photo courtesy Ed Bungert

Hayden is no ordinary pastor. Alongside tending to the church, she serves as a full-time lawyer for Region 2 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She earned both her bachelor’s and law degree through the City University of New York (CUNY) system, and then went on to receive her Master of Divinity and Doctorate of Ministry at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. 

Her motto: “She is on a mission to save souls, communities and the environment!”

Ed Bungert, a regular of the church for 12 years and now in charge of its communications, spoke of Hayden as “faithful and patient and loving and kind … she really is a remarkable leader.” 

The first worship service at COTM was held on Sept. 23, 1923, at its original location on Bruckner Boulevard. In 1949, there was a proposal to move the church to its current location on Lafayette Avenue — it was becoming increasingly inconvenient for the church to be directly facing the Bruckner Expressway and the Throgs Neck Bridge, which left it with no other street outlets and restricted parking space. 

“It struck me how full the pews were on that notable day! There was standing room only!” Pastor Hayden wrote in the church’s most recent newsletter, describing the first worship service in 1959 after the church was moved to its present location. She went on to name those she recognized from the photos, including Koys herself, sitting in the pews with her grandparents. 

The first worship service, with an overflowing congregation, after the Church of the Master moved to its new location on Lafayette Avenue. Deacon Janet Koys is pictured sitting in the third row, her face partially covered by the boy in front of her. Photo courtesy Ed Bungert

“In the past, we had many, many social events,” Koys recalled, adding the church would be home to Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers, Easter Sunday breakfasts, Mardi Gras celebrations and dances. “They were always the highlights of the year for us.”

“Now, our pews are not full,” Hayden continued in her newsletter. “Many of the members have gone home to be with the Lord or relocated.”

Bungert confirmed that nowadays, the congregation is small, with 14 or 20 people at Sunday service on a good day. “But we are very solid and faithful,” he assured. 

For those unable to attend in person, Bungert uploads recordings of the services on the church’s website.

Bungert went on to emphasize the church is one“that lives out its faith in love.” He talked of “people dropping everything to go to the side of a person in need in the congregation.”

“I see people living out their faith, the way I think a Christian should, and that is in love and care for the community,” Bungert added. 

The Dedication Day procession for the opening of the relocated Church of the Master in 1959. Photo courtesy Ed Bungert

He described the congregation as consisting of people with a diverse set of beliefs, with both staunch conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats — but differences of opinion, according to Bungert, do not threaten the congregation’s sense of solidarity. 

“We worship together, and we love each other, and those political views never get in the way of our relationship with each other, ” he said. 

Members of COTM have been eagerly preparing in anticipation of the anniversary event on Sept. 24. Invitations were sent out, the church cleaned and decorations ordered. The worship time will be changed from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for the celebration and at 3 p.m. there will be a dinner for all invited guests. 

Ultimately, Hayden remains hopeful that the church community will again grow. 

“I have faith that the pews in our Sanctuary will once again be full with little ones, youth, and adults,” she said.  

This article was updated on Sept. 27 at 11:41 a.m.

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