St. Patrick’s Day, Columbia County


The St. Patick’s Day feast at St. Peter’s in Spencertown, New York

As I drove down the meandering highways and country lanes of Columbia County — just southeast of Albany, sandwiched between the Hudson River and the Massachusetts border — I passed sign after sign advertising corned beef and cabbage. Every rickety roadside bar, rustic country inn, and white-spired church seemed to be advertising a saint’s day feast.

St. Peter’s Church, as seen in the gloaming

My pal and I picked one at a church in Spencertown, just southeast of Chatham. Hidden among rolling, heavily wooded hills, the town is arranged around a crossroads. Of the three churches, the only one that seemed to still be operating was St. Pete’s. A plaque on the front of the white frame structure with a steeple that could be seen for miles said the house of worship was built in 1771, and remodeled once or twice before it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. The church is ringed with a horseshoe-shaped cemetery filled with 19th-century graves, mainly German, Dutch, and English.

I immediately assumed it was a Catholic Church, mainly on the basis of the sign outside that offered a St. Patrick’s Day dinner of corned beef and cabbage, from 5 to 7 p.m. But when I peeked into the sanctuary, with its spare interior, total lack of religious art, white paint job, and cross behind the altar with no Jesus hanging from it, I realized that it was a Protestant church, and more specifically, a Presbyterian one.

The austere Protestant interior of St. Peter’s


In Columbia County, we stumbled upon a half-dozen signs advertising corned beef dinners on St. Patrick’s Day.

The dinner was in the church basement, which was like something out of Garrison Keillor. The white, low-ceilinged room — outfitted with trestle tables — was about three-quarters full when we arrived at 5:30, mainly with parishioners in their seventies. An affable, heavy-set guy greeted us, and took the $12 apiece tariff for the all-in dinner. We were served from a steam table in the rear of the room: a generous portion of long-boiled corned beef, cubed potatoes, steamed carrots, and fleecy cabbage.

Mustard could be had on the side (it was the only condiment avialable), and there was a selection of desserts at the end of the line: yellow cakes with various frostings, brownies, Bundt cakes, cookies, and carrot cake — though the last piece of carrot cake disappeared as we stepped up. “It was really good,” one snowy-haired lady in a green dress told another in a green sweater — nearly everyone had dressed in green.

The beverages were self-serve, and included coffee, apple juice, cranberry juice, and lemonade. “Hey, where’s the beer?” whispered my companion, who had been raised a Catholic. I had to explain to her that Protestants generally take a dim view of alcohol on the church premises, as being an invitation to sin. Which I guess it is.

So why would a Protestant church celebrate a Catholic saint? We got something of an answer the next day when we toured painter Frederic Church’s crazy Persian fantasy of a house called Olana, perched above the Rip Van Winkle Bridge just south of Hudson, New York. The tour guide told us that Irish immigrants were the main serving people hired late in the 19th century at estates up and down the Hudson River. They often didn’t stay long, because the isolation of the county was not to their liking. But somehow, they may have inculcated the local population with an appreciation of St. Paddy’s Day as a holiday, including various observances — but not including alchohol. And that appreciation of the holiday extended to Protestant churches like St. Peter’s. Compared with the drunken revelry of the holiday in the city, Spencertown’s method of celebration seemed vastly preferable.

The church basement was decorated for the holiday, and filled up as we sat there.

For dessert: a selection of cakes and cookies, including this green-frosted cake made from scratch

See the Voice‘s St. Patrick’s Day slideshow.

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