Caroline Veatch, a homebound Manhasset woman suffering from spinal arthritis, called on a local Unitarian minister, the Rev. Gerald Weary, to discuss the religion. Their meeting, in 1945, would dramatically change the course of religious life in Manhasset.
Veatch and Weary hit it off, beginning a series of regular visits that continued until Veatch died eight years later.
At that time, she bequeathed to the congregation half of the royalties generated by German oil holdings inherited from her deceased husband, geologist Arthur Clifford Veatch.
The holdings have since generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the 628-member church, now called the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary.
“We are certainly the [Unitarian Universalist] congregation with the largest asset base and budget of any congregation in the country,” said the Rev. Ned Wight, the church’s senior minister.
The finances paid for the church’s 100-acre Manhasset campus as well as honoraria for speakers like former President Jimmy Carter and environmental activist Bill McKibben.
Four years before Veatch and Weary met, the North Shore Unitarian Society began with four Port Washington families that “wanted religious education for their children but congregations didn’t have what they were looking for in terms of a liberal approach to religion,” Wight said.
The society remodeled a large house at 8 Murray Avenue, which served as a meeting space and a religious education facility, according to the congregation’s website.
In 1955, after several thousands of dollars a year began to flow from Veatch’s holdings, the congregation built a new church building in the Village of Plandome.
Approximately 30 years later the congregation bought its current 100-acre property, and it moved there in 1993.
“We have space to have community groups come here for meetings,” Wight said. “And we have our own meetings, sponsored by our social justice committee or other groups in the congregation, that try to lift up some of the values we hold as a congregation.”
Organizations that use the space include the Interfaith Nutrition Network, Literacy Nassau, the Long Island Council of Churches, the National Alliance on Mental Illness—Queens/Nassau, United Veterans Beacon House and Alcoholics Anonymous, Wight said.
The congregation also used its funds to sponsor the Veatch Program, a multimllion-dollar philanthropy that supports grass roots organizations nationwide fighting for abortion access, racial justice and a living wage for all, among other policies. The program began in 1953 and allocates $12 million annually.
The congregation hosted a performance by Peter Yarrow, formerly a member of Peter, Paul and Mary, last December to kick off festivities for its 75th year of operation, Wight said.
“It was a very spirited and engaging event,” Wight said. “[Yarrow] is as passionate now about social justice issues important to him 50 years ago as he was then.”
The celebration will continue with a dinner gala in May for congregants to look at some of the highlights of what the church is doing, Wight said.
“It’s an intergenerational gathering bringing together 75 years of shared history,” he added.