A proposal by Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) to put the historic Quaker Meeting House and Bowne House under federal jurisdiction has received mixed reviews here.
Her legislation would make the two historic sites part of the National Park Service, and last week the plan was supported by the Department of the Interior, the agency that oversees federal parkland.
Meng’s bill would require the secretary of the Interior to do a study on the viability of the NPS acquiring the two locations associated with the 1657 signing of the Flushing Remonstrance, which is recognized as the future nation’s first document espousing religious freedom.
Her plan needs to be approved by Congress before any action can be taken. NPS Associate Director Victor Knox testified before the House subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulations that the study would cost up to $300,000 and would also consider other alternatives for preservation and protection of the two sites.
But officials at the 1694 Quaker Meeting House at 137-16 Northern Blvd. say they have a lot of questions about the proposal and were not previously notified about it.
Linda Shirley, an active member of the meeting house, which is still used for religious gatherings and has 25 members, said no one was informed about Meng’s proposal. “No one asked us,” Shirley said. “We are totally shocked. The state didn’t even know about it.”
She said she contacted Ann Friedman at NY Landmarks Conservancy, who told her no one at Bowne House, the Parks Department, which operates Bowne, or the State Historic Preservation Office were advised about Meng’s proposal.
Shirley added that members want to meet with Meng to discuss the proposal and possible ramifications. “There is a conflict of interest here between church and state,” she added. “We don’t know how it would work and we don’t want to give it up.”
Shirley noted that there is no direct connection between the Remonstrance and the meeting house, which was built 37 years after the document was written.
“John Bowne made the difference when it comes to religious freedom, not the Remonstrance,” she said. “And I’m told the chance of Meng’s bill passing is very small.”
Five years after the Flushing Remonstrance was written, the issue of religious freedom came to a head with the arrest of Flushing farmer John Bowne, who allowed Quakers to meet in his kitchen every Sunday. His house still stands at 37-01 Bowne St.
Bowne was arrested by Dutch Gov. Peter Stuyvesant and deported. He went to Holland and pleaded his case before the Dutch West India Co. and won.
The farmer returned home with a letter for Stuyvesant from the Dutch West India Co. instructing him to grant religious freedom to all. Quakers continued to meet at Bowne’s home for 30 years until he and another man purchased land on Northern Boulevard to build the meeting house.
Bowne’s house was built in 1661 and remained in the family until the 1940s, when it was purchased by the Bowne Historical Society to be used as a museum. It has been closed for several years, is now part of the city’s Historic House Trust, and is undergoing restoration.
Chuck Wade, a Bowne board member, also was unaware of Meng’s plan, but believes it sounds like a good idea.
“The federal government usually takes very good care of such properties,” Wade said. “Under city jurisdiction, it depends on the whims of those in office.”
In urging Congress to pass her legislation, Meng said: “I am thrilled the Department of the Interior supports looking into whether sites connected to the signing of the document could become part of the National Park Service. Their study could lead to the spots becoming either a National Historic Park or a National Historic Site.”
The Flushing Remonstrance was written in 1657 and signed by 29 men protesting Stuyvesant’s ban on Quaker meetings. It was signed 12 years after the town of Flushing, then Vlissingen, was established by charter. Some of the signers were among those 18 original settlers granted land by the Dutch.
The two magistrates, the sheriff and town clerk who signed the document were jailed and all were fired. The Remonstrance was never revoked and the residents continued to harbor Quakers, despite threats of troops in Jamaica to arrest the members and those who harbored them.