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Presbyterian Celebration

Congregation to observe 250 years in Johnstown

September 16, 2012
By BILL ACKERBAUER - Features editor ( , The Leader Herald

JOHNSTOWN - This fall, one of the city's historic Colonial Era churches will celebrate its 250th anniversary, but it's not the one most city residents assume is the oldest.

St. John's Episcopal Church, which was established by community founder Sir William Johnson, is planning to observe its 250-year mark next year.

But the city's First Presbyterian Church traces its origins to the same period - the early 1760s, when Sir William began the construction of his baronial estate. And the Presbyterians of Johnstown are planning a series of events this fall to commemorate their founding - even if the precise date of that event is impossible to pin down.

Article Photos

The First Presbyterian Church, on South Market Street in Johnstown, is seen this week, at left, and as it looked sometime before World War II, at right.

How can we be certain Johnstown's Presbyterians had established a unified congregation by 1762?

"The details are sketchy," City Historian Noel Levee said.

Although the first Scots came to Johnstown as retainers to Sir William Johnson, many of them were Catholics, and he was a member of the Church of England, Levee said.

Fact Box

Anniversary Events

The First Presbyterian Church of Johnstown has scheduled the following events to celebrate its 250th anniversary:?

- On Oct. 4, a dinner will take place at 6 p.m. at the Holiday Inn. Peter Smith will be the master of ceremonies, and the main speaker will be Bruce C. MacIntyre, whose familes has ties going back to the beginnings of the church. For more information or reservations, call 762-8263 by Thursday.

-?On Oct. 28 at 10:30 a.m., the church will have a Heritage Sunday service with speaker Cass?Shaw. Graham Thompson will play bagpipes and Smith will play the chimes. The congregation is encouraged to wear plaid.

- On Nov. 18, the church will have a musical presentation with a reception and display of historic artifacts.

- In December, the church will have a joint service with St. John's Episcopal Church. The details are to be determined.

"Sir William provided a priest for the Scottish Catholics," Levee said. "Maybe he thought he could gradually bring them into the Anglican Church."

But many Scottish settlers were Presbyterians. It is known that a missionary of that denomination, the Rev. Theophilus Chamberlain, was preaching and baptizing people in the area at least as early as 1766.

By that time, Sir William Johnson had built the community's first church on the site of what later became the Colonial Cemetery, on Green Street. He built a more durable stone church in 1771.

"The churches have an intertwining history," said Ruth Carey, a member of the First Presbyterian Church's 250th Anniversary Committee. She said at least four early ministers of the church are buried in the Colonial Cemetery, which is enclosed by a wall of stones from the second St. John's Church.

"In the beginning, back when Sir William built the stone church, it was primarily designed for the Anglicans, but he also made provisions for the Presbyterians and the Lutherans," Carey said.

These other denominations were allowed the use of the church for services, and Sir William offered them land where they could build parsonages.

"After the Revolution, it was decided the Anglicans should get the church and the Presbyterians should get the glebe," Carey said. The glebe - for which the present-day street and school are named - was an allotment of farmland for the growing of crops to help sustain the church.

A growing group

Presbyterianism in Johnstown began to flourish soon after the Revolution, Levee said.

He said the Presbyterians built their first church on North Market Street. The wooden structure may have been erected on the site now occupied by the New Covenant Community Church, next to the former Johnstown YMCA building. But he thinks the old church was moved to the lot just north of that spot, where it later served as a school, then a glove factory. The structure was torn down in the 1960s, joining the long list of old Glove Cities churches that have succumbed to the wrecking ball.

"It just kills me," Levee said of the loss of such specimens.

The last service in the old Presbyterian church took place on Nov. 19, 1865. The pastor at the time, the Rev. Daniel Stewart, was the son of a builder and mason who had come in 1800 from Broadalbin in Perthshire, Scotland, and settled in Perth, N.Y. Parts of Stewart's sermon at that service are recorded in the church's archives.

"Let the past, the present and the future make but one whole," he said, speaking to a congregation that was no doubt eager to move into its new home. The first service at the stately brick edifice on the corner of South Market and West Clinton streets took place the following Sunday.

The cost of the building's construction was about $33,000 - a huge sum then - as the pressures of the Civil War drove up the costs of labor and materials. Stewart is recalled as saying the members of the congregation contributed to the project dutifully.

"They gave until they felt it," he said.

The new church was built at a time when the congregation was growing by leaps and bounds, adding 147 new members in 1866 alone.

Serious business

Religion was serious business in Johnstown's early days: There was no stove in the Presbyterians' original wood-framed church, so on Sunday mornings in January, the only warmth available was that evoked in the ministers' fire-and-brimstone sermons. Members even had to pay a cover charge: In the 1790s, churchgoers paid for their pews at a rate of $3 and two loads of firewood per year, which went to support the minister.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Johnstown's most famous daughter, was baptized in the church shortly after her birth in 1815. She recalled the somber atmosphere that prevailed on the Sunday mornings of her girlhood.

"These old Scotch Presbyterians were opposed to all innovations that would afford their people paths of flowery ease on the road to Heaven," she wrote in her 1898 autobiography. "So, when the thermometer was twenty degrees below zero ... we trudged along through the snow, foot-stoves in hand, to the cold hospitalities of the 'Lord's House,' there to be chilled to the very core by listening to sermons on 'predestination,' 'justification by faith,' and 'eternal damnation.'"

In the 1820s, disagreements about matters theological and practical - such as how hymn singing was conducted - led to a division in the church. In 1827, a group of members split from the congregation and later formed the United Presbyterian Church of Johnstown.

By the end of the 19th century, Stanton wrote, her family's church had changed much, along with the developing community.

"... There have been many changes, even in my native town, since those dark days," she wrote. "Our old church was turned into a mitten factory, and the pleasant hum of machinery and the glad faces of men and women have chased the evil spirits to their hiding places. One finds, at Johnstown now, beautiful churches, ornamented cemeteries, and cheerful men and women, quite emancipated from the nonsense and terrors of the old theologies."

Elizabeth's tutor

Though she sometimes balked at the church's old-fashioned ways, it was responsible in part for the education that Elizabeth would later bring to bear in the fight for women's rights. She had an important mentor in Dr. Simon Hosack, the pastor from 1790 to 1833.

When she was 11 years old, her only brother died of illness, and Judge Daniel Cady wished aloud that Elizabeth had been a boy. She was determined to try to fill the void for her grieving father.

Hosack, a widower, became Elizabteth's tutor in Greek, a language rarely studied by girls at the time. She described her effort in her autobiography: "I taxed every power, hoping some day to hear my father say: 'Well, a girl is as good as a boy, after all.' But he never said it."

Upon his death, Hosack willed to Elizabeth several of his precious books, and she recalled the pastor as a "noble, generous friend."

Notable names

The women's rights pioneer may be the most famous member of the First Presbyterian Church of Johnstown, but its membership has included many other notables over the centuries. Surnames from the church records also appear on street signs throughout Johnstown: Fulton, Briggs, Heagle and others.

Several past mayors of Johnstown have been congregants, including Francis Reed, Robert Valachovic and William Pollak.

In the late 1950s, a the First Presbyterian Church got an influx of new members whose heritage wasn't Scottish. The church invited into its congregation the members of Sts. Cyril and Method Church, about 80 families of Czechoslovakian descent.

"That was a great contribution to the church," Carey said.

Raymond W. Ketchledge, the son of longtime pastor the Rev. Raymond A. Ketchledge, was a famous inventor who worked for AT&T-Bell Labs and developed electronics used in World War II and was involved in the development of the trans-Atlanic telephone cable.

Perhaps the best known members of the church since Elizabeth Cady Stanton were Charles and Rose Knox, whose gelatin factory employed many city residents and whose philanthropy supported many church projects. Donations from the Knox family, for example, paid for the chimes in the steeple that have been played by generations of musicians, including current church members Bob Gould and Peter Smith.

The Knoxes also helped the church's Willing Helpers Society establish the Willing Helpers Home for Women.

"Throughout the history of the church, missions have been a big thing," Carey said, noting the church has supported missionaries both in the United States and overseas. The church also was instrumental in starting community efforts such as the Johnstown Senior Citizens Center and the Meals on Wheels program.

Looking forward

In the 1970s, the First Presbyterian Church had more than 500 members. Today, the congregation has shrunk to about 160.

Interim pastor the Rev. Paul Ferenczy took over after the retirement of the Rev. Earl Johnson last year and is guiding the church through its transition to a new pastor.

"It's an interesting time to be here, at a church that's looking to celebrate its long history," Ferenczy said.

He said the church can't attract new members by demanding that people come to services every Sunday morning and conform to the expectations of an earlier, more traditional time.

"The church that is now awakening in society is not what it was before," he said. "Young people want to be expressive about their faith, not confined. We can't go back to the old ways - we're thankful for what they've given us, but now we look forward."



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