Even with only about 30 people occupying the pews at First Reformed Church in Amsterdam, voices filled the historic sanctuary during the last Sunday service before the church shuts down.
Dedicated in 1850, the church in a tiny neighborhood on Arch Street with its ornate wood carvings, large altar and majestic pipe organ as its centerpiece, has aged along with its membership.
The hymnals have faded yellow pages inside; the red cushions in the pews are worn, as is the red carpet where many brides marched to meet their groom at the altar. There is a slight musty odor inside the worship room, but the hallways in which children once ran to Sunday school are scrubbed clean, and everything is neat and orderly.
In the fellowship room Sunday morning, fresh coffee was brewing and tables dressed in white linens waited in the cheerful room where members once gathered to chat.
After opening in 1850, membership swelled from 25 founding members to 50 families by 1860, and times were good in the city, with its flourishing factories and industrial mills. But by the 1960s, the city saw an economic downturn with many industries packing up and leaving town, taking jobs with them.
Families who attended First Reformed Church scattered, and in 2002, the active membership of 147 dipped to about 14.
“It’s time to call it a day,” the Rev. John Magee said during the hour-long final service. “We can close the building, silence the organ and move the people, but you cannot stop the spirit of God. It is our fondest hope all the people here will find a new church home and blend their lives with that congregation.”
Magee has served as interim minister for the last two years.
First Reformed Church has had a shared facilities agreement with Florida Reformed Church in nearby Florida, using the Arch Street location only in the summer months. Now, parishioners are being encouraged to join the Florida church as active members.
“This place is filled with so many memories for so many people,” Magee said.
“This congregation will continue to exist, but we need new communities of faith. We have remorse for all our lost opportunities, but there is hope before us.”
Several of those gathered Sunday are already members of the Florida congregation, but came to Amsterdam to mark the occasion and meet friends who will be welcomed to their church.
“I’ve gone to Florida Reformed Church all my life, but we always came here in the summer,” Jill Downes of Fort Plain said while keeping a watchful eye on her toddler Philip. “Philip will start Sunday School in the Florida church when he gets a little bit older.”
Arlene and Bert Koontz of Minaville, members of the Florida church for 38 years, sat with coffee and doughnuts in the fellowship room after the service.
“I used to live in the city [of Amsterdam], and before 1942 this was my church,” Arlene Koontz said. “This place was filled with people; everyone was talking and knew everyone. Now there are five people here some weeks.”
Beverly Belfance Gilmaier, now 83, also grew up as a First Reformed Church member.
“I grew up here; this was my Sunday School room,” said Gilmaier. “I came here until I married a Methodist and went to another church. I came back here today to visit this place one last time.”
The large kitchen, stocked with mugs, sugar bowls, coffee filters and an old-fashioned Frigidaire, is likely to be used by its next occupants, as yet unannounced.
The Rev. Charles Hesselink, who led the congregation through its transitional time with Magee, said negotiations are almost finalized with a person planning to launch a community service non-profit agency and use the church as its headquarters.
“They’ll have after-school programs and music, and I hope they use the organ,” Hesselink said. “People are really interested in this place being in active use. They still support it.”
Even as membership dwindled, financial support was consistently maintained.
“We had some generous endowments over the years, and people kept up with their pledges and donations,” Hesselink said. “We could have financially kept this church going for years. Maintaining the building was what drained us.”
Richard Sorvette, who now lives out of the area, took photos in the empty worship room after the service, recalling when he and his eight siblings sat fidgeting in the pews.
“My father, Philip Sorvette, was a church elder,” Richard Sorvette said. “I came here until the 1970s, but I had to come back today. This place was always well-loved by everyone who came here. I will miss it.”
People who remember the church in its heyday reluctantly accept the fact that the site isn’t likely to ever be used as a future place of Sunday worship,
“As nice as it is, I don’t think it will ever re-open,” Gilmaier said.
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Categories: Schenectady County