Stockade’s First Reformed Church’s history serves as reminder of ‘Resilient Schenectady’

First Reformed Church in the Stockade.
First Reformed Church in the Stockade.

Every February, people around the Stockade neighborhood — particularly those at the First Reformed Church — seem to be a bit more interested in history.

And while they don’t want to celebrate all that history — some of it is quite tragic — they do want to remember and honor it. That’s why First Reformed Church of Schenectady has come up with a particular theme for this weekend’s Heritage Sunday, “Resilient Schenectady.”

“We look back on our congregation’s past each February, as several of the most formidable events in our history happened this month,” said Laura Lee, archivist at First Reformed. “We recalled those and other events to choose the theme for this year’s Heritage Sunday, and ‘Resilient Schenectady’ jumped out. We recognized how solutions to circumstances we’re facing today, amidst the current pandemic, have us searching for resiliency similar to what helped us rebound and rebuild many times over in the past.”

Along with the Schenectady Massacre on the night of Feb. 8, 1690, the two other major catastrophies that visited First Reformed in the month of February were the drowning of Rev. Clark V. Poling on an Army transport ship during World War II (on Feb. 3, 1943) and a devastating fire that nearly destroyed the church building on Feb. 1, 1948.

The Schenectady Massacre happened more than three centuries ago when the French and their Indian allies attacked the small settlement of Schenectady, killing 60 people and taking 23 captive.

“To understand the Schenectady Massacre you must contextualize it through the lens of King William’s War, which took place from 1689 to 1697,” said Schenectady city historian Chris Leonard. “King William’s War was something akin to a first world war in that it raged throughout much of the known world, and in North America the conflict was between the British and the French over control of the land and the beaver fur trade.”

It was Albany, not Schenectady, that was the original target of the raid, led by Frenchmen Jacques Le Moyne de Sainte-Helene and Nicolas d’Alleboust de Manthet. The pair commanded a group consisting of 114 French Canadians and around 100 mostly Algonquin Indians.

“Owing to the extreme cold and snowy terrain, the Canadians changed their tack and decided to attack the closer and less well-defended village of Schenectady,” said Leonard. “It should be noted that none of the accounts from the French side describe the village as having been ‘protected’ by snowmen.”

Poling, an Ohio native, had been serving as senior pastor at First Reformed since 1936 when he volunteered to serve as an Army chaplain when World War II broke out.

More: Pastor of First Reformed Church in Schenectady happy to make Heritage Sunday part of her journey

When Poling’s ship, the Dorchester, was hit by a German submarine on Feb. 2, 1943, he was one of four chaplains who handed out life jackets to soldiers and remained on the ship when it ran out of lifeboats. As a result, all four chaplains drowned in the icy North Atlantic waters, and were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.

On a subzero Sunday morning on Feb. 1, 1948, a fire gutted First Reformed’s building, leaving only three exterior stone walls from which the structure was rebuilt. The building had been designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter and originally built in 1863.

February at First Reformed

A look at some of the church’s February milestones through the years:

Feb. 1679: Domine Schaets is requested by the city of Albany to visit Schenectady at least four times a year to administer the “holy sacrament.”

Feb. 8, 1690: The French and their Indian allies kill 60 people, including First Reformed’s first pastor, Domine Petrus Tessemacher, and carry off 23 prisoners back to Montreal.

Feb. 10, 1730: The congregation begins to raise money for the purchase of a new bell, a 600-pound silver bell that is hung in the belfry of the church’s third house of worship in 1732.

Feb. 21, 1785: Rev. Dirk Romeyn and the consistory spearhead the formation of the Schenectady Academy, and resolve to create a building on the corner of Ferry and Union Streets.

Feb. 25, 1795: The Schenectady Academy evolves into what is now known as Union College after being granted a charter by the state and a $30,000 donation from First Reformed.

Feb. 3, 1943: Rev. Clark V. Poling is one of four chaplains killed in the North Atlantic when the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a luxury liner converted into a transport ship, is sunk by a German torpedo.

Feb. 1, 1948: The 1863 landmark building designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter is ravaged by a Sunday morning fire, leaving only three exterior stone walls from which the church was rebuilt.

Feb. 8, 1970: Rebuilding of the church spire was marked, completing the restoration of the 1863 house of worship.

Feb. 3, 1991: Dedication of the restored and expanded Walton House and construction of a connector building to Assembly Hall, providing new and enlarged first-floor offices.

Feb. 5, 2006: Dedication of the restored Poling Chapel with its new organ.

Feb. 1, 2009: Dedication of Faith Bookshop in Poling House.

More: Pastor of First Reformed Church in Schenectady happy to make Heritage Sunday part of her journey

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