SCHENECTADY – When Liberty Church was founded in 1922, services were conducted entirely in Italian. Formed as the Italian Pentecostal Church by Pastor Felix Rizzo, members of the congregation sat on milk crates and wooden boards as they met on the first floor of Rizzo’s house.
Today, services feature a full band playing modern music and are held in an 800-seat sanctuary equipped with webcasting equipment.
Yes, a lot has changed for the church on Albany Street — from its name to its location to the faces of its congregation. Yet for an establishment celebrating its 100th anniversary Friday at 6:30 p.m., with a commemorative event that will showcase a walk-through museum to highlight the church’s history, many of the founding ideologies remain, even as the church continues to evolve.
Liberty’s legacy lives on thanks, in part, to its lead pastor, Dennis Graham-Parker, who, like Rizzo, is an immigrant. Rizzo came from Italy. Graham-Parker grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was leading a church in Kent, England, before coming to Liberty in 2017. He didn’t arrive in Schenectady with his wife, Wendy, a co-pastor, and two daughters by chance. When Graham-Parker was in his 20s, members of the Schenectady church, then called Calvary Tabernacle, visited his church in South Africa on a mission trip. That began a lifelong connection and a handful of visits to Schenectady, including in 2010 to perform a wedding for two people who had met on that original mission trip in the early 2000s. Graham-Parker, now 48, is the church’s 14th pastor.
As Liberty celebrates 100 years, Graham-Parker said it is as important to look ahead as it is to remember the past.
“A church is only going to survive when you pay attention to the young people. Because if you don’t, you’re lost. I value tradition, and we [as a church] value tradition. But tradition is not just sticking to old things,” Graham-Parker said inside the modern sanctuary. A keyboard and drum kit onstage, as well as sound equipment in the middle of the pews, gave the space the look of a concert venue. “It makes our job difficult, because as much as you want to be relevant, you also don’t want to compromise the central message. So you’ve got to bring those two things together.”
Dating to 1922, Liberty Church, an Assemblies of God fellowship, was previously called the Calvary Tabernacle Church and moved from Strong Street to 1840 Albany St. in 1959. The church, with a current congregation of about 230, completed an expansion and renovation in 2004, taking the facility to 60,000 square feet and creating the new sanctuary. The original sanctuary, still featuring the wood ceilings and arches, now also features basketball hoops and has been transformed into a community gathering space.
Graham-Parker led the effort to change the name to Liberty Church in 2018, a move that represents modernization. For one, the change from Calvary Tabernacle was better for search engine results, since the old name competed with other similarly named houses of worship in the area, Graham-Parker said. But “liberty” is also meant to connote modern thinking.
“People nowadays don’t want to be hemmed in by stuffy traditions, so the name conveys a little bit more freedom,” Graham-Parker said.
Irma Martinez-Coyle, 41, who runs a homeschool co-op at Liberty, which provides more than 70 homeschooled kids a chance to learn together once a week, has been with the church for about a year. She said she felt welcomed from the start.
“I wanted a church that was a little bit more diverse for my family, and this church has the heart of acceptance and diversity that we were looking for for our biracial family.”
Last year, the church conducted a diversity study of its congregation and found its members are 56% white, 25% Black, 10% Hispanic and 8% other.
Shannie Surujpaul, who is originally from Guyana, came to the church with her two young children and husband 13 years ago. They’d been at a different church in the area and were drawn to the diversity at Liberty.
“You should see it on Sunday,” said Surujpaul, 48, who is Liberty’s office manager and the self-described “bubbly” person greeting everyone prior to a service. “It’s such a diverse culture from all over the world.”
But even as Liberty celebrates the diversity brought by some of its newer members, on its 100th birthday it hasn’t lost sight of its tradition.
Surujpaul said Graham-Parker and his wife, Wendy, “they lead this church like giants, following the others who came before them and not forgetting them.”
The church’s most senior members have been part of the congregation for more than 80 years and were members during Rizzo’s leadership. Rizzo retired in 1958. In 2020 the church said goodbye to member Yolanda Ricci, who at 102 had been the longest tenured member. Two current members in their 90s were the last to be married in the church by Rizzo.
The current congregation numbers are far below the more than 600 who attended the church a decade ago. Graham-Parker said Liberty will need to continue to draw in new members by being an active part of the community to keep its mission going. That’s why Graham-Parker said he’s proud to have the church host everything from the co-op to community meetings.
“Any opportunity to get the community in our doors is fantastic,” Graham-Parker said. “That means we’re moving in the right direction.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.