The First Presbyterian Church of Johnstown is marking its 250th anniversary this year with events and celebrations but also with a introspective attempt to help define its future in the community.
Like many large denominational churches, First Presbyterian has witnessed a decline in membership and in relevance as a component in people’s lives. The church today has about 175 members, not all of whom are active, a big drop from the 500-plus it had at its peak. It is the only Presbyterian church in the Glove Cities.
The recent retirement of its longtime pastor and the appointment last year of an interim pastor is providing the congregation with a chance to review where it has been and where it wants to go, said Ruth Carey, chairwoman of the anniversary committee.
“We are looking at what the church needs to do to attract people to come here and to be part of them and how we can serve the community and how we can serve God,” Carey said. She has been a member of the church since 1969, serving as a deacon and an elder. Her ex-husband was once pastor of the church.
Over the past year, the congregation has looked inward and to its history for insight into how to recharge itself. “We have been reviewing our history and found we need to know where you have been before you can go forward,” she said.
That history points to community service. The church has long played a spiritual role as well as a charitable role in the area. Examples include the creation of the Willing Helpers Home for Women, one of the first homes in the area to assist aged women, by a Sunday School class from the church more than 100 years ago. The church also help found Meals on Wheels, which provides free, nutritious meals to the elderly and shut-ins in the community.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading figure of the early women’s rights movement, was baptized and married in the church. The Knox and Wells families, predominant industrialists in the early years of Johnstown, also were members.
The church to this day maintains its sense of mission. “Mission is a huge, huge thing in our church,” Carey said.
It operates a thrift store on the church’s second floor and each month contributes to a charitable activity or program, either locally or globally. In recent years, it sent members to Africa to build a church and to Mississippi to help with post-hurricane cleanup efforts. Each Christmas, it sponsors several families, providing them with gifts.
The church’s good works are a reason Paul Wittman, 47, is a member.
“I have always felt a connection to the church, and I like to give back to the less fortunate,” he said. “There are so many great and wonderful people here.”
Wittman identified himself as a recovering alcoholic who joined the church in 2009 following an epiphany after a night of drinking and his arrest. “I truly believe I would not have sobriety without God,” he said. “Instead of drinking, I come here.”
Frank Atkins is another person who came to the church late in life. He joined six years ago, shortly after he retired.
“My story is I went to church as a child in Gloversville. I came back to the church after I retired; it had failed me during the Vietnam War,” he said. Now he is the church’s sexton.
For Christine Sutton, the church has been an important part of her life. She has been a member since 1953 and was one of the first female elders and deacons after the church allowed women to be ministers decades ago.
“It is a very important part of my life, socially, spiritually,” she said.
Organized in 1762, the First Presbyterian Church was one of the first religious houses established in the sprawling wilderness that once marked Fulton County. The early congregants were Scots, who immigrated here along with the English and Irish to work under the tutelage of Sir William Johnson, first baronet of the New World.
The first church consisted of a simple, unadorned stone structure, which reflected the sensibilities of the early worshippers and was set next to the Colonial Cemetery. The second church was a wooden structure, also of simple construction, built on North Market Street.
In 1865, the congregation moved to South Market Street and built the current structure. At the time, it was a single room containing a sanctuary. In 1921, the church remodeled the church, installing 12 stained glass windows and an organ with a powerful voice.
It also added onto the original structure.
Atkins said the church cost $33,000 to build in 1865. He was unable to put a price on the cost to build the church in today’s dollars, but he called the church priceless.