The old brick walls of First Methodist Episcopal Church of St. Johnsville have seen countless children baptized into the faith, seen them get married and seen their funerals.
The church has stood strong since 1879 and while the once-flourishing congregation has waned to just 25 people, the building is still solid as an ox.
It’s as full of history as its pews, and now that will be recognized. Thanks to a yearlong effort by Anita Smith, the octogenarian former Montgomery County historian, the church at 5 E. Main St. was recently accepted into the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s a gem,” she said. “There are so many reasons it’s worthy.”
According to her application letter to the National Register, the place is “architecturally significant as a distinctive example of Gothic-inspired religious architecture in the village of St. Johnsville.”
It also stands on a piece of ground first settled by St. Johnsville founder Johan Jacob Zimmerman in 1812.
That, however, is only part of what sets the church apart. Smith said it’s sort of a monument to St. Johnsville’s more prosperous days. Every brick, every chunk of limestone foundation was paid for by subscription. Locals bought their membership with a $4.50 lot of a thousand bricks.
That’s how most churches were built in that day. A century and a third after its completion, only a few repairs have been needed. The roof, though in need of some work, is still held up by original oak beams. The limestone foundation is still solid.
“They used the best materials and hired the best craftsmen,” said Melissa Caponera, Smith’s niece and First Methodist financial secretary.
That quality didn’t come cheap. For example, Smith said, the richest village resident — one Mr. Lewis Snell, who built the mini-mansion near the church — paid only $7 a year in taxes. Village residents with an extra $4.50 lying around were doing pretty well. It was a good time to live in St. Johnsville.
Sadly, the congregation isn’t doing so well these days. Last year, the decades of wind and water erosion finally got to some of the bricks, requiring repairs in the amount of $10,800. To make the payment, members had to hold fundraisers and buy individual lots of bricks as their forebears did in the beginning. It was a bit of a squeeze.
“We’ve been doing fine,” Caponera said, “but it would be nice to get some help with the larger projects.”
Getting on the registry opens up numerous of grant opportunities, which the church could really use. To prevent more brick deterioration, the roof needs some fascia and gutter work. Caponera wasn’t quite sure how much such an undertaking would cost, but hopes to land a grant to cover it.
There’s one more reason Caponera is pleased with the church’s new place on the register.
Other local historic churches such as St. Peter & Paul’s in Canajoharie and St. Patrick’s in St. Johnsville have lost their congregations in the past few years.
“It’s a sign of the times,” she said, adding that a building on the register with improved odds at grant money is more likely to make a healthy transition into the nonreligious market.
“I was baptized here,” she said. “I was married here and I still teach Sunday school here. I want it to be taken care of.”