By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — We continue with a look inside the current building known as the First Baptist Church at Fourth & Main Streets since 1901.
The large stained glass window on the left side of the sanctuary was given in memory of Mrs. Lucy Philpott by her sister Margaret in 1900. On the right in the sanctuary the stained glass window was presented by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Shaffer on Sept. 28, 1900. A more accurate technical description would be American Victorian opalescent leaded glass windows. These large windows are triple lancet windows (a triptych arrangement with flattened Gothic arch panels) made from both colored and stained glass.
Additionally, there are three colored glass windows in the Friendship Room, immediately to the rear of the sanctuary, and one each in the kitchenette and pastor’s study. One of the most architecturally significant features of the building is the stairway ascending to the sanctuary balcony off the upper narthex. Of special note are the panels of oak wainscoting placed at 45 degree angles. At the top of the stairs is a wainscoted vestibule leading to the balcony itself. At the top of the stairs there is another stained glass window and two more in the classroom to the rear of the balcony and one in the History Room. Before the educational wing was added in 1925, there were three circular windows of significance at the back of the altar, now removed. Famous visitors in the early part of the 20th century included John D. Rockefeller, an American Baptist, who when visiting the Falls worshiped here.
Of great interest at First Baptist Church is the pipe organ. The console is in the choir loft, on the left. The pipe chambers are located behind the grilles on the left, the right, and on the second floor above the baptistery. Originally installed in 1939 by the Hall Organ Company of West Haven, Connecticut, it was designed by Stanley E. Saxton, Professor of Organ at Skidmore College. Mr. Saxton played the recital at the dedication and always remained interested in the organ. He studied at Fontainebleau in France and carried over his love for French music.
Over the years, accidents occurred, causing damage to the organ. The choir organ on the second floor of the educational wing above the Baptistery was damaged by water in the 1950s. During the 1960s and 1970s the swell chamber on the left side of the sanctuary was also damaged. In 1986, after close to 50 years of service some of the mechanisms were wearing out and the church undertook to restore the instrument. The entire console was rebuilt with new keyboards, switching and stop controls by the Delaware Organ Company of Tonawanda. The main chest (the box that holds the wind and mechanisms) in the swell chamber was replaced and the chimes were refurbished with a new action.
Things really started happening when James D. Flood became the director of music at First Baptist Church in 1988. He began research on the original design through correspondence with Mr. Saxton and further restoration plans were made with several major maintenance items on the list. Flood’s interest developed into other items of repair and rewiring to correct earlier shortcomings and he was assisted by other members of the congregation. Between 1988 and 1996 the organ was restored, rebuilt and significantly enlarged to one of the largest in the county. Regular concerts are held in the church’s Gift of Music concert series. If you visit the website www.niagarafallsbaptist.org you will be listening to “Voluntary in A Major,” by John West, played by Flood on the organ.
We all know building maintenance never ends and work continued with exterior brick restoration and masonry pointing by Ajax-Smith of Tonawanda following a capital campaign in 2011 led by Flood (who is also chairman of the board of trustees) and then Treasurer Paul Einstein. This involved a matching grant from the Sacred Sites program of the New York State Landmark Conservancy and work will be finished this summer. Securing the “historic designation” (local, state and national) back in 2007 assisted in securing funding for this work.
Many celebrations of various anniversaries were held and highlighted in the Niagara Gazette. The 125th rated a special section in the Nov. 12, 1967 edition. Many photographs were shown dating back to 1931 of the various pastors and church members.
I met Hazel Baxter through the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center Auxiliary a while back and remembered she was a member at the First Baptist Church. She told me she was baptized back in 1945 by then Rev. Charles Rufus Osborn and has remained steadfast since that time. She directed me to Flood who has assisted in the information gathering.
We have learned about the early beginnings in 1849 when 13 members met at a private residence, to the original formal church building at First Street near Main and finally to the building we see today at Fourth and Main that has become a beautiful city landmark. We should stop and thank these loyal members who have taken the steps necessary to keep this building safe and sound for generations to come. The current pastor is Rev. Wesley R. Bourdette along with licensed lay minister, Mrs. Kathleen A. Ordiway.
Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.