Niagara Gazette

December 8, 2013

HIGGS: A closer look at First Presbyterian Church

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Before we go too far into churches in Niagara Falls neighborhoods a little background information never hurts. When the merger of the villages of Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge occurred on March 17, 1892 the city of Niagara Falls was founded. At that time there was a population of 1,300 in the Village of Niagara Falls and six congregations, five of which had their own structures. First Presbyterian Church, St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church, First Baptist Church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and St. Mary’s of the Cataract Roman Catholic Church. The Universalist Society used the International Hotel for services prior to their present day location on Main Street near the Main Post Office.

Suspension Bridge had seven religious groups and six had their own churches which were situated over a good portion of the village. The south village line was Main Street (then known as Lewiston Avenue) and Lockport Street which was the site of the Church of the Epiphany. The First Congregational Church was on Cleveland Avenue (then Erie) just west of Main Street near Whirlpool. The Church of Christ was at the corner of Niagara Avenue and Tenth Street. Nearby at South Avenue was the Church of the Sacred Heart and the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church which began as a small stone building on South Avenue near Lockport Street. Further west on Weston Avenue was the Free Methodist Church and the Beth El congregation met in the Silberberg Building on Main Street near Ontario.

Before the end of the first year of the city was over, two more congregations organized, both in the North End. St. James Methodist on South Avenue was founded in October of 1892 and in the same month the First Church of the Evangelical Association was organized. Most of this information was found in "A City Is Born Niagara Falls, New York" by Hamilton B. Mizer and the Niagara Falls Historical Preservation Commission website.

The First Presbyterian Church has the honor of being the oldest building still in use as a church as it dates back to 1849. Its congregation has been among the leaders of religious life in Niagara Falls. The Historical Preservation Commission website traces the early history of the founding of the church back to Manchester (later Niagara Falls) when it was initiated in 1824 by the original five members: The Rev. David Smith, the Isaac Smith family, Mrs. Stephen Childs and Abraham Mesler.

“On Nov. 28, 1826, a public meeting was held to officially organize the “First Presbyterian Society of Niagara.” They met in the schoolhouse at Falls and Mechanic (later Prospect Street) until 1831, when a new wooden church was built at the corner of Falls and First Streets.” The Union Chapel as it was named was a small building built by General Whitney for the use of all denominations including the Methodists and Episcopalians. The church bell was hung outside as this structure had no steeple. It is believed this may have been the first church building in the community of Manchester.

An article in the Niagara Falls Gazette edition of Feb. 17, 1962, by staff writer Dick Klug noted that the Rev. Horatio A. Parsons led the Presbyterian congregation here for seven years until 1834. The building was later sold to a group of Methodists. In 1849 the present stone church was built at a construction cost of $8,000 which came from the Porter family.

Klug stated that membership was slow to grow as records indicate the congregation stood at 86 in 1852 at the time of the building completion. Twenty-five years later it had increased to 159. The Rev. John Bacon became the pastor in 1876 and served until 1883. Following his departure, the Rev. C. S. Stowitz served for seven years. Then the Rev. Albert S. Bacon, the nephew of Rev. John Bacon, became the longest serving pastor with some 38 years to his credit. He actually became Pastor Emeritus for two years following his retirement until his death in 1930. Bacon Memorial United Presbyterian Church in LaSalle on 59th Street was named in his honor. The Rev. Bacon helped the membership grow to 1,000 by 1928, the year of his retirement and was “Beloved by the whole community,” as church records state. Obviously over the following years, there were numerous pastors (too many to mention here) who served the church with dignity and respect.

Klug described the basic governing precept of Presbyterianism which differs from Episcopacy where the clergy rules, as members of a Presbyterian congregation exercise direct rule known as congregationalism. The First Presbyterian Church was governed by a Board of Elders consisting of 21 elected members of the congregation.

Next time we will learn more about the building itself.