By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — We started our series on landmarks buildings with schools and now we are delving into churches. There are a few obvious towering landmarks which will eventually be written about here, but I felt the need to go into the neighborhoods (which is where most of my thoughts are centered anyway) to fish out a few landmarks there.
Thanks to Pete Ames and his tireless research on area churches I am able to ferret out some of the highlights of his findings. Much of his historical evidence came from a former Gazette staff writer Dick Klug who wrote about many of our area places of worship back in the 1960s. I also have a friend whose family were early members of this week’s topic to help with some of the details.
Back in 1924 the students of the Martin Luther Seminary of Buffalo canvassed the area in north Niagara Falls to determine a site for the organization of a new Lutheran church. Led by a June 1925 graduate, the Rev. Theodore Rehkopf, the group concentrated in the DeVeaux section and ultimately a location was selected and he led the early services in the church parsonage at 1217 Roselle Ave. A Sunday school was organized in November of that year. During the fall, three lots were purchased at McKoon and Vanderbilt avenues for $6,000 by the Mission Board of the Eastern Conference of the Buffalo Synod with plans to build the Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church.
As we learned about the early days of Holy Trinity, the congregations started out small. The services at Calvary Lutheran were held in what was called the Basement Church following a dedication on Aug. 1, 1926 and they remained there during the next 10 years. Total cost was $17,000. Two years later the congregation was officially consecrated in April 1927 with 25 charter members and took the name Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church. A Ladies Missionary Society and a Luther League were organized. The Buffalo Synod canceled $8,500 of Calvary’s indebtedness and they became a part of the American Lutheran Church.
Rev. Rehkopf, who founded and organized the church, accepted a call to Nanticoke, Pa., in 1934 and Calvary Lutheran was without a pastor for only two months when the Rev. Forrest Stoneburner came from West Virginia and was installed in May of that year.
The faithful congregation was able to purchase a parsonage at 813 Vanderbilt Ave. in July of 1935 as they determined it was too costly to build a new residence since they wanted to complete the construction of the church itself. They were still housed in the Basement Church and had to conduct Christmas services in the Maple Avenue School. They moved ahead quickly, laying a cornerstone for the church in July 1936 and during October of the same year the building was completed and they held dedication ceremonies in celebration. Total cost was $12,376.00. In December of that year Rev. Stoneburner answered a call from the Toledo Inner Mission Society and they were fortunate to find a replacement quickly with the Rev. Arthur P. Rissmiller.
During the next 12 years, pastors came and went. The congregation grew and celebrated the installation of art glass windows in the church nave at its 21st anniversary. An Alter Guild was organized and service of Acolytes was organized. The Vestry voted to purchase property at 3825 DeVeaux St. as the church parsonage and sold 813 Vanderbilt Ave. My friend Mary Norton told me she grew up in this house, purchased at that time by her parents, James and Margaret Montgomery, who joined the congregation shortly thereafter. Mary remained a church member for many years.
The dedication and determination of a few missionary students who saw the need to begin and the motivation of the early members and ongoing clergy led to a new $90,000 addition in 1955. This provided a larger sanctuary, Sunday school rooms and facilities for church functions.
Time however was not on our city’s side. Loss of industry and the jobs that went with it created a decline in the population which spread to members of the many churches located in the various neighborhoods of the city. Calvary Lutheran was no exception and a merger began in 1970 with St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on 18th Street who found themselves in the same position. The combined church, St. Paul Calvary, was formed and services were shared at both locations. A private preschool occupied the McKoon Avenue church and debate began in 1989 about moving the entire congregation to the DeVeaux location. A vote was taken in 1990 and both parishioners decided to remain as two separate congregations and churches. Lutheran Pastor Albert Laese began serving the two churches.
Recently another change has occurred as the membership at Calvary Lutheran decided it was beyond their means to continue the upkeep and the decision was made to offer the church building for sale. The sale was consummated and the dedication and installation service was held on August of this year. The church is now the Disciples of Christ. After-school programs are in place and once again the building is occupied as a place of worship. Changes in church buildings in various parts of the city have been occurring in recent years and while it is sad to lose the camaraderie and friendships associated with former congregations, it is a relief to see an active reuse in most of these situations.Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.