Robert Graves, 2009

On the Occasion of the Church’s 175th Anniversary

Only ten years after New York State adopted its constitution, the seeds for today’s First Presbyterian Church were sown at a meeting in the home of Col. John Harper on June 7, 1787. On that date, Col. Harper and several other men organized The Presbyterian Congregation of Harpersfield. This was a “religious society” under the laws of New York. Five years later the society was reorganized as a church. This church went through several convolutions and alliances with Methodist and Congregational oversight before building the first church in the village then called Head of the Delaware, now the Village of Stamford.

This church building, designated the Union Meeting House and completed in 1832, “to be used for public worship and to be open and free to all Christians denominations,” was used by Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Universalists.

In 1834 (175 years ago) twenty-four members of the Harpersfield church became charter members of the Presbyterian Church at the Head of the Delaware. This name was officially changed to First Presbyterian Church of Stamford in 1872. By 1855 the church had grown to almost 200 members and had outgrown the shared use of the Union Meeting House. In 1856 a new church building, seating 250 people, was erected at the approximate site of the existing church.

The strict code of this early church is reflected in Session minutes, which read “Session convened at the house of the pastor to attend to the case of Brother _______, reports being circulated unfavorable to his Christian character. Brother_______ confessed to the truth of the reports and signed a written confession to be read before the congregation acknowledging that on March 30th he was guilty of the sin of intemperance.” Others were denied “communion and fellowship” (shunned?) for dancing, profanity and failing to observe the Sabbath.

By 1864 the membership had dwindled to 35 when a young, recently ordained minister became the church’s eighth pastor. The Reverend Leonard Richards would serve the church for 39 years until his death in 1903. During Rev. Richards tenure the church grew and prospered as evidenced by the need in 1885 to enlarge the existing building or to construct a new church. By local subscription something over $12,000 was raised and the existing church was erected in 1886.The architects for the new church were Purcell and Frye of Philadelphia. A few of the original drawings have been archived at the church. Upon construction of the new church, the former church building was moved back on the property and converted to an apartment house that stood where the parking lot is now. The pipe organ was installed in 1891 and was pumped by energetic boys and young men until electricity was available in the village in 1912.

Over the years several major changes have been made. In 1909 the addition, now used as the pastor’s office, was constructed as a library and later used as a choir room. When Main Street was excavated and lowered to its present level in 1920, it became necessary to build a retaining wall along Main Street and to relocate the steps and entrance to Church Street. The ell housing the dining room and kitchen was added in 1928 but the basement was not excavated and made usable for Sunday School classes until 1953. Much to the relief of the voluntary custodians, and no doubt the pastor, the coal-fired furnace was replaced by oil burners in 1947.

Just as the building went through changes over the years, so did the congregation. At the turn of the century, the minister’s salary was primarily raised by pew rental either by subscription or by auction when attendance was at its peak. This practice was discontinued in 1926.

Two of the church’s ministers were given leaves of absence to serve as chaplains in the armed services—Rev. Walter Cavert during WWI and Rev. Mark Smith during WWII.

There is no record of who from the congregation served in WWI but the names of the 37 members who served in WWII have been recorded. Other ministers had served in the armed forces before entering the ministry, the most recent being Rev. Alan Cutter who served in Viet Nam.

During WWII and for several years thereafter, union services were held with the Methodist Church. To conserve fuel the church buildings were used and thus only heated on alternate Sundays. Choir practices were held in members homes and religious ed classes were held in the school. It is not clear when these union services were discontinued, but the records show that the Union Sunday School and youth fellowships continued until 1953.

During the past half-century, use of the building, as well as the size and fervor of the congregation, has waxed and waned as influenced by the changes in the surrounding community and population shifts. The only major changes to the church property were the recent additions of the meditation garden and the lighted parking lot. As the Village of Stamford changes from being the vital focus of an agricultural area to the center of a much more diverse community, the church is endeavoring to continue to be a spiritual guidepost in this ever changing environment

—Robert Graves