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Athens Zion Lutheran Church
300th Anniversary

Excerpted from the 300th Anniversary Program, 1703-2003
The Festival of the Reformation
October 26, 2003 * 4:00 p.m.

Contributed by Dave Dewald

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102 N. Washington Street, Athens New York, 518/945-1707

The Rev. Marie Jerge, Bishop of the Synod
The Rev. Harrison Putnam, Pastor
Marianne Brannan, Organist
Kay Lasher, Parish Secretary
Mary Cook, Sexton

The first Pastor of Zion Church, the Reverend Justus Falckner, was born in Saxony, now a province of Germany, on November 22, 1672. On November 24, 1703, Justus Falckner presented himself as a candidate for ordination at the Glorie Dei Church in Philadelphia. He began his ministry in December 1703, and was thus the first Lutheran minister ordained in America. He did not reach Albany until June 1704 and found the congregation there practically disbanded. Most of the members had moved south along the Hudson River to Loonenburgh (Athens). Pastor Falckner held services in both Albany and Loonenburgh but eventually the new Loonenburgh congregation overshadowed the one in Albany. When he began his ministry there were only three organized congregations in his parish; when he died in 1723 at the age of 51, there were fourteen congregations scattered all the way between Albany and New York City, some of them in New Jersey. In 1717, he married Gerritze Hardick of Claverack and they became parents of three children. A daughter, Sara Justa, married Niclass Van Hoesen; and their descendants are still active in Zion.

It has generally been assumed that the first church building was called the “beehive” because of its shape. It is also generally agreed that this building was built in 1724. It was not large and was constructed of squared beams. The roof edges led up to a common center with a small tower at the top – and looked a little like a beehive – hence its name. It served for more than a century – until 1853. According to tradition, the second Pastor of Zion, William Berkenmeyer, at his request, was buried beneath the altar of this small church, and a sandstone tablet was placed over the crypt. In 1833, the congregation agreed to move this building twelve feet west from the public road.

The present church building was erected in 1853, at a cost, according to the records, of “no more than $7000.00”.Being much larger than the original “beehive”, the new building was erected further from Washington Street. Conjecture has it that the Berkenmeyer tablet, now located outside the church on the east wall between the entrance doors, may still be the tomb of Pastor Berkenmeyer. A plaque translating the Latin and Greek epitaph, written by Pastor Berkenmeyer himself, was installed next to the sandstone tablet in 2003. The church was remodeled for the first time in 1897, and then again in 1924, 1953, and most recently, in 1996. The renovation of 1924 included a central heating unit and a partial basement. Also, the current altar, pulpit and lectern, the arch behind the altar, and electricity were installed. In 1953, the interior colors were modified, some minor structural changes were made, rearrangement of fixtures and furniture and artistic symbols of the liturgy were painted on the walls. The 1996 refurbishing included painting the previously blue ceiling, repairing cracks in the walls, restoring the walls to a more appropriate color scheme, carpeting inside the communion rail, and new material around the choir area and the doors at the rear of the Church.

Ground was broken for a new Parish Hall on April 7, 1963. On November 24, 1963, the Hall was dedicated by the Reverend William Rittberger, then Dean of the Hudson District of the New York Synod. Exactly five years later, on November 24, 1968, a note burning ceremony was held. The Hall was subsequently named Straley Hall out of respect for Pastor Luther Straley, who served as Zion’s pastor for 44 years. As early as 1967, the Church Council began to giver serious consideration to either replacing or rebuilding the Hook and Hastings tracker organ, which had served the church well since 1913. That organ had been donated to the church that year under the terms of the will of Nicholas Van Hoesen. It was decided to commission the construction of a new organ and in September 1971, the new organ, built by the L. A. Carlson Company of East Greenbush, was put into service. The cost was approximately $12,000.

In 1992, the congregation voted to purchase the house and vacant lot at 98 N. Washington Street, next to the church. The house was rented, and the vacant lot was converted to our south parking lot. Subsequently, in 2001, we sold the house to its current owners. In 2002, the congregation approved the sale of our Parsonage at 66 N. Franklin Street. After many false starts, a contract was completed and the closing was in October 2003. At about the same time, approval was given to begin building a new parsonage on property the congregation had purchased earlier at 95 N. Franklin Street. That house was occupied by the Reverend Harrison Putnam in mid-October, 2003.

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