FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF MARCELLUS
The following information was submitted by John Curtin
(Taken from Heffernan, Kathryn C. Nine Mile Country. Published by Visual Artis Publicans, Inc. 1978. p. 175-180. Copyright by the Board of Trustees, Marcellus Free Library, Marcellus, NY
Although most of the early settlers of Marcellus were either Presbyterian or Congregationalists, there were a few Baptists and people of other religious faiths among them. However, they were sufficiently united practically to combine their strength and resources in providing for a common religious worship. Services were regularly held in Deacon Rice's tavern. It was said that . . . "though the good deacon could not write a sermon himself, he could read one with more eloquence of voice and heart than many a minister . . . " Reverend Seth Williston is known to have been a missionary here as early as 1800.
On October 13 1801, a church was organized through the efforts of Reverend Caleb Alexander, who was then laboring as a missionary in the Central New York region. Eighteen members, namely Thomas North, Samuel Rice, James C. Millen, Martin Cossit, Dan Bradley, Samuel Wheadon, Caleb Todd, Thomas North, Jr., Asabel North, Thomas Cathcart, Eunice Bradley, Lucy North, Hannah Rice, Sarah Millen, Aline Cossit, Phebe Wheadon, Mary North and Hannah North, joined together under the simple title "Church of Christ." In May of 1802, the church was incorporated under the name Eastern Religious Society of Marcellus with Dan Bradley, Martin Godard, Thomas North, and Nathan Kelsey chosen to serve as trustees. Writing in 1881, Reverend George R. Smith commented, "This church has been, from its organization, Presbyterian in its ecclesiastical relations, and at the same time Congregational in its internal policy and arrangement."
A vote was taken to build a church on August 12, 1802 and Nathan Leonard, Samuel Tyler and James Geddes, Esquire, were appointed to select a site. An acre of land at the corner of North and Main Streets, donated by Dan Bradley, was accepted by the committee. Materials for building a house of worship were set up at auction and among the bidders were said to be nearly all the inhabitants of the town at that time.
In 1803 a wooden meeting house, fifty-five by forty-eight feet, was completed at a cost of fifteen hundred dollars. It was a simple enclosure with no ceilings, no steeple, no bell and no stoves. However, it did have a floor, a board pulpit, and slab seats. Isaac Bradley's reminiscences tell us that . . . "heat was obtained from foot stoves, squirrel-skin furs and power of the spirit. . ."
The church enjoyed the labors of itinerant missionaries for the first few years. In 1807 the congregation adopted fifteen articles of faith and a covenant which remained as prerequisites for membership for the next hundred years. The same year the church was affiliated with the Presbyterian Synod of Albany. Then in 1810 it became a charter member of the Presbytery of Cayuga, which in turn became part of the newly formed Synod of Geneva in 1811. According to Isaac Bradley, many at this early period regarded the going down of the sun Saturday as the commencement of the Sabbath. The drawing of water, the sweeping of rooms, and the preparing of food for the Sabbath had to be performed before the sun had disappeared Saturday night. The year 1807 was also marked by the calling of the first resident pastor. At a meeting on February 25th it was voted to call Mr. Levi Parsons. Dan Bradley and Josiah Frost were selected to prepare the call and present it to Mr. Parsons. After proper investigation of his qualifications, Mr. Parsons was solemnly ordained and installed over the church and the society. In 1814 another bent was added to the south end of the meeting house, a steeple erected, and the interior furnished and painted at an expense of forty-five hundred dollars. The money was raised by selling the pews or what was then known as "pew ground." With erection of the steeple and installation of a bell, the bell ringer became an important person in the life of the village.
As early as 1814 there is a record of a Female Charitable Society of Marcellus, which that year contributed one hundred thirty-three dollars and thirty-four cents to the Genesee Missionary Society.
On January 21, 1819 a request was received from Lemuel Barrows and other members who lived on or near the State Road (now Route 20) that they be dismissed from this church for the purpose of forming a distinct church in the southeast part of the town on the State Road, providing, of course, that the Presbytery approved. The request was granted, and the twenty-six members who were dismissed then formed what was known as the Third Presbyterian Church of Marcellus. The original in the village was known as the First church and the church at Skaneateles, located at the time of its origin in what was then the Town of Marcellus, was known as the Second Church. The new group built a small meeting house and parsonage on the State Road. The church prospered for about twenty years. Death and migration depleted its membership and it gave up existence in 1850. Reverend Levi Parsons served this church a short time in his later years. The congregation was also served by preachers named Colman, Smith and Lathrop.
Records of the Eastern Religious Society indicate that in 1819 the trustees voted . . . "to lease the burying ground for the summer and fall at the best advantage; not to suffer any creature but horses and sheep to run within the same; nor but one horse at a time. . ." Owners of animals were to pay for any damage done. A subsequent record indicates lease of the property to E. Humphrey for a sum of four dollars, the money to be applied to repairing the meeting house.
In January of 1830, a shed for horses and vehicles of those attending services was erected on the grounds of the society. One stall was to be reserved for the free use of the minister.
Reverend Parsons served from the time of his ordination in 1807 until January 15, 1833. After preaching a year at Tully, and one at Otisco, he returned to serve the Marcellus church for another six years. Meanwhile, on April 23, 1833 the name of the society had been changed to the Marcellus First Religious Society. Reverend Parsons was succeeded in 1841 by Reverend John Tompkins.
During the quarter of a century of Reverend Tompkins' pastorate, church records indicate many changes and improvements to the church property. In 1846 the congregation voted to secure a house and lot for a parsonage. Then, in 1849 the trustees were instructed to borrow six hundred dollars for grading the grounds and building new horse sheds.
By 1850 the old meeting house was badly in need of repair. The congregation accepted the proposal of James C. Sayre, a master builder of the time, to sell the old meeting house to him for five hundred dollars. This sum would be applied toward the cost of the new building, which he agreed to construct on the same site for thirty-eight hundred dollars. The new church was dedicated on October 13, 1851, the fiftieth anniversary of the congregation. A resolution in the records gives thanks to the Episcopalians for use of their church during the demolition and construction. Pew holders were asked to relinquish their claims to special pews, and the new church became the property of the society. In 1853 a new bell was installed in the tower at a cost of four hundred thirty-four dollars and nine cents.
Reverend Tompkins died suddenly on the eve of what was to have been the celebration of his twenty-fifth anniversary in service of the Marcellus Church. In his reminiscences, prepared for the celebration he noted, "I have married two hundred fifty-seven couples. Six persons I have married twice, and one man I have married three times."
Two pastors, Reverend W. S. Franklin and Reverend Dwight Scovel intervened between Reverend Tompkins and Reverend George R. Smith. During those years the church was redecorated and a new pulpit and new furniture installed. A change in boundaries, by act of the General Assembly in 1869, brought the Marcellus Church within the Syracuse Presbytery which was merged with the Cayuga Presbytery. In 1877 the Women's Missionary Society was formed. During his short pastorate from 1880 to 1882, Reverend George R. Smith compiled a history of the church in honor of its eightieth anniversary, which was celebrated on October 13, 1881. Dr. Smith's publication has been the source of much of the information in this manuscript. The Women's Christian Temperance Unit in Marcellus was organized during Reverend Smith's pastorate. When Reverend Smith left in 1882 to accept a position as principal of Canandaigua Academy, he was succeeded by Reverend Alex McA. Thornburn, who served a period of five years. Reverend Thornburn was also greatly interested in temperance work in the community. He was influential in sustaining the G.A.R. Post in Marcellus and served as chaplain of the post. Under his leadership the church perfected its organization as a Presbyterian Church. Lauren Beach, W. J. Machan, Israel Parsons, A. H. Armstrong, J. A. Merrill and William Russell were duly elected and declared ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church. However, the corporate name, Eastern Religious Society, remained in effect until November 19, 1951, when it was officially changed to the First Presbyterian Church of Marcellus.
Reverend A. H. Cameron, who was installed on November 16, 1887, served a ten-year period, a period in which the church prospered. In 1893 and 1894 major repairs were made to the building. A kitchen and church parlors were added, stained glass memorial windows installed, and the stoves replaced with a new heating system.
During the 1890's, Sunday schools were conducted in outlying areas in order to reach persons who were unable to come to the church. Classes were established on Baker Hill, on East Hill, at Marcellus Falls, at Tyler Hollow, and at Shepard Settlement.
Following Reverend Cameron, Reverend A. K. McNaughton served another ten-year pastorate. By 1901 the Centennial of the church was observed with a program arranged by the pastor.
The next three to minister to the congregation each served for seven years. Reverend F. J. Sauber and Reverend C. C. Frost were followed by Reverend David S. MacGinnis, who later became an executive of the Synod of New York. In 1922 the old sheds which had been built in 1849 were torn down and replaced with a single row of sheds set back from the street. These survived until 1961 when the brick Christian education wing was added. For several years they had been rented out individually to car owners for garages. In 1924 a severe windstorm toppled the church spire onto the roof, leaving it with two feet projecting into the interior of the church. The spire was replaced at a cost of twenty-five hundred dollars.
Here a few words concerned the architecture of the church seem appropriate. The following comments are quoted directly from Architecture Worth Saving in Onondaga County, published in 1964.
. . . "This is certainly one of the most architecturally distinguished churches in Onondaga County, and a particularly fine example of Greek revival architecture. . . "
. . . "The interior was unfortunately 'improved' with 'new arrangement of pews, and organ, new windows, carpets and chandeliers in 1896. . . "
. . . "In recent years the steeple was blown down, falling into the nave. Although rebuilt to approximately the original proportions, the transitional detail between the square belfry and the conical spire was unfortunately eliminated. Also regrettable . . . is the recent replacement of the original wood-paneled entrance doors . . .'
. . . "The future of our finest Greek revival church is uncertain . . . Destruction would be a loss to the entire community."
Reverend Robert Lloyd Roberts served the Marcellus church during the depression and war years from 1931 to 1944. Dr. Albert Dutton Stearns, who was called in 1944, continued as pastor until 1948.
From 1948 to 1956 a young clergyman, Reverend Ralph Miller, led the congregation, guiding them through a self-study and major building project. The body of the church was raised and a furnished basement constructed. This provided space for a kitchen, dining room, lounge, and several classrooms. The sanctuary was completely remodeled and redecorated. The project was completed at a cost of sixty-five thousand dollars and dedicated in April 1952.
The lounge included in the basement has come to be known as the "fireplace room" because of the large hearth erected there by Irving Christensen. Stones from the old foundations wall were used in laying up the fireplace. The hearthstone is said to be from a step below the old North Street door and the lintel from a stone step into the old kitchen. The huge mantel beam is part of the forty-five foot mast beam of the old steeple which blew down in 1924. On this old hand-hewn beam are two carvings. One reads "Wm Hoyt 1851" and the other "Bilt 1852".
The present pastor, Reverend Keith Shinaman, who had served the congregation in many ways as a layman, was called to the pastorate in 12956. An employee of the Bell Telephone Company and a graduate of Syracuse University, he had been an elder for ten years. He served three years as a student pastor while attending Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. He was ordained and installed by the Cayuga-Syracuse presbytery on May 24, 1959 after having received his Master of Divinity Degree. Over the past twenty years his services, not only to the local church and the community but to the Presbytery, the Synod and the General Assembly, have been legion. He has also represented the United Presbyterian Church at two North American Conferences on church and family. Since Reverend Shinaman already owned a family home on North Street, the manse became vacant. In 1956 it was remodeled with classrooms placed on the first floor and living quarters for a custodian on the second.
Community growth and population changes created the need for additional facilities and in 1961 a new, two-story brick structure was erected and attached to the church proper. The structure encompasses fourteen classrooms, a fellowship hall and a new kitchen.
These facilities are always available for community use. Marcellus Central School classes have been housed there at two different periods in order to relieve overcrowded situations during construction of school buildings. The Marcellus Chorale, the Youth Center and Peace Incorporated have been accommodated there.
In 1957 Miss Helen Austin was ordained as the first woman elder. The present session of eighteen includes nine women.
For the past ten years the church has maintained actual personal contact with the mission, achieved through a "special interest" relationship with the all-black Second Presbyterian Church of Cheraw, South Carolina.
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8 June 1997