Taken from both the 1950's & 1976 writing - with some updates
How can we tell the story of a church? Or how can we record the hours of worship and service? A church is people. We of the First Presbyterian Church of Corning, NY are but part of a long line of men and women, boys and girls, whose worship and service over a period of 160 years, has made this church. God has blessed us with a heritage. Here is a brief story of that heritage.
The first settlers within the present limits of Corning came to this area about 1787. Not long after, a grist mill was set up at the mouth of Post Creek, followed later by a store and the Jennings Tavern, on what we now know as Pulteney Street.
These accommodations welcomed and attracted travelers to the West. The trails and roads cut through to the West, followed the streams wherever possible and thus, the Chemung Valley came to be known as the "Gateway to the Genesee Country."
As the settlers concentrated in the area along the highway on the north side of the river, leaders were soon recognized. Thus came and settled here, Judge John Knox, a member of the U.S. constitutional committee and a U.S. circuit court judge, for whom in tribute, the hamlet on the north side of the river was called Knoxville. Apparently the need for spiritual comfort was as great as the need for material comfort with these pioneers, for early in the 19th century small groups of people from the surrounding area, which comprised the Painted Post township, were gathered for prayer and mutual help. It was the custom for the churches to send missionaries into the sparsely settled areas west of the seaboard states. Thus Clement Hickman, a missionary of Methodist background was assigned to this area and worked among the people. These meetings were held in the crude log cabin homes, most of them with dirt floors. The need and importance of God to these people is evident, for on August 19, 1812, the first established church within the present limits of Corning was organized and enrolled in Geneva Presbytery. It was called the Presbyterian Church of Painted Post although as yet there was no building to house it.
The Presbyterian Church of Painted Post was organized on July 1, 1811 and admitted to the Presbytery of Geneva on August 19, 1812.
On August 25, 1812, the Rev. Clement Hickman was ordained and duly installed as pastor of the church.
Meetings continued to be held wherever convenient and the preacher's days must have been exceedingly busy ones. The church included members from all parts of the Painted Post township, Hornby, Campbell, Caton, Lindley, and Erwin. Perhaps some came on horseback, but we may be pretty sure that for most of the members the trip to the church gatherings was made on foot over very rough trails or crude roads. Rev. Hickman served as minister until 1816.
From 1816-1821, there was no minister, but a small band of devoted women maintained the prayer meetings, a missionary group and a sabbath school for children. Much credit was given to Mrs. Almyra Bonham, Mrs. Anne McCall, and Mrs. James McBurney. Mrs. Bonham was the daughter of Judge Knox and the great grandmother of Mr. Robert Bonham, a deacon of our church in 1976.
By 1830, the membership had reached nearly 100, and during the ministry of Rev. David Higgins, a wooden church was erected in Knoxville on the North side of West Pulteney Street just West of the Starr home and quite near the highway. The church which had cost $2000 was dedicated free from debt in 1832. Remnants of the old burying ground, which surrounded the church, still remain. It has been known as the Pritchard cemetery. Judge John Knox and his wife Hannah Douglas are among those buried there. The latter was the sister of Stephen A. Douglas.
In 1832, the post office was at Centerville, now known as Riverside, and on the south side of the river there were only 7 scattered houses, but Knoxville was a bustling hamlet. There were 30 homes, a cabinet shop, a school, a store or two, and at least one tavern. The white frame church must have been an imposing addition to its main street and an inspiration to all who passed through on their way westward.
The first bridge, a toll bridge, across the Chemung was completed in 1832 and the Chemung Canal from Watkins to Corning in 1833. The land near the river took on new activity and additional buildings as canal boats tied up at the river?s edge and laid over for supplies and new cargo. The Rev. John Barton, who was minister from 1832 to 1835 was popular as a man and a leader and "he was a powerful speaker." His vigorous sermons were said never to exceed one half hour and his congregations numbered 300 people, many of them boatmen from the rivers edge. And so, this small area above Knoxville bridge and between the river and Knoxville came to be called Port Barton, in honor of the Presbyterian minister of that time. One of the earliest records of the session, Feb. 5, 1834, during Rev. Barton's ministry, tells of a 3 day hearing of a member, on complaint by his wife that he abused her. Action was taken to suspend him from membership.
The records show from time to time many complaints about the use of intoxicating beverages or the use of unseemly language by church members.
The church at Knoxville was used for 10 years and finally dismantled and the lumber sold to Mr. Pritchard, who used it to build a barn.
By 1842, the southside of the river began to be recognized as the center of activity and was referred to as Corning, although the village was not incorporated until 1848. In 1842, under the ministry of Rev. Samuel Hopkins, afterward for 50 years professor of church history at Auburn Seminary, the congregation voted to build a new church on the southside of the river. This white frame church costing $2700 was built on the Northeast corner of what is now known as Court House Park. At that time it was the public square. The Corning Company had offered free building sites and several churches accepted. The building was dedicated on April 28, 1842 clear of debt.
A year later the congregation changed their name to the First Presbyterian Church of Corning. This church boasted a clock in its tower which became the chief public clock in town and the bell served as a fire bell for a period. The first trustees of the new church were Bradford A. Potter, James A. Hoyt, and Charles R. Tisdale. (This old church was sold to the Free Baptists of Gibson who used it until 1883(?) and then sold it to the Salvation Army. It burned to the ground in 1884.)
Early in 1845, a second church was formed as 46 members were regularly dismissed from the first church, calling themselves by the old name, Painted Post First. They built a church near the corner of Wall Street and Erie Avenue, which was known later as "The Old Tabernacle." The only pastor was the Rev. Horatio Pattengill, and after 4 years all differences were removed and the members were reunited with the first church.
Evidently as late as 1850 only male members were allowed to vote for church officers.
In 1852 the trustees were authorized to build a "Session House" on the vacant ground just west of the church. The cost was not to exceed $450. About 1873 the session house was disposed of, moved to a spot just west of Fox Theatre site where it housed the public library and later a restaurant. It has since been torn down.
On July 3, 1856, according to an old paper, the ladies of the church held a Strawberry Festival during the afternoon and evening to defray some expenses of furnishing the Session House.
In 1863 plans were started to finance a new church edifice and in 1867, during the final period of the Civil War, under the pastorate of Rev. William A. Niles, D.D., the present stone church was built, diagonally across from the second edifice. The cost of this new church was $36,000. The bell from the old church was cast by Andrew Meneely of West Troy, New York in 1845. After the present church was completed, the trustees had it moved from the old church to the new, where it still hangs. For 150 years it has called the people to worship at God?s house.
During Rev. Niles ministry, two revivals were held, one in 1864 and another in 1866, when 80 were received into the church. In 1868, Rev. Niles gave a membership of 274 in his report.
The bronze plaque at the right of the pulpit reads thus:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD
AND IN LOVING MEMORY OF
WILLIAM A. NILES D.D.
UNDER WHOSE MINISTRY THIS EDIFICE
AND WHO SERVED WITH FIDELITY
He rests from his labors and his works do follow him
During these years the session consisted of 6 members and met monthly. In 1895 the number was increased to 9. In 1950 the number was increased again, to 12.
In 1945, at a congregational meeting the rotary system was adopted for all three boards of the church. This means that a member is ineligible for re-election after serving a 3 year term, until a year has expired.
Reading through some early copies of the Corning Journal, we find many interesting references to our church and its activities. In announcing the first service in the new church it said, "for the present time, seats are free." However, pew rents were used again to raise money for running expenses, as was the custom of that time. A percentage of the cost of the pew was levied, depending upon the fiscal needs of the church.
The same paper in a later edition told of an organ recital held to raise money for furnishings, admission being $0.50. An oyster supper followed at the "San Souci" on the corner near by, now known as the English Keenan Building. Still later, we find a short account of an ice cream and strawberry social being held, on the top floor of the Concert Hall Block to buy carpets for the church parlor. (This top floor of the building has been removed).
On July 25th, 1873 the Presbyterian Sunday School chartered three coaches on the Erie Railroad and 350 people went to Eldridge Park for the annual picnic. Other Sunday School picnics and within our memories too, were held at Hodgman s Dam, (where we went by streetcar), Townsend s Grove at Erwin, William s Grove, Highland Pines, Denison Park, Devenport s Grove, and more recently the Fish and Game Club.
On Nov. 20, 1870 at a Sunday morning service, the Rev. B. I. Ives "lifted the debt" from the First Presbyterian Church of Corning, securing subscriptions totaling $17,000. The noted "Methodist Persuader" as the local paper called him, was at his best.
During Rev. John S. Bacon s ministry, in 1887, the manse at the corner of Wall and First Streets was built on the site of a former manse. During the ministry of Rev. Paul Hazlett, this home was sold and the manse at the southeast corner of First and Cedar Streets was purchased.
As pew rental was inadequate and unsatisfactory, the envelope system of church giving was authorized by the trustees and put into effect on January 1, 1897.
The church organ made by Hutchings and Votey was purchased and installed in 1902, costing about $8,000. Subscriptions amounted to $9,096. The balcony was enlarged at this time to accommodate the new organ. The chimes were added some years later, in memory of Dr. A. H. Rodgers, an elder. An inaugural concert was given shortly after its installation by Richard H. Warren of St. Bartholomew s Church, New York City, assisted by a harpist and a singer.
When Rev. John Chester Ball, D.D. came to the Corning church from the presidency of Keuka College in 1907, he found a debt of $8,000. Through his zealous efforts the debt was cleared and extensive improvements made to the church and the manse.
In 1912 the church celebrated its 100th anniversary with two suitable services in Sunday and a public reception during the week following., At the morning service a former pastor, Rev. William Henry Niles, preached and in the evening Dr. Ball spoke on "One Hundred Years of Church Life." A historical sketch of the Women s Missionary Society was presented by Mrs. Ball. Old hymns were sung.
On Dec. 26, 1918, Reverend Dr. Elmer J. Stuart came to the Corning church from Watervliet, NY. He was installed on Dec. 26, 1918, and served through 1942. Rev. Knox of Painted Post presided at the installation, with the retiring Rev. Ball representing the people and Dr. Ballard of Hornell representing the ministers. During Rev. Stuart s ministry the church saw a large increase in membership and many physical changes. The church was redecorated twice during this time, and the organ rebuilt. When Rev. Stuart came the larger part of the basement was unexcavated and of no use, except to house four hot air furnaces, store coal, and accumulate ashes, and the room under the present parlor was used as a dining room. At this time the entire area under the sanctuary was excavated and a concrete floor put in. A new steam boiler replaced the furnaces and the kitchen was enlarged and improved. This big remodeling project made possible many additional and different activities in our church.
Dr. Stuart was made moderator of the Synod of New York in 1940. He continued on as Pastor Emeritus of our church.
On the 125th anniversary of our church, there were two services commemorating the event. In the morning Dr. Stuart delivered a sermon on "One Hundred and Twenty Five Years of Church Life." In the evening, by lantern light, an old fashioned service was conducted. Special speakers were Rev. S. R. McKinstry of Avoca, Moderator of Steuben-Elmira Presbytery, the Rev. J. V. Axtell of Addison and the Rev. Carl J. Grabb of Painted Post. Men of the congregation sat on one side of the church and the women on the other, as was the custom of 1812. They stood for prayers and sat for hymns. Selections were appropriately chosen.
On Feb. 5, 1926 the joint boards of the church adopted the idea of Weekday Religious Education. Much credit is due Rev. Stuart for the success of this project. The school was discontinued at the end of 1942.
Upon Dr. Stuart s retirement in 1942 Rev. Paul Hazlett was called to Corning as pastor. About that time the office at the South end of the chapel, or parlor, was partitioned off as a study.
At the annual meeting in 1943 a committee was appointed to investigate the matter of support of a missionary or mission. As a result, we are proud of the support given to Christian Work in Santo Domingo under the Reverend Carlos Amando-Ruiz, and to Miss Mary C. Johnson of the American Mission at Tabriz, Iran.
On January 12, 1949 at a meeting of the congregation, it was resolved to proceed with some needed replacements and repairs to the church properties. As a result during the next two years, the interior of the church was redecorated, new lights were installed, the roof was repaired, the masonry pointed up, and the new windows installed. The windows show 12 scenes from the Life of Christ and were presented in memory of the following people: 1. John W. and Sarah A. Williams; 2. Five generations of the Hood family; 3. Carrie E. Hungerfor; 4. Mazie McDowell Stover; 5. Aaron F. Williams; 6. Louis Linder; 7. Anna Linder; 8. Lois Williams; 9. Martha Hyde Bean; 10. William T. Smith; 11. Davis St. Claire Droege, Theodore David Sims; 12. Frances E. Adams.
The custom of late afternoon communion service was originated by Dr. Ball, and continued by Dr. Stuart, but since then the celebration of communion has become a part of the regular eleven o clock Sunday morning service.
A change was made in the hour of Sunday morning worship from 10:30 to 11:00 AM about 1932, when the church school time was changed from 12 o clock noon to 9:45 Sunday morning.
The Sunday evening worship was discontinued about 1941, and the mid-week prayer service a short time after.
The custom of holding the three hour Good Friday Service in our church is becoming a tradition and it is hoped we may continue to play host to the other Protestant churches on the important day.
Many beautiful Christmas Services have been held in our church. For many years a Feast of the Candles preceded the pageant of the Nativity. More recently the Candle Light Service has taken its place at 11 PM on Christmas Eve.
Recent changes in the physical structure are the new doors in the basement leading from the dining room to the smaller room and kitchen.
A much needed fire escape from the upstairs Sunday School rooms was added in 1950.
During 1951 the small room between the sanctuary and the church parlor was remodeled and improved as a small kitchen.
After Rev. Hazlett resigned in 1950 to become Secretary to the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education in Philadelphia, our church was faced with the problem of replacing him.
We count ourselves exceedingly fortunate to have had the Rev. H. Norman Sibley accept the call to this church. He preached his first sermon in Corning on January 7, 1951, and from that very first day we have consistently felt the sincerity and enthusiasm of his devotion. Mrs. Sibley, too, has taken a place of leadership and initiative in the work of the Sunday School, Women s Society and the community.
As we look back across the 140 years of the First Presbyterian Church in Corning, we realize what great faith and need of God prompted the efforts of the people to maintain the church s existence.
The church has supplied a groundwork of Christian culture to its children, has opened a wider vision of service and careers to the young people and has given help to young couples establishing homes on Christian principles. Its many gifts and missionary activities have given Christian faith a world outreach. Its activities have befriended the lonely, given new hope to the discouraged, cheered the weak, the sick, and the bereaved.
Here your historian ends this story for the moment. As we look back let us give thanks; as we look forward let us take courage. Ours is a responsibility as we face the future.
1950's Historian Entries
A church is people, we have said - people whom Christ has touched. We cannot give any adequate list of these people at work for Christ in our church. But we have collected a few factual statements about the origins of some of the organizations of people in our church - not all the organizations, but some, remembered still by living members.
The organist and choirs play an important part in our church worship. At present the choir is made up of volunteers although in the past we have had paid soloists and quartets. Before the days of the electric powered organ, much depended u pon the organ boy, who was paid to pump the bellows. At that time "The Singer" was also paid to lead the congregation in hymn singing.
As early as 1812 there were strong beginnings of Sunday School activity in our locality. Since ours was the first organized church, it sponsored that activity. Even when there was no pastor, such women as Mrs. Bonham sustained the interest in a S unday school for children. One hundred and forty years of teaching children and yet we cannot list those leaders here. Throughout the years our Sunday School has been developing steadily; increasing in number and improving in organization and equipment. The fine leadership of its officers and teachers is an inspiration and their influence is felt as the young people grow into the larger activity of the church. The school is completely organized from cradle roll to adult classes and a nursery is held d uring Sunday service hours so that parents may leave their babies while attending service. The approximate enrollment is 275 and it has a teaching staff of 25.
The Busy Bees was organized in 1883. This organization included children of school age. They were encouraged to think of missions and children of other lands. Mite boxes were opened at a yearly ceremony. This group was sponsored by the Woman?s Missionary Society.
As early as 1866 a Young People?s Society was organized which some 23 years later was reorganized into the Young People?s Society of Christian Endeavor. About 1947 the name was changed again to Westminster Fellowship in accordance wi th The National Youth Program of our church. Since then both Junior and Senior High groups have met regularly each Sunday evening; sometimes at the home of a member. They have joined with groups from other churches for Special Lenten Services and have s ent delegates to summer young peoples conferences.
About 1910, Mrs. Ball, the wife of Rev. John Chester Ball, organized the young women of the church as a study and social group known as Delta Chi. Formal planned programs were carried out throughout the year. Meetings were held at the manse where the girls felt truly welcome and enjoyed many good times and splendid programs. The interest inspired by Mrs. Ball with this group of young women has had its influence throughout the years.
Still More To Come