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Days of future past

New York church’s 175th anniversary celebration looks forward and back

December 14, 2009

Church members sitting in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in Watervliet, N.Y.

First Presbyterian Church in Watervliet, N.Y., is using its 175th birthday to look forward. —First Presbyterian Church

Statesville, N.C.

First Presbyterian Church in Watervliet, N.Y., is in the midst of a yearlong 175th anniversary celebration, an occasion it has chosen to mark as not only a celebration of the past, but also of the future.

“Past, Present and Future” is the theme that sets the tone for four big events the church has planned during the year.

“It’s a chance to celebrate the years that have gone by while also preparing for the next 25 years,” said pastor the Rev. Steve Cronn. “We’re part of the past in Watervliet and we intend to be part of the future.”

The celebration, which began in February and runs through January, kicked off with a $1.75 chicken biscuit dinner. It was meant as a little tribute to the past as a re-creation of the first fundraiser the church ever held.

Although the original dinner was done to raise money, this time the church fully expected to lose money on it as the price was set to reflect the anniversary, not the cost of the dinner. Members were surprised to find this was not the case.

“The reason we did not lose money at $1.75 a plate is that some people gived more than the $1.75 suggested donation price for the dinner,” Cronn said. 

The celebration has given the church cause to reflect on its roots. Watervliet served as a main stopping point for barge men on the Erie Canal and had one of the highest rates of bars per capita of any city in the country. The church was founded by concerned citizens who wanted to offer the barge men another choice of spirit. The church peaked at about 400 members. It has about 60 today.

The third event held as part of the celebration, a reunion service in September, was also a nod to the past. 

“We brought back as many former members as we could,” Cronn said. “We also displayed historical artifacts and photos. We held a luncheon and worship that day centered on the reunion theme.” 

The second event, a free community fair, focused on the present.

“We had free food and admission,” Cronn said. “We blocked off the street and held it in front of the church. The focus was on our neighbors, and about 300 people attended.

“People got so involved, they stayed to help clean up and insisted on donating anyway because they wanted us to do more community events like this,” he said.

The community fair was part of the effort to focus on today and what the role of the church in Watervliet should be now. Cronn noted that the town has changed from a farming community to more of a bedroom community for nearby Albany and Troy and along with that, the church needs to change as well. 

“First Presbyterian Church of Watervliet is one of those small churches that has been on the edge of survival for a long time,” said Cass Shaw, general presbyter of Albany Presbytery. “The town of Watervliet, like so many in New York and the northeast, has seen hard times.”

“We’re trying to regenerate interest and be relevant to our community today,” Cronn said. “We’re looking at mission possibilities, maybe doing clothes and coats for kids. We already give out scarves, mittens and hats to the schools. We want to open it up for community participation and donation too. We want to reconnect with the community.

“A congregation cannot be confined within its walls. You have to reach beyond,” he said. “We need to be focused on the fact that what we’re doing is for God and we have to ask what is it God wants for this community.”

“This celebration has given First Presbyterian Church a chance to really take a look at where they’ve been,” Shaw said. “But it’s also given them a chance to reflect and reach out to the community around them.”

As is the case in many places, Cronn noted that all of the churches in Watervliet have faced struggles with declining community interest. With so many young people leaving the churches, Cronn said he understands that this is a key group the church needs to reach and engage. The fourth planned event in the anniversary celebration is a rock concert scheduled for January. It’s designed to reach the younger members of the community and is the church’s way of focusing on the future.

“(First Presbyterian) not only have a sense of their rich history now, but also a sense of renewed energy for the future,” Shaw said. “I’m not sure what will happen for them in the long run, but I do feel that these people are serving faithfully in the best way they can for where they are.”

Yet with all of the focus on past, present and future and the changing roles of the church in Watervliet, it could be said that the prevailing message that has come out of it is that the more things change, the more the mission of the church stays fundamentally the same.

“We are seeking to become re-involved in the community in ministry,” Cronn said. “First Presbyterian Church in Watervliet is aware of its roots founded in saving the souls of the canal barge men to give them a better Spirit than can be found in a bottle. There are no more canal barge men but there are still plenty of souls to be saved.” 

Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.

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