First Presbyterian Church - Table of Contents
History of the First Presbyterian
One Symphony Circle, Buffalo, NY
By James Napora
The text below is reprinted with permission:
Founding: The city's oldest congregation, Thaddeus Osgood organized the First Congregational and Presbyterian Church of Buffalo in February, 1812. With twenty-five charter members present, they met in the city's first courthouse.
Many of those attending began meeting the previous year in a prayer group organized by Mrs.. Esther Pratt and Mrs. Comfort Landon. Initially, the two women would met in the parlor above the Pratt's Exchange Street store each evening at sunset to pray. Through the months, other members of the community joined in their meetings.
The early days of the congregation were uneventful as just four months after being founded, the United States declared war against. Great Britain, ushering in a period of uncertainty for the Niagara frontier. With the burning of the village on 30-31 December, 1813, the residents fled only to return to the ruins in the following days. One of those who fled, Amos Callender, took with him the minutes of the congregation thus enabling the church to maintain an unbroken record of its existence.
Although the majority of the villagers returned by the Spring of 1814, the First Presbyterian Church did not formally meet again until 15 July, 1815 at the Pearl Street home of Amos Callender. They continued to meet in a variety of locations owned by the members including Townsend & Coit's store, Ransom's Tavern on Main at Genesee, and the courthouse on Batavia Road (Broadway) and Washington Street.
The first minister: With the threat of war over, the congregation began to consider hiring a full time minister. In August, 1815, Rev. John Spires, a traveling missionary, arrived in Buffalo to lead two weeks of services in the hall above Landon's Tavern. Upon departing the village, the members of the congregation asked him to return to serve as their first full time minister. Meeting 3 May, 1816 in the barn of Elias Ransom on the northwest corner of Main and Huron, the congregation installed him as the minister of Buffalo's first church.
1823 Main and Church Street church: Keeping with its practice of providing land for the construction of churches and schools, on 12 December, 1820 Joseph Ellicott of the Holland Land Company donated a plot to the First Presbyterian Society of the Town of Buffalo. Three years later, they constructed a forty by fifty foot house of worship on the northwest corner of Main and Church Street at a cost of $874.
The early years of the church were a period of strict discipline for all members. The church itself acted as the guardian of the moral aptitudes of its members. Officials often punished members for such offenses as swearing, drinking, card playing, dancing, neglect of family worship and failure to take part in communion. Many "trials" were held in the church, resulting in the excommunication of the offender or their public admittance to the offensive act in front of the congregation during services.
One such admission occurred on 26 April, 1836 when former mayor, Hiram Pratt, confessed to traveling from Buffalo to Batavia on the Sabbath. His penalty for his crime: a public statement of penitence.
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 witnessed the beginning of the first phase of growth for the city and for the church. With membership increasing from a pre-Canal total of 120 to 203 after its opening, the members felt it best to begin planning a new building.
1827 "Old First": The congregation dedicated the new, $17,500 building on the [NW] corner of Main and Church Streets on 28 March, 1827.
They sold their original building to the Methodists who moved it to a site on Niagara near Eagle. In 1835, the Methodists sold the building to the German Evangelical Society of Buffalo who moved it to Genesee and Hickory where it served as the first house of worship of St. Peter's Evangelical Church. During the construction of the building currently on that corner, the congregation of St. Peter's moved it to Walnut Street where it in turn served as a tenement, a cooper's shop, and an icehouse for a brewery. Fire destroyed Buffalo's first house of worship in 1882.
At the time of its dedication, First Presbyterian was the largest house of worship west of the Genesee River. For many years, it was the tallest structure in the city. The tower of the building contained a 2,500 pound bell. Known as the "town clock bell," it served as the original fire bell.
With the arrival of Rev. M. L. Thompson in 1848, the congregation began to attract new members. Drawn by his dynamic style and brilliant preaching, the brick building was continuously filled to capacity. The congregation considered constructing a new house of worship but after raising almost one hundred thousand dollars, abandoned the project due to excessive cost estimates.
Decision to move: Once again, in.1879 the members considered relocating to a larger building. Under the direction of Rev. Samuel S. Mitchell they drafted a proposition proposing a merger with Calvary Presbyterian on Delaware at Tracy (destroyed). When the votes were finally tallied, this proposition was defeated. Rev. Mitchell still felt that the Shelton Square location of the church was not conducive to worship and continued to recommend relocating. The Board of Trustees agreed with him on this matter but many members of the congregation did not. After channeling the dispute through the Presbytery and later the court system, they decided in favor of moving.
They desired a site uptown from the current location feeling it was hemmed in by encroaching business. They also wanted to be in the midst of the expanding population in the developing northern section of the city. Mrs. Truman Avery settled the dispute regarding the new location with her donation of the Pennsylvania Street site, in memory of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen B. Austin.
With the first services in their completed chapel on 11 September, 1889, the congregation vacated their Main Street building. They later sold it to Erie County Savings Bank for construction of their headquarters. It is currently the site of the tower of the Main Place Mall.
1891 Pennsylvania Street / Symphony Circle: On 13 December, 1891 they celebrated their first service in their completed house of worship. Upon the completion of the 163 foot tower, the congregation formally dedicated the sanctuary on 6 May, 1897.
The Romanesque forms of the building, devised by Buffalo architects Green and Wicks, create a dramatic focal point on the Symphony Circle end of Richmond Avenue. The twin towers of H. H. Richardson's State Hospital anchor the northern terminus of the street, serving as a significant earlier example of the Romanesque style.
Interior: The interior, measuring 92 feet long and 100 feet wide at the transept, seats 954 people. The Byzantine Revival decoration of the sanctuary is the result of work by William Carson Francis, a member of the congregation. Completed in 1924, it depicts a variety of Christian symbols.
The main dome, towering 64 feet above the floor of the nave, is decorated in a Persian design 'The designs on the pendentives are adapted from the sixth century Placidia Chapel in Ravenna.
The soffit of the arch supporting the semidome of the apse features four medallions depicting the Four Evangelists, adapted from carvings on the doors of St. Mark's in Venice.
The three chandeliers in the nave and transept are copies of those in. Hagia Sophia in Constantinople [Istanbul, Turkey]. Under each light bulb is suspended a glass vessel resembling the oil holders on the original.
Amongst the many Tiffany windows in the building is one in the choir loft, erected in 1925. The Henry Lee Willett Studios in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania executed those in the chapel. They depict the Works of Christian Mercy and First Presbyterian Church History.
First Presbyterian has assisted in the formation of thirty-nine other congregations. Among them are:
- 1817 - St. Paul's Episcopal, Pearl Street
- 1817 - Niagara Street ME (destroyed)
- 1822 - First Baptist, North Street
- 1831 - West Avenue Presbyterian, East Ferry Street
- 1832 - Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian
- 1835 - St. Peter's Evangelical, Genesee Street
- 1835 - Central Presbyterian, Main Street
- 1838 - Dutch Reformed (destroyed)
- 1847 - North Presbyterian, Delaware Avenue
- 1850 - Westminster Presbyterian, Delaware Avenue