LEWIS — Though the building may date back to 1823, the First Congregational Church of Lewis stays rejuvenated by the members and spirit of community.
“The congregation has always been active in doing the work of the church,” said the Rev. Fred Shaw, the current and longest-serving minister in the church’s history for 23 years. “They always pitch in when needed, and that’s what keeps it going. I always look forward to going there on Sunday and other times. It’s a small but intimate, personal and jovial group. It is not just about the sermons. During the services there is a give and take.”
The monthly potluck dinners, held May through October, are open to everyone and have successfully promoted community spirit.
“Everyone looks forward to them,” Shaw said. “People just enjoy coming together socially. We always wanted it to be free, and it’s caught on in the community.”
Jean Dickerson retired in 2000 after 30 years as church organist.
“I’ve seen a lot of ministers come and go,” Dickerson said. “He (Shaw) is the epitome of a minister. Others, such as Pat Blades, have been the backbone of our Sunday school.”
Looking back on the bicentennial preparations, Shaw said, “When we started as a committee six years ago and looked at possible projects, people said, ‘There is no way we can afford all that.’ But all that (such as repairs, painting the church building, removing the pines and landscaping the hill) has been accomplished and a lot more.”
“Although our church is small in membership, it is large in our service to God and the people of the community. We are proud of our heritage and the fact that this church is the oldest Congregational Church in Essex County, New York,” the church website states.
“The Town of Lewis recognizes the historical significance of the 200th anniversary of the First Congregational Church of Lewis and wishes to congratulate the church on this very special milestone,” Lewis Town Supervisor Dave Blades said in a statement. “The members of this church, both past and present, should be very proud of what they have accomplished. Your hard work and perseverance helped to bring this church through many difficult years to what it has become today. Happy 200th birthday from the town government.”
The inside of the church is almost as imposing as the outside, with panels of 14-foot high stained-glass windows, which can illuminate the space without electric lights. The walls and ceiling are covered with decorated squares of tin, which were installed about nine decades ago.
The oldest Congregational Church building in northeastern New York, the church “is a constant reminder to the people that God is ever present,” its website states.
In 1804, a small group organized and secured the part-time services of a pastor. They met four or five months a year, and only one Sunday each month.
On June 12, 1812, the Rev. Cyrus Comstock met with several parishioners at the home of Dr. Alexander Morse in Elizabethtown to organize a full-time Congregational Church in Lewis.
In 1818, plans for a church building were adopted, and logs were cut into lumber for the building. Jonathan Steele, esquire, of Hartford, Conn., deeded the property for $1.
The church was raised and covered in 1823 but remained unfinished until 1834. Services were held in it during the summers, using planks for seating on a grass floor. Winter services were held at the nearby schoolhouse or at private homes.
In the fall of 1875, after renovating the church, the congregation decided to rededicate it by inviting Henry Ward Beecher, a nationally known clergyman, lecturer and author, to speak. On July 18, 1875, in spite of terrible heat that day, at least 2,000 people gathered in the village. The population of Lewis at that time was 1,740.
The 100th anniversary of the church was celebrated in the summer of 1912. The organ was moved onto the porch, and the singing of hymns took place.
On March 22, 1923, the church voted to federate with the Methodist Church of Lewis for the coming year, and an addition to the parsonage was built in September 1924.
In February 1961, the church voted to become a part of the United Church of Christ. At that time, the Sunday school had an enrollment of 55 children, with nine teachers and officers.
Church historian Frederick T. Crossman wrote in 1962: “Although the church has had many successful years, it has had a hard uphill struggle for most of its 150 years of history. At times, low membership and very little support have made it practically impossible to carry on, but with the leadership of its most active and energetic members and generosity of the people of Lewis and elsewhere, the church has surmounted all its hardships. I am sure each future generation will have its share of extremely interested members who will carry on the work of the church and see it through any forthcoming hardships.”
This struggle continues today.
Since 1978, the church has been closed during winter months to reduce heating costs, and members worship at the parish hall at the United Church of Christ Congregational Church in Elizabethtown. In 1989, a week after the dedication of the new parish hall at the First Congregational Church of Lewis, Shaw was called to serve both churches in Lewis and Elizabethtown .
“We continually struggle, as do most small churches,” Dickerson said. “But when we need something, the community comes together. It always seems it’s about money, and our community is a godsend. The church is more than just a building; it is the people that make it, and at times it is a lot of fun.”
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