History of St. John's Episcopal Church, Cohoes, NY

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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In 1831 the City of Cohoes did not exist. It was a tiny hamlet with a population of 150. Three factors combined to make it, eventually, an industrial center: the beginning of the cotton industry in this country, the abundant water power of the great Cohoes Falls, and the easy water route to New York City and the outside world.

The city owes its real beginning to a manufacturing corporation called the Cohoes Company. Unintentionally, this corporation also fathered the Episcopal Church in the First Churchcity. Looking about for a manager with the experience in the cotton spinning industry, the company selected one David Wilkinson, brother-in-law to Samuel Slater, who was himself the father of cotton manufacturing in this country. Fortunately, David Wilkinson was a devoted layman of the Episcopal Church, being active in St. John's Church, Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Later when he moved to Wilkinsonville, Massachusetts, he helped to establish St. John's Church in that community. This devotion showed itself to the advantage of the people of Cohoes for one of the conditions Laid down by Mr. Wilkinson before accepting the offer of the Cohoes Company was that the company should provide him with the necessary land on which to build an Episcopal Church. There was no church in the hamlet and Mr. Wilkinson had no intention of living in a "godless place."

And so the Episcopal Church in Cohoes made its beginning. Many of the mill workers were English, communicants of the Church of England. Together with Mr. Wilkinson and his brother-in-law, Hezekiah Howe, they began, on Easter Day, 1831, to hold regular worship services, conducted sometimes by one of their own parishioners, sometimes by a priest from the neighboring parish of Waterford. On May 2, 1831, St. John's Church, Cohoes was incorporated with Mr. Wilkinson as Warden and Mr. Howe as Treasurer. It was the first religious corporation in Cohoes, which was then a village in the town of Watervliet. Among the enthusiastic members of the small congregation was one Mr. Olmstead, an engineer of the Cohoes Company, whose job was the planning of the power canals that ran from the Cohoes Falls through the community.

Mr. Olmstead married Ardelia Wilkinson, the daughter of David, and the young couple, with the help of Miss Maria Howe, organized, in 1831, the first Church School of the parish for the religious education of the children of the community.

From the Olmstead's marriage came a son, Charles Tyler Olmstead, who later entered the priesthood, became fifth Rector of Grace Church, Utica, and eventually Bishop of Central New York. It was Bishop Olmstead who was the guest preacher in 1906 at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the parish.

Under this devoted lay leadership, St. John's began a vigorous existence. The first necessity was a church building. The Cohoes Company, which had already given the land on Oneida Street, gave five hundred dollars toward the building. Trinity Church, New York, the benefactor of so many infant parishes in this era, gave another five hundred dollars. The remainder of the total cost of $1,500 was raised by the congregation. On May 12, 1833, the completed frame building was consecrated by The Rt. Rev. Benjamin T. Ondcrdonk, the Bishop of New York. The Diocese of Albany did not yet exist.

From 1831 to 1833 the new parish was under the spiritual oversight of the Rev. Orange Clark, rector of Grace Church, Waterford. In 1833 the Rev. Cyrus Stebbins came as rector of Grace Church and assumed responsibility for St. John's as well. It was his fate to be the pastor of sick parishes. In 1834 he reported to the Convention of the Diocese of New York that "this congregation (Cohoes) owing: to the depressed state of the manufactories, has suffered much the last year. The congregation has decreased in numbers; all communicants have removed except seven. Divine service is performed in St. John's every Sunday p.m. to a respectable, and I trust, pious few. Should times change and prosperity smile on our little village, the Church will feel its effect."

Within a few years, the economic pressure appears to have eased. The parish applied to Trinity Church, New York, for help and received a grant of $500 to pay of its accumulated debts. On May 8. 1838, five persons were confirmed, bringing the number of communicants to ten. This appears to us now an impossibly small number, but it must be remembered that at this period of American Church history, only about one person in ten who regularly attended the services of the Episcopal Church was a communicant.

Encouraged by these circumstances, the Vestry issued a call to the first resident Rector, the Rev. David I. Burger, in 1841. His salary was fixed at $500, of which $125 was supplied by the Missionary Society of the Diocese of New York. In 1842, the parish was able to relinquish this aid, and pay the full stipend.

Fr. Burger entered upon his new work with great enthusiasm. Among his innovations was a regular catechizing of the children every two months. But soon a difficulty arose. Fr. Burger, for all his energy and enthusiasm, appears to have become embroiled with the stretching of the truth and with speaking too freely. He was soon in serious difficulties with the Vestry and parish. Nine pages of the Vestry minutes of this period are taken up with these difficulties. Eventually the matter was carried to the Bishop and a Diocesan Board of Inquiry was constituted, which after due investigation, ruled that Fr. Burger must immediately resign and that the Vestry must pay his salary to February 1, 1843. The clerk who recorded the judgment in the minute book gave vent to his indignation by writing for the benefit of posterity, "paying him in compliance with the above award $138.18 more than was justly due him."

On November 14, 1842, The Rev. Edward B. Edwards, still in Deacon's Orders, became Rector. He was promised a salary from the parish of $275; it was hoped that the Missionary Society of the Diocese would make up the difference.

On May 8, 1843, Bishop Onderdonk ordained Fr. Edwards to the Priesthood in the parish church. This was the first ordination in the history of the parish and the first ordination in the village. On the evening of the same day, the Bishop confirmed a class of seven. In his report to the Diocesan Convention of 1843, the new Rector spoke of the parish as being in a healthy condition, and was optimistic about its future. However, Fr. Edwards soon left and was succeeded by The Rev. John B. Gibson who was also in Deacon's Orders. His rectorship was a period of growth and general prosperity. In 1846, a parish school was built. In 1847 a Rectory was built. Fr. Gibson was ordained Priest only near the end of his tenure in St. John's. However, the parish was not deprived of the sacraments for The Rev. Robert B. Fairbaim, Rector of Christ Church, Troy, came regularly on foot to say Mass and administer Holy Communion. It is a sign of the devotion common the Church people, ordained and lay, that such a distance was not considered inconvenient for walking.

It is worthy of note that during a period of fifteen years, there was no examination of the books of the Treasurer, one Mr. A.S. Wilkinson, an indication of the confidence enjoyed by one who we suspect was a relative of the parish's founder, Mr. David Wilkinson. Mr. David Wilkinson continued as Warden from 1831 to 1847 when he moved away from Cohoes.

In 1848, the parish was again vacant. On October 15, 1848, The Rev. John W. Shackelford of Pennsylvania was called as Rector. He faced 2. serious financial problem. The Rectory was burdened with a debt of $1,800 and there was an accumulation of small bills. After several unsuccessful attempts to get the Vestry together to consider this problem, Fr. Shackelford visited friends in New York and Pennsylvania, returning home with the sum of $76. On the Sunday after Christmas, the new Rector made a thorough and detailed report of the condition of the parish. The result was an offering of $144, the largest in the history of the parish. There was also a sale of fancy articles, "conducted in such a way as to make it free from the objections usually urged against fairs." It netted a profit of over $250. The combined receipts from these various ventures and appeals was $525.77. Only the presence of six dollars in counterfeit money in the proceeds of the fancy-work sale cast any shadow over the events.

Fr. Shackelford, however, was more than a successful money raiser. He was also a scholar and a theologian. A little pamphlet of his, significantly entitled "The Holy Communion as a Sacrifice, as an act of Worship" indicated that under his guidance the parish was being thoroughly indoctrinated in what might be called High Churchmanship, after the model of Bishop Hobart.

One may wonder why, in 1850, after a rectorate of only two years, and with such notable successes, Fr. Shackelford would leave St. John's. We need to remember that short rectorates were far more common in the first half of the nineteenth century. Thus, in 1850, Fr. Shackelford was succeeded by the Rev. John Adams of New Jersey, who himself resigned on November l0, 1852. For six months the parish was without a priest until August 7, 1853 when The Rev. Theodore Babcock of Ballston Spa was called as Rector. He remained until November 5, 1857. Apparently the debt had been substantially reduced by this time, for the parish was now able to pay a salary of $800 a year.

This prosperity was not to last long. In 1857, Cohoes, a one-industry town, was involved in a nationwide panic of that year. The mills were closed, families left town, and the parish suffered. The church was without a Rector for 14 months. Regular worship services were maintained throughout the period by lay readers and once a month clergy from a neighboring community administered the Sacraments. It is, however, interesting to note that during this interim, attendance at worship services increased. During Lent, 1858, it was found possible to hold daily services.

In February, 1859, The Rev. Alpheus Spor became Rector, although the stipend had to be reduced to $600. At the time of his coming, there were 78 communicants in the parish. It seems strange that with the small number of communicants, the church was too small to seat the congregation; but that curious ratio of communicants to attendants which was noted earlier still applied. In August, 1859, the organ had been removed from the gallery to the chancel to make room for one hundred additional seats. At the same time the Sunday School presented the parish with a dove and pelican window. Returning prosperity made it possible in 1860 to increase the Rector's stipend from $600 to $765.

The year 1863 marks a definite change in the life of St. John's. The parish had survived financial panic, internal dissention, short rectorates and assorted other dilemmas and was not poised to enter upon its period of greatest growth. In that year, The Rev. John Henry Hobart Brown became Rector. Fr. Brown was a strong high churchman, a vigorous leader and an inspiring personality and he had come to the parish at a time when it was ripe for his strong leadership. He bore the name of Bishop John Henry Hobart and appears to have been cut from the same cloth. Within three years of his arrival, the parish had given up its missionary aid. The increase in membership was phenomenal. Between 1863 and 1870, the number of baptized person jumped from 500 to 1,300; the number of communicants from 112 to 324. Obviously, the modest frame building which had up until now housed parish activities was inadequate. In 1867, therefore, the Rector and Vestrymen Chadwick and Clarke appointed a committee to make plans for a new building. It was early decided to select a new site, since the one in use did not allow for any expansion. After considering several sites, the committee decided upon a location owned by the Cohoes Company, "which comprised a large hollow, and a well, from which potable water was taken by many people."

Within a year, a building fund of $2,200 had been raised. On February 26, 1866, the Vestry moved to sell the Oneida Street property to purchase the new site. From this point, events marched rapidly. On September 22, 1867, the Vestry moved to rent the school building of the parish to the village for $200 per year. (The improvement of public education was making a parochial school unnecessary.) On July 1, 1868 the land for the church was bought. The parish was fortunate in securing as their architect Richard Morris Upjohn, son of the architect of Trinity Church, New York, and himself one of the best church architects of the day. Many of the churches he designed are still in use, including Immanuel Church, Bellows Falls, Vermont, in which the present Rector was ordained Deacon in 1969.

At the insistence of Fr. Brown, it was determined that in the new church all seats should be free. This was in itself a revolution, since up until this time the renting or sale of pews had been the most stable source of parish income. But to churchmen of Fr. Brown's stature, reserved seats in the house of God was unacceptable.

While the new building was being constructed, the parish was taking an active part in another daring venture. For years it had been evident that the Diocese of New York was becoming more and more unwieldy, and attempts had been made from time to time to divide it. Finally in 1867, the Convention of the Diocese of New York determined to take the step. In the forefront of those supporting this necessary division was Fr. Brown. On December 2, 1868 the first Convention of the Diocese of Albany met. Fr. Brown was one of its leading figures. He was elected Secretary of the Convention, took an active part in the election of The Rev. William Croswell Doane as first Bishop of the Diocese and was himself elected a member of the first Standing Committee of the Diocese.

On the Feast of Pentecost, May 16, 1869, Bishop Doane made his first visitation to Cohoes, confirming a class of fifteen. In his sermon, he remarked, "There is no more laborious parish in the Diocese than this, which is yielding abundant fruit to wise and indefatigable labors. A sword of the very finest temper has, I am glad to say, fairly worn out the old scabbard, and the Rector will soon have a new and notable church building."

On January 31, 1870, the old church property on Oneida Street was sold for $16,500. On April 3, 1870, Bishop Doane visited the old church for the last time and confirmed a class of fifty persons-five times the total communicant strength of the parish in its infancy. The very next morning the Bishop broke ground for the new church, just six years from the day when the subject of the new church was first discussed in a Vestry meeting. On June 9, 1870, the corner stone was laid with appropriate ceremonies. Since the old church had been sold, and the new church was not yet ready for use, we read in the records that "services on Christmas, 1870 were held with some discomfort in the Sunday School rooms under the church."

With the town growing every year, and with most of the new residents being English people brought in by the expanding textile industry, the parish entered upon an era of rapid expansion. The new church was found to be more expensive than the original estimate of $40,000. Before it was completed, the cost had mounted to $83,000. To meet this, the parish was forced to borrow heavily. Two mortgages, totaling $25,000 were taken. In addition, $6,500 was borrowed from the Cohoes National Bank on notes signed by members of the Vestry. This proved to be a grave mistake, resulting eventually in disputes; claims, and finally lawsuits. To clarify the matter, the Treasurer, Mr. Murray Hubbard, prepared a detailed statement, "To the Congregation of St. John's Church," giving the whole history of the matter.

In the records of the parish there is an entry for August 20, 1873, noting that the bell from the Oneida Street church had been sold for 29˝ cents, the proceeds going into the building fund. A later Rector was forced to lament, "Mack, alas, we have had no bell since."

During the thirteen years of his rectorate, the Rev. John Henry Hobart-Brown had proved himself a great builder, a true shepherd of souls. He had made himself felt as a strong force in the affairs of the new Diocese of Albany. He had already declined an offer to become rector of a parish in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But on September 27, 1875, a call came that could not be denied, when the first Convention of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin elected him its first Bishop.

On December 15, 1875, the new St. John's was the scene of the Consecration of Bishop Hobart-Brown. The new Bishop was consecrated by Bishop Potter of New York, Bishop Bissell of Vermont and Bishop Doane of Albany. It marks the only time in the history of Cohoes that a Bishop of any church has been consecrated here. Bishop Hobart-Brown continued to act as Rector of St. John's until the middle of the following January because inclement weather made it impossible for him to travel to his new cure. During his tenure, he had baptized 706 souls, presented 411 persons for Confirmation, solemnized 167 marriages and buried 342 people. The communicant list had grown from 112 to 419. The parish had grown from a mission station to a substantial parish, a full partner in the Diocese and looked to for leadership and inspiration.

Again the Vestry was faced with the difficult job of Ending a Rector, especially one who would be an adequate successor to Bishop Hobart-Brown. On February 3, 1876, the Rev. Walker Gwynne of St. Paul's Chapel, Troy (now Christ and St. Barnabas Church) accepted the call. His first problem was debt. In August of his first year the parish was unable to meet the interest payment due. The original mortgage had also expired and the mortgagor was threatening to foreclose. Out of the heat of this trouble came hard feelings, short tempers, and unfortunate accusations. Although Fr. Gwvnne had no part in acquiring the debt or in arranging the various loans, the burden inevitably fell on him. Through this difficult period, in 1878 and 1879, seven months passed without any recorded Vestry meeting.

In August, 1879, with the total indebtedness of the parish in excess of $24,000, the Vestry took a step of faith when it purchased from the Beaver Street Dutch Church in Albany, a Hook organ at a cost of $1,200. The Vestry's confidence proved to be justified because by April 1, 1882 the debt of the parish had been reduced by $7,000 and the worst of the financial crisis was over. On January 15, 1884, Fr. Gwynn resigned to become Rector of St. Mark's Church, Augusta, Maine.

On February 24, 1884, The Rev. Dr. Frederick S. Sill became Rector of the Parish. Dr. Sill was a sound high churchman of the school of Bishop Hobart who carried on the tradition begun by Fr. Shackelford and continued by Bishop Hobart-Brown (a characteristic that has remained constant in St. John's and indeed has marked a large part of the history of the Diocese of Albany.) He was a wise and kindly pastor and a scholar as well. For years he was Registrar of the Diocese of Albany and in that capacity he wrote a fine history of St. John's and laid up a treasure of historical material, much of which survives to this day. On his arrival he found a debt of nearly $12,000. Quietly, unostentatiously, the debt was reduced and by 1892 it was removed entirely. On June 18, 1893, Bishop Doane consecrated the parish church being free of mortgage.

Now St. John's faced a new challenge. Up until about 1880, the workers in the Cohoes mills had been mostly of English descent with an attachment to the Church of England. Now the tide of immigration changed sharply. French Canadians; Italians, Poles, and Russians came to Cohoes in large numbers, filling the mills' positions and making Cohoes one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the ethnically diverse State of New York. In 1900, Dr. Sill commented:

"It is an ascertained fact that of our 24,000 population, 12,000 are French Canadians and 6,000 are Irish, all Roman Catholics. Of the other 6,000, 3,700 are Protestants and 1,300 belong to our Church. We are very largely a Roman Catholic community." This is a reality that had not changed in the 20th century and it had offered St. John's the privilege of practicing what the Anglican Communion has always proposed as its unique position in Christendom-namely, being a bridge between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions and the Protestant Churches. This writer is of the opinion that it is a fact of our history and not an exercise of our pride that St. John's has practiced that mission faithfully and well.

On the morning of September 6, 1894, the parishioners of St. John's awoke to find that their beloved church, which they had worked so long and hard to erect and pay for, was completely destroyed by fire. Fortunately, the Rectory remained. With unquenchable optimism, the Rector and congregation at once set about repairing the damage. Again, an architect of genius, Halsey Wood of New York, was engaged and plans for rebuilding on an even larger scale than the destroyed St. John's church were adopted. On June 3, 1895, the corner stone of the new building was laid by Bishop Doane. On April 22, 1896, the church was opened for use. By 1914, the total cost of $73,000 had been paid, in large measure due to the generosity of the mill owners and managers who were communicants of St. John's. On June 9, 1914, the new church, distinguished for its lofty spaciousness, was consecrated by Bishop Nelson.

His work completed, Dr. Sill resigned in the summer of 1917 and was succeeded on October 1, 1917 by The Rev. Ernest J. Hopper.

Fr. Hopper was in the same mold as Dr. Sill had been. A quiet, conscientious pastor and priest, he labored through the years between the two World Wars and was largely responsible for laying the foundation of faith on which the present senior generation of the parish has built so well. One significant contribution of the Hopper family was the ordination of their son John to the priesthood in 1943. It is a reflection of his father's pastoral ministry organizing and building new parishes in the Dioceses of Louisiana and Kentucky.

On May 1, 1942, Fr. Hopper retired and was succeeded on September 1, 1942 by the Rev. Schuyler D. Jenkins. Fr. Jenkins was a strong high churchman who brought St. John's into the hill sacramental and ritual practice of Anglo-Catholicism. His work with the young people of the parish continues to bear fruit to this day. Perhaps his most memorable legacy to the parish and the Church was his commissioning of Rouen LeCompte to design some stained glass windows and lancet openings in some of the doors of the church. LeCompte had spent much of World War II in a concentration camp and upon his release had no tools, no studio and no work to do. Fr. Jenkins, who knew LeCompte personally, offered him the work at St. John's as a way of helping LeCompte reestablish himself in his field. The designs for four windows that he created for St. John's led to his receiving the commission to create the stained glass for the great Washington National Cathedral. Today, those four windows are preserved in the new church building and are the only extant examples of LeCompte's work outside the Washington Cathedral.

On August 31, 1951, Fr. Jenkins resigned to become Rector of the Church of the Messiah, Glens Falls and on October 15, 1951 The Rev. John L. Roberts came as the thirteenth Rector of St. John's. By this time the City of Cohoes had begun to decline because of the movement of much of its manufacturing business to the South. Old factory buildings, sitting vacant, together with many unemployed people made for a difficult environment in which to work. Fr. Roberts took the challenge and labored well. With the parish hall having been remodeled in 1946, Fr. Roberts turned his attention to the music program of the parish. On November 7, 1954 a new three manual Barlow organ was dedicated in a recital played by John Baldwin of Hamilton College. During his tenure, Fr. Roberts served as Chaplain to the Police and Fire Departments of the City of Cohoes and established many ecumenical ties, especially with his brother priests of the Roman Catholic parishes.

On July 1, 1965, Fr. Roberts left to become a Canon of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany. On the same date, The Rev. J. Alan DiPretoro came to St. John's. The decline in the city's fortunes had been reflected in the parish and Fr. DiPretoro was faced with many difficult decisions. It is to his credit that he saw the future clearly and took the parish to a place where it could meet the future. Recognizing that the church building on Mohawk Street was becoming too large and too difficult to maintain, Fr. DiPretoro moved to relocate the congregation. A new church building was designed and constructed on Vliet Blvd. and was consecrated by Bishop Brown on March 14, 1970. The building was designed to be modern and open and has proven itself an ideal environment in which to worship. Further to his credit, Fr. DiPretoro took the lead in seeing that the debt incurred by the building of the new church was liquidated within ten years, no small feat in a city and parish whose numbers and fortunes were steadily declining.

On March 26, 1984, Fr. DiPretoro died. He was succeeded by The Rev. Leonard A. Pratt, who came as a supply priest on April 29, 1984, became Priest-in-Charge on September 1, 1984 and became the fifteenth Rector of St. John's on April 1, 1986.

The previous historical account of St. John's Church was compiled by Father Pratt for the parish's 160th Anniversary celebration. The account, though eloquently written, only briefly mentions the fifteenth Rector.

Father Leonard Pratt came to St. John's at a particularly challenging period. Staying true to its history, the City of Cohoes remained a primarily Roman Catholic community. As jobs and residents left Cohoes, so did many of the communicants of St. John's church. Fr. Pratt considered building up the parish family a personal challenge. His agreeable demeanor, determination, and infectious laugh enticed people to join the congregation. In a few short years the membership considerably increased. The parish was alive and well again.

Struck by an illness, Father Pratt announced his retirement on September 1, 1993. He retired the next month. The Rev. Frederico Serra-Lima became the regular Supply Priest for St. John's. The Vestry convened a Search Committee for a permanent Rector in December of 1995.

February 18, 1996 the Rev. William Mahoney was called as Rector to St. John's. On May 21, 1997 Father Mahoney announced his resignation. The Rev. William Small was named regular Supply Priest.

In August of 1997, The Rev. Robert K Dixon was named Priest-in-Charge. He remains with St. John's church today. Although Fr. Dixon is faced with a small, but dedicated congregation, the parishioners of St. John's church are deeply grateful for Father Dixon's guidance, spiritual leadership, and friendship. He led the parish out of a depression of sorts and into the new millennium with quiet strength and resolve. We will be forever grateful that Fr. Dixon was sent to us.

In the closing words of Father Pratt: Thus this historical sketch comes to a close. The history of St. John's Church is one that moves with the tides of history and fortune associated with the City of Cohoes and which often reflects the cyclical nature of all human history. Through good times and bad, this parish has remained a faithful witness to the gracious goodness of our loving God and Father and to the power of the Risen Christ.


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St. John's Episcopal Church of Cohoes
405 Vliet Blvd.
Cohoes, NY 12047

Phone: (518) 237-6013 * Fax: (518) 235-4311

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