First Baptist Church got start in schoolhouse 200 years ago

Published Jan 1, 2017 at 9:00am

BY CHIP HALEY

Rome Through Our Past

In a schoolhouse in Wright Settlement, 17 people from different Baptist churches in the Rome area met and founded the Baptist Society 200 years ago this year.

From that Oct. 23, 1817, meeting in a school house — where most of the early services were held, in what is now part of the Did Jones Garage on Pennystreet Road — the congregation grew to become today’s First Baptist Church, located at 301 W. Embargo St. The staff and congregation will celebrate the historic church’s 200th birthday this year, with special events set for the weekend of Oct. 13-15.

Elder Dyer Starks was the first pastor. Among subsequent pastors was Elder David Bellamy, father of Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance. A stained-glass window, which hangs in the church’s foyer, features the original words of the Pledge, in Bellamy’s handwriting.

The church congregation first built a church at 119 Stanwix Street, laying the cornerstone on Sept. 13, 1826, and holding services there for more than 40 years. It was the church where Bellamy was baptized. The building was later converted into a multi-family home.

On Sept. 13, 1872 — 46 years later — “the cornerstone of the present fine structure, on the corner of George and Embargo streets, was laid,” according to the History of Oneida County, New York.

The cornerstone of the old church served as part of the new church’s foundation, according to a story in the Daily Sentinel. The land was purchased for $4,000 from a Mrs. Hayden. The building was designed by architect Archimedes Russell of Syracuse, and the construction contract was awarded to W. R. Williams of Oneida for $34,300.

According to one report, in documents at the Rome Historical Society, the church fell short of funds to build a steeple, so the northeast tower was simply capped off. Dr. H.H. Peabody was the pastor, and he continued to serve for 34 years. The Collegiate Gothic structure is built of Potsdam red sandstone, and its main room can seat 700 people. Membership in 1878 stood at about 330.

In 1907, John S. Haselton — who founded Rome Iron Works and Rome Manufacturing — donated a set of beautiful chimes to the church, in memory of his mother Myra. The chimes were used to herald special events, including the signing of the Armistice which ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. The bells include a large tenor bell, which weighs 3,000 pounds, and nine smaller bells ranging in weight from 300 to 2,000 pounds. They were made by the Meneely Bell Co. of Troy. They were installed by Edward L. Kehn of Troy, who also installed the fire alarm bell in old City Hall.

By 1917, the church’s membership had grown to 516. During the 1920s, the church was remodeled, a house next door was purchased for use as a parsonage, and a new educational building was erected. In 1957, the parsonage was razed and replaced with a parking lot.

According to church board member Doug Arthur, church officials and its congregation are now working hard to maintain the historic church.

“There is a multi-phase plan” to renovate the church, and its bell tower, Arthur reported. “These renovations include repointing the Potsdam sandstone blocks, roof repairs and assorted cosmetic fixes. As you can imagine, the price tag for this work is significant and the church is actively searching for a grant writer to assist us in raising funds. Although we’re looking at $600,000 - $700,000 for this phased renovation, our contractor, Lupini Construction out of Utica, would put the figure closer to $1.2 million should we attack everything that needs doing all at once.

“As a small membership we’ve already raised over $150,000 (my estimate) to do what has already been completed.”

As for the bell tower, “We’ve already done structural renovations to the interior structure for support and have also had all the bell supports replaced. The bells ... are in excellent condition and can be rung at any time.”

A representative from a national carillon society, “told us we have the largest set of chimes in the city. We currently only have two people who play them occasionally — myself included,” Arthur said. “We hope to renovate the carillon mechanism as part of a future upgrade but the current system functions as originally intended.”

While the future of the historic building seems secure, the future of its congregation is uncertain. “Like every other church” in Rome, “we’ve taken a big hit in membership this century. I recall the church being filled every Sunday when I was a kid, balcony and main floor. Not so much anymore. We reported a membership of 208 on last year’s report to our regional office. Practically speaking, we probably get 100 in the pews on a good Sunday.”

This column was compiled for the Rome Historical Society by Chip Twellman Haley, retired Daily Sentinel news editor. Comments, old photos, suggestions for future columns or guest columns may be emailed to: chiphaley@yahoo.com. Copies of the book “Rome Through Our History,” a collection of some of Haley’s columns, may be purchased at the Rome Historical Society.

The Rome Historical Society, 200 Church St., is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Go online at www.romehistoricalsociety.org, visit their Facebook page, or call 336-5870 for more information.