Historic Whitesboro Presbyterian Church to shut down
WHITESBORO — After more than 200 years of service, the historic Whitesboro Presbyterian Church is closing its doors at the end of April. Church leaders cite an aging congregation, a lack of engagement and dwindling funds as the reasons why the church is closing. Its final service will be on Sunday, April 30 at 1 Elm St. in Whitesboro.
Rev. Victor McKusick joined the church as interim pastor in 2016, with the intention that this would be a short-term commitment and the church would hold a formal search for a new pastor.
“At a session meeting in 2016, an elder came in and started the meeting by saying, ‘I move that we close in three years,’’ McKusick said. “Everybody stopped, and I stopped, and said, ‘Oh.’”
The church elders determined that they only had enough funding to stay afloat for the next three years and could not afford to hire a full-time pastor, so the search was ended.
“The same people who had been doing everything for a long time were tired. Even our leadership, you would go off for a year and come back on, or you would bounce between our boards, between the deacon and the session,” McKusick said. “It was evident we were getting elderly as far as the people. I think this is a very common story throughout the mainline churches these days.”
The congregation held two meetings in 2017 and 2018. One was for telling stories and sharing memories of the church, and the second was to consider options to save the church.
Employees took pay cuts and McKusick went to part time, which cut the budget considerably and allowed the church to stay open for a little longer.
In 2020, the session began talking about closing again. They determined that they had two options — leaving the building behind or nesting with other churches.
“We did talk briefly about, could we leave the building behind?” McKusick said. “The response to that was a unanimous and a very strong no. Even if we’re closing, we are here.”
However, it became clear that the only path was to close. In July 2021, the session had a conversation about closing, and the church board made the recommendation to the congregation to close.
On Sept. 12, 2021, the congregational meeting voted to close the church.
“We just had some folks that were adamant that, ‘I don’t care what they do, I don’t want to be the yes vote to say that we’re going to close, and for that reason I’m voting no.’ And then we had two people that were just going to fight this, you know, ‘No, you can’t just close a church. It’s been here forever and will be here forever,’” McKusick said.
McKusick said the best way to sum the whole voting and closing process up is a remark a session member made at a meeting: “I really don’t want to do this, but we have to do this. We have no choice in the matter.”
Sue Lorraine has served as the church secretary and informal historian since 1997.
The church’s origins reach back to 1786, when a group of settlers gathered with the intent to form a worship group, Lorraine said. By 1791, the group asked the Presbyterian Church (USA) to form a congregation.
Lorraine said that in either 1791 or 1793 — there are differing reports — that the church was officially established. The first pastor, the Rev. Bethuel Dodd, was installed in 1794. The building was constructed in 1803.
“Every street has a Presbyterian church, right?” Lorraine said. “This is the first one west of Albany, after the revolution was won and everyone’s coming from New England to settle in, this is the very first one. And it’s been meeting here since then.”
“It’s been here since the beginning, and all kinds of events — abolition, revivals, they all almost begin here,” she added.
The church has records like a marriage register book from 1799 and a hand-written manuscript that the pastor at the time began writing in 1813, where he interviewed all the residents of the town of Whitestown about their spiritual life.
Lorraine said these historical documents will be preserved.
“It’s not just any old church. It really has a significant impact,” she said.
The church had close ties with the Oneida Institute, a school that was at the forefront of the abolitionist movement in New York. It was one of the first colleges in the United States to enroll Black and white students on an equal basis.
There was a fire at the building in 1979, which heavily damaged the building. There is a stained-glass window in the church to commemorate the fire and the following renovations and rebuilding.
“It was just rubble, up to the windows. It was rubble up to the arches. Just all of it came down,” Lorraine said.
Members of the Whitesboro community came together to support the rebuilding of the church.
“For me, there’s something warm and welcoming about this sanctuary,” McKusick said. “I tell this story about my wife, she’ll pop in the door whenever we come in, and she’ll say, ‘Hello, Whitesboro.’”
The building is held in trust for the presbytery, so after the church closes, the building will be turned over to the presbytery. The presbytery will decide what to do next.
The session has made it clear that in the process of closing the church, they need to do it with intention and integrity and are working hard to close it properly.
The April 30 service will be the last activity in the building for the congregation. After that, there will be a final cleaning, so that the church can get its affairs in order.
“Things that are never cleaned out in a church, we’re cleaning it out,” Lorraine said.
The church has filed a petition with the New York court to officially close, which McKusick anticipated will be signed in the middle of June.
Both McKusick and Lorraine are going to miss the people and the tight-knit community that the church has created.
“When I came, I didn’t know anything, I just knew I wanted to be a church secretary. … since day one, they have been forgiving. And church ladies aren’t always forgiving,” Lorraine said. “Since day one, the pastor defended me often, and the people were just forgiving, forgiving, forgiving. And that’s a real class act when people can do that. I’ll probably carry that for a long time.”
“They’ve been tremendously supportive of me as their pastor. I had not experienced that in previous churches as much,” McKusick said. “I had on the 25th anniversary of my ordination, a dinner here, and they presented me with a t-shirt that said, ‘The Sermonator.’ I thought that was incredibly gracious.”
McKusick’s wife is putting together a book of stories that congregation members have written to preserve the church’s memory.
“We’re going out with a sense of sadness and a sense of grief, and yet I feel like we’ve celebrated the history,” McKusick said. “It just feels like we’ve done this the right way.”
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