As the Rome celebrates the holidays, members of its churches dress up their buildings in their finest, with wreaths and other greenery, lights and candles and other beautiful decorations. It is a tradition which makes residents appreciate their churches, especially the older, historic ones.
The First United Methodist Church, at 400 N. George St., is one of several local structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building will be 150 years old in 2019. The Rev. Brian Lothridge, pastor, said the church will celebrate that milestone next year.
Among the church’s famous members were Welthy Honsinger Fisher, a literacy advocate who taught in China and India and who knew Mahatma Ghandi; and Oliver Beale Pierce, an author, teacher, abolitionist and inventor.
The church and its members have weathered some difficult times over the years, including a small fire in 1894, and a steeple fire in 1990.
More information about the church, from the files of the Rome Historical Society: The congregation got its start in the 1790s, with preachers who rode horseback from one town to another. In 1799, the first “class” or society was organized. Members of the congregation met first at Ridge Mills, then in a school room at James and Dominick streets, and finally in 1819 in the Court House. That was the same year that the Village of Rome was incorporated, with a population of about 300.
In 1829, they dedicated their first church on the corner of East Court and Church streets. Membership stood at about 107. It was the first Methodist church in the country to have a steeple. There was some disagreement over that steeple, according to a Rome Sentinel story:
“Because of a controversy as to whether the proposed edifice should or should not have a steeple, action was delayed for some time,” the newspaper reported. “Advocates of both sides had their say, but finally those favoring the steeple won out.”
The steeple was described “by a contemporary as a ‘very plain Methodistic steeple, quite lacking the architectural ornamentation of that on the neighboring Presbyterian Church.’ The upper story of the steeple was damaged by fire when the Court House was burned some years later, and had to be taken down.”
The church served the congregation for 40 years. As membership grew, plans were made for a new church at George and Embargo streets, designed by architect Marcus Fayette Cummings, a Utica native who worked in Troy. Cummings designed
several buildings in Troy, including the City Hall, the Rensselaer County Court House and the Troy Club.
Construction on the new brick church started in 1868, and the Romanesque-style building was dedicated on Sept. 24, 1869, by D. Jesse Peck, the founder of Syracuse University. The construction cost was $44,500.
The “mother church” is Wesley Chapel in London. The new church included a replica of the Wesley baptismal altar in England, which was built by Charles H. Golly. By this time, church membership stood at 279.
By 1899, when the church celebrated its 100th anniversary, membership had grown to 600 members.
The congregation continued to grow for many years, reaching more than 1,600 by the 1940s.
In 1988, the 1941-vintage organ at the church was dismantled and completely rebuilt, at a cost of $110,000, by the Carey Organ Co. of Troy.
In 2004, the former church parsonage at 404 N. George St. was demolished, as part of a church expansion. The parsonage had been built in 1905, at a cost of $5,000. The expansion included a new two-story section at the rear of the building on Brush Avenue.
Several pastors have served the church, including The Rev. Carlton G. Van Ornum, who retired in 1985 after 13 years of service.
In 2010, the church -- then with a congregation of about 600 -- was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The register is the nation’s official list of properties worthy of historic preservation. Listings are recognized for their importance to the history of the country, and are provided a measure of protection. Properties like the church, which are owned by non-profits, are eligible to apply for state historic preservation matching grants.
Lothridge said about 80 people now attend Sunday services at the church, although the number of church members is much larger.
This column was written 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 3p.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 315 336-5870 for more information.