First Presbyterian Church repairs expected to open a new chapter of community service

Chester. The congregation wants the 165-year-old church to better serve the community as a whole and not just its members, in accordance with the church's long tradition, and to more fully welcome people with disabilities to religious and secular activities.

19 Feb 2020 | 02:01

The First Presbyterian Church in Chester recently received a Sacred Sites grant that will aid its multi-year capital campaign to repair and update the church and its Christian Education building.

“Unfortunately, our 165-year-old church is starting to show its wear and tear,” said Pastor Erin Moore. "Along with it, our 52-year-old Christian Education building is becoming more and more limiting as it is not fully ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. This has made the need for a capital campaign very necessary.”

The total cost will be around $200,000.

The pastor and congregation hope they will be able to better serve the community and more fully welcome people with disabilities to religious and secular activities alike.

The church board has identified several priorities:

● Make buildings more energy efficient and more ADA compliant by providing two lifts (one down to the food pantry and the second from the upper level of the education building down into the dining area)

● Replace the roof

● Repair aging steps and improve the parking lot, including designated handicap parking areas

● Upgrade the bathrooms to handicap accessibility, and upgrade the heating system in the Christian Education building to be more efficient, with a view to the future, when the aging 1967 boiler will need to be replaced

● Upgrade the floors and lights in the sanctuary.

● Re-side the sanctuary and community room and insulate the walls (the two buildings have minimal to no insulation)

A historic house of worship

The historic First Presbyterian Church of Chester was built in 1854 and is the third building raised by the congregation since its founding in 1798, when they constructed the very first house of worship built in Chester. That first building is believed to have been across from what would later become known as Durland’s corner, home to Durland’s store, now known as Chester Square Antiques at the corner of Carpenter Avenue and Main Street. The second church building, dedicated in 1829, was located on the site of the Chester cemetery.

From its earliest days, the church has focused on the community, seeking ways to better serve not just its membership, but the community as a whole.

The congregation allowed its very first building, a rough log cabin, to be used for community meetings and gatherings and allowed other Christian denominations to meet and worship there. The present church extended an invitation to the Catholic community to use its building for services after fire destroyed St. Columba’s Roman Catholic Church in February 1946.

Members of the congregation aided in the Underground Railroad as it came through Chester. A former parsonage, at 15 High Street, was a sanctuary for runaway slaves during the time of the Rev. James Washington Wood.

For many years, the church ran a nursery school and today charters the local Boy Scout group.

Although a smaller congregation now, members continue to practice their faith and serve the community. For decades, the church has housed and run a food pantry for all those in need. A new community garden was added to allow citizens to grow their own food.

A number of local groups regularly meet on church premises, including the Kiwanis Club, which has met there for years.

Three years ago, Pastor Moore said, the church welcomed a new Narcotics Anonymous group, which "became the fastest-growing group in Orange County, to the point they have now split into two different meetings in our space. Along with this, last year we welcomed a Nar-Anon group who lost their meeting space.”

Pastor Moore has helped plan and participated in community events including Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, and has spoken eloquently at the annual 9/11 Remembrance and other prayer vigils after major tragedies in our country.

The church has until October 2020 to raise $6,000 to receive a matching grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy Sacred Sites Grant for specific items. Additional funds will go toward other items.

Those who wish to contribute to the preservation and upkeep of this historic and community-minded church can send a check to First Presbyterian Church, 94-96 Main St., Chester, NY 10918. Write “Capital Campaign” on the memo line.

From the written history:
"In 1797 a little log church was erected a little to the rear of Dr. Carpenter's present spacious residence, a part of the lot was also used as a cemetery.” –“Chester Presbyterian Church Centennial.” The Weekly News, Vol. X, No. 48, Thursday, June 2, 1898, Chester, Orange County.
“The late Harry C. Bull of Goshen is the authority for the statement that the (Underground Railroad) station in Chester was the Presbyterian parsonage, and the stationmaster was the Reverend James W. Wood. Reverend Wood lived on High Street.”
“Because the Erie Railroad was one of the main escape routes in the network of the Underground Railroad, and because Mr. A.S. Murray of Goshen, a director of the Erie Railroad, was a strong abolitionist who provided passes for fugitives, a fugitive reaching Chester was given a ticket on the railroad and speeded on his way toward Canada. If for any reason a pass was not available, the fugitive could be put on Conductor Willet's train and no pass or ticket would be asked for. Mr. Willet was known as "Old Skaneatles, the red hot abolitionist." The Erie Railroad was one route north from Chester." – Predmore, Helen R. Chester Presbyterian Church: A History 1799-1965, Library Research Associates, 1975.