Our congregation first met on September 8, 1818, when group of five men and eleven women met in a barn on the farm of Captain John Diven, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. As the largest building in the neighborhood, it was the perfect place to organize a new church society. Known as the First Presbyterian Church of Reading, the first church services saw thirteen of the charter members' children baptized.
The area was sparsely populated, and over the next 15 years services were held irregularly in the homes of its members, the school house, and the barn where it was organized. The pioneer church had ten different ministers over this short time.
The first church building was constructed in 1833 in Savoy, now North Monroe Street between Cross and Partition. The building was sold to the Catholic Society in 1847, when a larger structure was completed at the corner of Fifth and Decatur. The tower in this new building contained the first bell ever to have rung in the Village of Jefferson (as Watkins Glen was then named). On September 28, 1847, the first regular pastor of the church was installed at this location.
Two additional pastors took over the ministry there before construction began on the current structure. Surprisingly, the building exists today due to the beneficence of a single person. In 1867, the Honorable John Magee purchased the property upon which the church now stands, and also provided sufficient funds to build the entire structure.
The cornerstone was laid on April 11, 1867, and construction was completed in time for dedication services on May 14, 1868. Sadly, the first regular service to be held in the new building was the funeral of our benefactor, Mr. Magee, who passed away the previous month.
That same year the former church building was moved across the village and used as the public school house until it burned in 1898.
The Manse was built in its place in 1874.
Our centennial celebration was observed over the weekend of September 7-8, 1918. The church interior had been remodeled and redecorated in anticipation of the event, and our beautiful pipe organ was installed for the occasion. The two day celebration included a recital by the organist of Cornell University, along with multiple worship services and a community supper. In fact, according to an article in The Watkins Express:
"It is impossible in making only running notes of these days and evenings doings to enter into details, much as one is tempted to do by the great interest pertaining to all and everything connected with this event..."
The festivities were so well attended that, from the same article, "just such a reunion can never in this generation be expected again."
During the 29-year pastorate of Rev. William J. Cartmell, our building expanded to better serve our community. A former lecture hall was divided into several rooms, including a small chapel, kindergarten, and hallway with space for choir robes and music storage. The cellar was also deepened to create the Fellowship Hall and kitchen, and the upstairs gymnasium was restored for youth activities.
The sanctuary and pipe organ also received additional updates under Rev. Cartmell. The church parlor was planned and furnished, and a lighted outdoor bulletin board was placed near the southwest corner of the building.
In 1965, new windows were installed in the sanctuary, as well as the rest of the church. Ten windows flank the nave, depicting Biblical scenes. Additional windows which portray the Ascension were later placed above the balcony in memory of Warren W. Clute. Smaller windows were also inserted on either side of our main entrance to honor veterans of our music ministries: one showing a set of organ pipes and the other representing Cecilia, patron saint of music.
The Manse was redecorated in 1961, and its garage was built a short while later. Throughout the summer of 1968, the interior of the United Presbyterian Church (as we were then named) was renovated and refurbished again, from the flooring to the pews to the walls themselves. The congregation's 150th anniversary was celebrated on October 20, 1968.
Subsequent years brought extensive improvements to the church property. The steeple was repaired in 1998. Restroom facilities were expanded in 2000. A new church sign was erected at the corner of the building. The Allen Room was redecorated and refurnished in 1998, and a new Church Library was added to it in 1999. The sanctuary was revitalized again in 2004; and the Manse underwent many repairs and improvements as well.
One particularly noteworthy addition during this time frame still graces Fifth Street, directly across from Lafayette Park. In 2003, the Labyrinth and Memorial Garden were constructed for the mindful participation of the congregation and our greater community. Dedication services were performed in May of that year.
As we continue to maintain, repair and refurbish our beautiful Romanesque building, of course, we are ever mindful of the fact that the true Church is the body of believers, and not just a piece of architecture. Our greatest investment, therefore, has always been in our spiritual and charitable programs.
The ordination of our own church member, the Rev. Gail W. Harkness in 1964, was therefore a particularly rewarding event. The 1970s brought a county-wide awakening of charitable activity under the newly-formed Schuyler County Council of Churches. Hospice Care and grief support groups were formed before these resources were available outside the church. Our own youth program was expanded, and included mission trips to help improve living conditions in Wilder, Tennessee and again locally after Hurricane Agnes flooded the town of Elmira.
Our scholarship program, established in 2000, still offers stipends to those college students who are active in the church. Our many generations of Presbyterian Women remain project oriented, with dinners, bake sales and the joyous recognition of our annual "Women of Faith." Our children's program incorporates learning with drama and choir, culminating in fun and inspiring performances on our annual Children's Day worship service. Vacation Bible School combines Bible stories, crafts, science activities, music, games and snacks, to provide the children of our church and community with an amazing and delightful program each year.
Seminary interns have enriched our church ministry. Bible Studies and retreats are offered throughout the year. As a part of the Presbytery of Geneva, we are pleased to offer various get-aways to Camp Whitman on Seneca Lake each year. Our deacons help us keep in touch with members and friends of our congregation through cards and care packages.
As we are reminded each Sunday at the end of every worship service, we may have one pastor, but we are all ministers. "The end of worship is the beginning of service."
Much of this information was taken from "A Brief History: United Presbyterian Church of Watkins Glen, N.Y." by Abigail O'Daniels, dtd. October 20, 1968. (Get PDF Reader)
For additional information about the history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, please refer to extensive resources available at "Presbyterian Historical Society: The National Archives of the PC(USA)."
Pastors Through the Years
Sixth & Decatur (1868-Present)
2017 Rev. Cara S. Milne
2016 Rev. Cynthia A. Weaver *
2015 Rev. Nancy Meehan Yao *
1997 Rev. Beverly Karr-Lyon †
1996 Rev. Thomas C. Montgomery *
1987 Rev. W. David Ashby
1985 Rev. William R. Knox *
1969 Rev. Clark N. McKinney
1939 Rev. William J. Cartmell
1934 Rev. Clayton T. Griswold
1916 Rev. Arthur B. Herr, D.D.
1910 Rev. James Elmer Russell
1905 Rev. Selden L. Haynes
1893 Rev. Louis F. Ruf
1888 Rev. Bryce K. Douglas
1882 Rev. George D. Meigs
1877 Rev. Milton Waldo D.D.
1876 Rev. William Lowrie
1870 Rev. J.S. McNair
* interim pastor
† pastor emeritus
Fifth & Decatur (1847-1868)
1860 Rev. Franklin S. Howe
1855 Rev. Benjamin Russell
1847 Rev. S.B. Shearer
The Savoy Site (1833-1847)
1843 Rev. Samuel Stryker
1838 Rev. Samuel Scott
1836 Rev. Royal West
1835 Rev. Egbert Roosa
The Diven Barn (1818-1833)
1832 Rev. Charles Goodrich
1831 Rev. David Harrower
1829 Rev. Richard Williams
1826 Rev. Jabez Chadwick
1826 Rev. Samuel White
1825 Rev. Henry Ford
1822 Rev. Joseph Crawford
1821 Rev. Lyman Barrett
1818 Rev. Samuel Parker
1818 Rev. David Higgins