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Historic congregation reaches its community

Sometimes strong faith arrives via a "wake-up call."

Just ask Robert Bellingham, intermin pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lewiston.

Born to Christian parents, he said that didn't prevent him from going his own way at times.

"My closest friend and I had some escapades in our lives, but the one I think that woke us up was when we were coming back from Buffalo early one morning, and he fell asleep at the wheel. We hit a pole, and both of us were shocked out of our wits.

"My full commitment to Jesus Christ came shortly after that."

That turned out to be fortunate for the church at 505 Cayuga St., which will celebrate 195 years next year. The church was started by five people in 1817, the year construction of the Erie Canal began -- making it the oldest Presbyterian church in the county.

The Old Stone Church, as congregants call it, will benefit from a dinner and basket raffle 5:30 p.m. May 21, with a performance of the Blackwood Gospel Quartet in the original church. Proceeds will go to renovating this building. The church, with its distinctive Doric columns and cupola, has experienced many "ups and downs in its history," said Louise Wasko, church administrative assistant.

Until the original building itself was completed, the faithful had services in a church with no roof. In 1844, the church was auctioned off for $100 from the steps of the Frontier House because of lack of funds. It was sold to Benjamin Hewitt, who then resold the building back to the congregation for $1.

Underground Railroad stationmaster Josiah Tryon was a church elder, as was Maj. Benjamin Barton, who built the Barton Hill mansion. In the 1860s, the church's stained-glass windows were added at a cost of $1,000.

Today, as in the past, First Presbyterian's congregants are "are devoted and wonderfully loving," Bellingham said. The church helped develop, and houses, the HART (Home Assistance Referral Team) Program, that matches local people in need of help at home, with those able to help -- in everything from yard work to nursing care. At no charge to either client or employee, a service provided to the community entirely through donations.

"We're a church dedicated to the community," Bellingham said.

But its work does not stop in Lewiston. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, funds were collected, and a garage sale was held at the church, which raised nearly $3,000 for relief efforts. "And a group went to Louisiana to help," Wasko said. When a tsunami hit southeast Asia the previous year, "many church members got permission from the Village Board to collect money on Center Street, to send to the Red Cross and Presbyterian Disaster Fund," Wasko said.

Last Christmas, the church, with more than 210 members, put on a Christmas play, opening it up to all children in the community who wanted to participate.

Church services are at 11 Sunday mornings, with Sunday school for all ages at 9:45. On Tuesday evenings, there's a dinner at 6, followed by Bible study. The choir practices at 7 Thursday evenings and welcomes those who enjoy singing to join.

And there's a nursery school.

"We are rebuilding," Tasko said, "and looking forward to what God has in store for us in the future."

For more information on the dinner and the Blackwood Gospel Quartet performance, call 745-4945.

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Have an idea for Religion News? Write to Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240 or e-mail her at lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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