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'First Church' book that survived 1813 burning of Buffalo goes on display

The frayed book of handwritten notes looks good for its age not to mention it survived the fire that destroyed the Village of Buffalo in 1813.

The book, which contains the minutes of the church's ruling body, documents First Presbyterian Church as the oldest congregation in the city. It has been stored in a fireproof vault and wrapped in protective acid-free paper.

The book's last public appearance at the church on Symphony Circle was in 2012 for its bicentennial.

But the book will be put on display for all to see after the 11 a.m. service Sunday, said the Rev. Elena Delgado. The public is welcome.

"The book tells a story of courage," Delgado said.

She mentioned the book and its significance during a recent sermon.

"I asked the parishioners, 'How many of you are familiar with it?' " she said. "A few raised their hands. When I asked how many would like to see it, all hands went up."

Delgado, who serves as interim pastor, practices a specialized area of ministry that helps a congregation receive a new pastor. She was called in after the death of interim pastor the Rev. Philip S. Gittings in February 2016.

"I wanted to affirm the history of this congregation as it moves into a new time with a new pastor sometime after the first of this year," Delgado said.

This book documents First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo as the oldest congregation of any denomination in the city. It contains minutes kept by clerk Amos Callendar of meetings of the church Session, the church's ruling body. Callender put it in a pillowcase and fled to Batavia during the War of 1812. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The church was formed in February 1812 when Buffalo was a frontier village of 500 residents living in primitive homes connected by dirt roads and surrounded by dense forest, pastor Walter Clarke wrote in "The First Church in Buffalo" in 1862.

Clarke described the early settlers as "not religiously inclined" and "leading a rude, eager frontier life."

"In a community where laws and schools and customs were yet to be established, it is not strange that the people were unscrupulous and careless and gross," Clarke wrote.

Four months after the church was organized, war was declared on Great Britain, said Christina Banas, business manager and unofficial church historian.

Banas credited Amos Callendar, a founding parishioner who arrived in Buffalo around 1807, with saving the Session minutes book from the fire that British soldiers started, destroying the village on Dec. 30-31.

"He carried the book on horseback 43 miles to Batavia," Banas said. "Parishioners reassembled in Buffalo, but it wasn't until 1823 that we built our first building for $874 at Shelton Square."

Shelton Square was on the northwest corner of Main and Church streets.

Today the session minutes book not only ensures the congregation's place in Buffalo's history — it reflects a congregation determined to survive. That challenge continues today, church officials said.

First Presbyterian Church, designed by architects Edward Brodhead Green and William Sydney Wicks, is reflected in the pool outside Kleinhans Music Hall. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Of primary concern is the building where the first service was conducted in December 1891. The Romanesque style church was designed by architects Edward Brodhead Green and William Sydney Wicks. The church was dedicated in 1897, when its 163-foot tower made of Medina sandstone was completed. The congregation will mark its 206th anniversary in February.

When a stone fell from the sandstone tower in 2005, it started a series of emergency repairs to stabilize the structure, said Banas.

"Our ministry was definitely sidetracked by the building for about a decade," said Banas. "Phil Gittings got it under control between 2010 and 2016."

First Presbyterian merged with Central Presbyterian Church at Main and Jewett Parkway in 2007, said Banas.

Plans were made to bolster the church's finances through a community outreach effort that included leasing out space in the sprawling church complex.

"We partnered with Westside Ministries, which is now 716 Ministries. They brought in significant tenants like Houghton College Buffalo and Village Church, a non-denominational church," said Banas. "It's not just the income from the leasing the space, it's the capital improvements they made to that space. For example, Village Church installed an ADA-compliant restroom."

Currently leasing space are: Explore Buffalo, Native Offering Crop Share and F-Bites, an organization that teaches culinary skills to elementary school students.

A $328,400 grant from the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will help pay for the reconstruction of the tower planned for spring 2018. The balance of the $437,920 cost was funded through donations.

Replacing the church’s slate roof is the next concern, Banas said.

"We are in our third sanctuary, and we have continued a ministry that started with the building of Welcome Hall on Seneca Street in 1897  to help newly arrived immigrants," said Banas. "Even if it took time, we have always embraced change."




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