By Brad Hahn
In the 21st century, many churches have struggled to find their place in the community. First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo, Buffalo’s oldest Christian congregation, is a model for churches seeking to find their way.
The story of First Presbyterian parallels the story of the City of Buffalo as a whole. Established in 1812, First Presbyterian grew rapidly as Buffalo prospered with the opening of the Erie Canal and the industrial boom that followed. Originally located downtown at Main and Church streets, the church’s founding members watched as Buffalo evolved from a frontier outpost to a thriving city.
The congregation moved to its present location in the 1890s, commissioning well-known local architect E.B. Green to design the landmark building. The church’s impact reached far beyond its doors, as the congregation supported an array of local and international mission projects. But just as the City of Buffalo saw declining population in the latter half of the 20th century, First Presbyterian saw declining membership rolls.
Now, as Buffalo experiences a renaissance, so too does First Presbyterian. Stepping into the historic building on Symphony Circle, one finds a place that is alive and buzzing with energy. The students of Houghton College’s Buffalo satellite campus bring a multicultural atmosphere. Community members visit to browse the Serendipity Shoppe, which benefits those living with HIV/AIDS. Church members provide literacy tutoring on weekday afternoons.
Community groups from Garden Walk Buffalo to the Kleinhans Community Association use the building for meetings and events. Thursday afternoons brings Native Offerings Farm’s share pickup to the narthex and courtyard. And worship remains at the heart of the building, with Sunday morning services in the magnificent sanctuary that once hosted Theodore Roosevelt. Village Church also calls the building home for its worship services and programs.
Since 2014, First Presbyterian has been home to Explore Buffalo’s office and education programs, as well as a starting point for several of our tours. The historic sanctuary, with its Tiffany stained glass windows and chandeliers, is the setting for Explore Buffalo’s speaker series. There could be no better place to learn about Buffalo’s history and architecture.
By sharing the tremendous asset that is their historic and architecturally significant building, First Presbyterian’s congregation has transformed the building into a critical hub for community engagement. They have also helped to ensure the future viability of the building, and their optimism is further reflected by the church calling its first installed pastor in a decade, the Rev. Dr. Ken Hughes.
Explore Buffalo has proudly presented First Presbyterian Church with its Partner of the Year award, in recognition of the support First Presbyterian has provided Explore Buffalo and the church’s role in the community. First Presbyterian’s congregation deserves to be commended for their work to continue the inspiring and incredible story of this Buffalo landmark.
Brad Hahn is executive director of Explore Buffalo.