Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Central Norristown Report

(another church report, this time on a congregation located in Norristown, an old river town in Metropolitan Philadelphia-pb)

Like many Presbyterian churches, Norristown Central Presbyterian Church was born in the wake of the Old School/New School Presbyterian controversy 1837. This controversy was born out of decades of polity and theological disputes within the growing denomination, particularly over the role of 1801 Plan of Union between Presbyterian and Congregational denominations and the issue of slavery. Being the center of northern Presbyterianism, the metropolitan Philadelphia region featured a number of church splits. This was the case in Norristown, Pennsylvania, which was the growing county seat of Montgomery County, just to the west of the city of Philadelphia. The First Presbyterian Church of Norristown, which was founded in 1819, had elected to join the New School Presbyterians in 1838. In 1855 a new pastor assumed the pulpit at First Norristown, and convinced the majority of the session to join the Old School Presbyterians, a move that alienated a number of congregation members, who promptly left the congregation.

These members formed Norristown Central Presbyterian Church, which formed in August 1855 at Hill Hall, which was located at the corner of Swede and Airy Street in the shadow of the County Courthouse. Like many New School Presbyterian churches, the congregation refused to adopt a pew rental system, and instead sought pledges from the congregation. This caused some discussion among congregation members, which are dutifully captured in the session minutes. This early dissent notwithstanding, the congregation was incorporated two months later on October 15, 1855, and the congregation called its first pastor Daniel Mallery (1856-1862). Under Mallery’s tenure the church’s first sanctuary was built in 1862 on the north side of Main Street between Cherry and Swede Streets at a cost of $16,000 (the equivalent of $341,155 in 2009 dollars).

Following Mallery’s departure in 1862 to serve as a chaplain in the Union Army during the American Civil War, Robert Adair (1862-1865) assumed the pastorate as the church began worship in its new sanctuary. Over the next forty years the congregation grew at the downtown location, due in party to a series of revivals conducted between 1871 and 1875 under the leadership of Pastor Henry Ford (1866-1875). Under the next three pastors (William Jenks, 1875-1881, Joseph McCaskie, 1882-1886, and Lincoln Litch 1886-1891) the congregation continued to grow, as Norristown’s population continued to grow. With the arrival of James Hunter as pastor in 1892, the congregation began to actively considering moving to the western portion of Norristown, which was growing rapidly. With the encouragement of First Norristown, the congregation selected a site at the intersection of Airy and Stanbridge Streets in January 1899. A chapel was built in 1901 on the present-day site of the church, and the congregation decided to sell the current sanctuary at a congregational meeting in March 1902. Inaugural services were held in the new chapel on November 16, 1902, and led by the pastors of both First and Central Presbyterian churches.

The new sanctuary was elegantly constructed in the English gothic style. The stain-glass windows were also constructed in gothic style, and were designed by Nicholas D’Ascenzo, who was a master glassmaker based in Philadelphia. D’Ascenzo and his studio also designed stain glass windows for the National Cathedral in Washington DC and Riverside Church in New York City. The most windows on the east side of the sanctuary are called the “Gospel Windows”, and reflect the Christ’s ministries; while the windows on the west side of the church are commonly referred to as the “Law Windows” and display scenes from the Old Testament.

Map 1: Downtown Norristown

Following the movement of the congregation to a new site and the retirement of Pastor Hunter in 1902, the congregation entered a period of transition during the first years of John Crawford’s (1903-1936) tenure as pastor. A number of congregants who lived in the downtown area transferred their membership to First Presbyterian, while 87 new members joined Central within two years of Crawford’s arrival. In many was Crawford was a “foundational” pastor for the congregation; he created a number of ministry programs for the church that took strands from the social gospel movement as well as the missionary/organizational movement that swept the Protestantism before the 1914. Under his watch the church building was completed in October 1907, programming for children and summer school began, and financial support for the Norristown Presbyterian Italian Mission began in 1911.

Following Crawford’s retirement in 1936 the congregation continued to grow in membership during the tenures of James Kell (1937-1944) and James Grazier (1945-1959). Under the former the congregation began joint evening services with other Presbyterian churches in Norristown, and with the latter the church built a new educational wing that was completed in 1955, refurbished the main sanctuary in 1957, and reached new heights in membership.

Norristown’s membership numbers began to decline following Grazier’s retirement in 1959, which coincided with the migration of white Protestants from urban centers such as Norristown to newly forming suburban communities. The membership began to decline during the tenure of Joseph MacCarroll (1959-1963), and membership fell from 728 to 509 between 1964 and 1977 during the tenure of MacCaroll’s successor John McConaughy (1963-1977). The western portions of Norristown continued to change during the 1980s, as the white population declined as residents moved to the surrounding suburban communities, and the neighborhoods surrounding Central became increasingly Latino. During Peter Leathersich’s (1980 to 1988) tenure, the congregational membership dropped from 403 to under 200. While the church experienced continued instability in the 1990s, experiencing three short-term pastorates (two of them interim), under the leadership of Frank Amalfitano (1999-2006) the congregation began to increasingly reach out to the growing Latino population, and with funds from the General Assembly, called Pastor Gadiel Gomez-Saravia to serve a new Latino congregation.

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