Standing At The Crossroads for Christ
Imagine sitting in your pew on a Sunday with the cool morning breeze bringing in the sounds from outside. But, instead of hearing the car and truck traffic on the Avenue, what you hear are horses shuffling at the hitching posts, horse-drawn carriages going down a dirt road, and the soft tread of people’s feet as they pass by. The early congregations of The First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell did hear and see such things. Our Church and the town of Caldwell have a past that is rich in history.
The first step towards organizing a congregation in Horse-Neck was taken under the leadership of Rev. James Caldwell. On July 17, 1779, a tract of land lying in what is now the center of the Borough of Caldwell, was given to the First Presbyterian Church in Horse-Neck “for the purpose of erecting a proper building and buildings for the support and conveniency of the public worship of Almighty God, and for the support and comfort of such minister of the Gospel of the Presbyterian denomination…and also for the use of a place for burial for said Congregation and Inhabitants.”
The building of a meeting house began in 1782, but due to the Revolutionary War, they had difficulty getting labor and material, so the meeting house was not completed until the close of 1786. The Old Parsonage, as the building was called, was located near the present site of St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church, and had living quarters for the minister on the first floor and one large room on the second floor that was used as the sanctuary. Then, in February of 1787, the church at Horse-Neck took advantage of a law passed by the state legislature and became a corporate body under the name The First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell.
For nearly three and a half years, the congregation had gone on without installing a regularly called minister. On July 23, 1788, Rev. Stephen Grover was duly ordained and installed as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. The church membership was growing and it reached the point where the upper floor of the parsonage was too small to hold Sunday meetings. So, by the summer of 1792, forty of the best carpenters in the parish were employed and a plan was adopted to build a wooden Meeting House on the site of today’s church. The area was surrounded by a wooden fence with turnstiles built in to keep cows and horses off the church lawn. There was also a stable and hitching posts for the parishioners’ horses and buggies. The congregation held its first services in the new building on April 6, 1796.
The church had several pastors during those early years. One of the most notable was the Rev. Richard F. Cleveland, who was installed as pastor for the church in May 1834 and was given the use of the Parsonage House and four hundred and fifty dollars a year as salary. Rev. Cleveland had a landmark in history not only as Pastor of this historic church – on March 18, 1837, in the little back bedroom of the parsonage, he had a son, named Stephen Grover, in honor of the first Pastor of the Church. In later years, he dropped the “Stephen” from his name and as Grover Cleveland, became the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. The church continued to flourish during this time, and in the spring of 1837, was blessed once again when seventy five new members were received into fellowship.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1872, the congregation met in the old church for their Thanksgiving service. Little did they realize they were holding a farewell service for the old sanctuary. The next night, November 29, 1872 – the cry of “fire” swept through the village. By the time people arrived with their buckets to help, the church was engulfed in flames and they could do nothing to save it. The congregation tried to console themselves by saying it was providence, because they had needed to build a larger sanctuary for the growing congregation. Church services were held upstairs in the Masonic Lodge until a temporary chapel was built.
At the annual meeting held on Januray 1, 1873, the congregation decided that a large, substantial stone structure should be erected to replace the burned church. The funds were raised, and construction began – and the new church was completed and in use by the summer of 1876
First Presbyterian continued to grow, and the need for larger and better accomodations for the Sunday School and recreational facilities could no longer be postponed. In April of 1922, the Board of Trustees approved the building of a Parish House in order to better accomodate the needs of the people. The growing Sunday School would hold classes there, and recreational facilities for all parish organizations would be provided.
In 1958, another major construction project was undertaken, when the Parish House was torn down, and a new Christian Education wing was built. The new building provided facilities for a growing congregation and staff.
The First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell is still today a focal point in the community of Caldwell – much as it was 225 years ago. We work continually to keep the building up to date and in good repair, so that we can stand at the crossroads for Christ in the years to come.