First Congregational Church and Society of Albany was organized by a band of : “thirteen earnest Congregationalists who had become merged into churches of other denominations in the city. These people, having been used to the larger freedom granted by the Congregational order, and attracted by the possibility of a new church for their faith in this city.” These 13 individuals met on December 15, 1849 at the home of James Burton on Grand Street “for the purpose of founding a new religious society whose form would appeal to those who believed in the simple tenets of faith.”
These thirteen Congregationalists included Anthony Gould, Dr. James McNaughton, Bradford R. Wood, and Rufus H. King, all of whom were prominent citizens of the city.
The cornerstone for the second ediface of First Congregational Church was laid on September 22nd, 1868. On October 14th, 1869, the second church, which "cost about $140,000 ... was dedicated by the pastor and the presentation made by the Honorable Bradford R. Wood" one of the founders of the church and the President of the Board of Trustees. The dedicatory prayer was delivered by Dr. Palmer. The church was described in the leading newspapers as the "finest specimen of Romanesque style of architecture in this city."
In 1900, an inspiring semi-centennial celebration was held in the church to mark its fifty years of continuous service in Albany. Famous men and women had spoken from its pulpit, it had taken a leading part in every forward movement, impressive Forefather’s Day services had been conducted, stimulating overflow meetings held in its lecture rooms, and concerts, plays and pageants presented in the large Sunday School Rooms.
At this celebration, special services honored Dr. Ray Palmer. A tablet in his memory placed on the outside wall of the church on the Jay Street entrance, was unveiled by his daughter, and his son, The Rev. C. R. Palmer gave the dedicatory address. The celebration also featured short addresses by Dr. Smart, Rev. Thrall, Rev. Marvin, A.S. Kibbee, Professor Oscar D. Robinson, Dr. George Gorham, David A. Thompson, and Harlan P. French. Also noteworthy: "The Sunday School Orchestra furnished music for the affair."
Shortly after the turn of the century, the diary of one member indicates individual communion cups were used for the first time in 1903." The use of individual communion cups is a practice that remains in effect to this day at First Congregational Church.
A short time later, the “Ray Palmer Club,” was established in 1905 by David A. Thompson, and included Congregationalists from Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Rensselaer and Saratoga churches “to encourage friendly relations among Congregational members.”
In 1905, the Rev. Chares Hagar was called to be minister of First Congregational Church.
During the late 1890s, the growing industrial and commercial uses in Albany’s downtown were causing residents to migrate out of the downtown and westward toward the suburbs. At this time, the area around New Scotland Avenue was largely undeveloped and often described as “rural.” By the early 1900s, the only notable buildings in the area consisted of an ice house, various sheds, and service structures. However, residents were moving into this area to escape the downtown industrial climate.
When trolley service was again rejected for the area in 1911, the Woodlawn Improvement Association established its own bus route along New Scotland Avenue to improve access into the city center. With the improved access, the Woodlawn neighborhood saw a surge in construction of single and multi-family homes as well as commercial growth along the north side of New Scotland Road (later renamed “New Scotland Avenue”).
During this time, a small non-sectarian Sunday School was being held in the chapel of the Allen Women’s Christian Temperance Union on Seneca Street (near the intersection of Woodlawn and Ontario). In need of assistance, Harry E. Cowles was enlisted to serve as superintendent of the Sunday School. Cowles, a trustee of First Congregational Church, used this as an opportunity to create a connection between the church downtown and the Woodlawn neighborhood.
Meanwhile, concerns with the church building on Beaver and Eagle streets were starting to mount. The Rev. Charles S. Hager, pastor of First Congregational Church, had observed that many of the residents left in the downtown neighborhood were predominantly “non-Protestant.” While the church continued to be one of the most prominent in downtown Albany, Hager noted “whatever may have been the condition when the (1869 second) church was first built, it has ceased to be a good residence section.”
The church building downtown was also becoming costly to maintain, having finally reached a condition requiring extensive and costly repairs. In order to help pay for some of the building maintenance, a portion of the church lot was sold in early 1912 to the J.B. Lyon Company for construction of a business block. It was during these negotiations that the company revealed their interest in purchasing the entire church property (including the church building) for redevelopment. With maintenance costs spiraling out of control and a declining neighborhood population, church leaders began to contemplate a relocation of First Congregational Church.
On May 2nd 1912, a special meeting was held to consider sale of the entirety of the church property to the J.B. Lyon Company. An overwhelming majority approved a resolution to sell the lot and building. However, the congregation would Keep the organ, pulpit, pews, bell, gas fixtures, and furnishings (for relocation to a new church building). Although the transaction with the Lyon Company was never realized, the congregation was already committed to selling the property and relocating elsewhere.
At the same time, the Woodlawn neighborhood Sunday School program was gaining momentum. The program was so successful under Cowles leadership, that in October 1914 it was decided that the regular evening service at First Congregational Church would be omitted so that the pastor, organist, and precentor could hold an evening service for Woodlawn neighborhood residents in the Allen Chapel on Seneca Street.
The first service at the “Allen Chapel” was held on October 18th, 1914. Growing attendance at the Sunday School and evening chapel services caused church leaders to soon realize a “church of the Congregational type” was needed in the Woodlawn neighborhood. On January 13th 1915, the “Allen Congregational” organization was formed, affiliated with the First Congregational Church, to give “order and support for the growing constituency.” While the sale of the old church continued to stall, church members active with the “Allen Congregational” mission continued to become more engaged with the community. By fall of 1916, the neighborhood saw many single-family homes being constructed as a residential neighborhood began to take shape.
However, despite the success of the mission, new construction in the neighborhood, and a desire to relocate out of the downtown, the Woodlawn area was never considered as a new site for First Congregational Church. With streetcar service still lacking in this portion of the city, the pace of development was modest and the area considered “remote” and inaccessible for many of the current church members downtown.
With the church’s interests split between a non-residential downtown and the growing Woodlawn area, church members called for action. Some felt First Congregational Church should continue to focus on a downtown presence, leaving Allen Congregational to form their own wholly separate group to serve that community. Others advocated for a “mother church” in the downtown, with a branch in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
To help provide some guidance in the matter (but without any real authority), directors of the New York Congregational Conference paid a visit to Albany to advice church leaders on the matter. Offering their services in council, the State Conference Directors suggested a canvass and survey of the Woodlawn neighborhood to gauge interest and opinion on church efforts in that area. In October 1916, church volunteers began to canvass and poll the Woodlawn community.
While the survey was underway in the Woodlawn area, progress had been made on the sale of the church building downtown. William V.R. Irving, Commissioner of Public Safety for the City of Albany, was looking for sites for a new municipal building. Irving was very interested in the First Congregational Church property on Beaver Street and offered a purchase the property from the church. At its annual meeting on January 15th 1917, the congregation authorized the sale of the church property for $35,000, excluding building fixtures.
At the same meeting, results of the Woodlawn canvass were presented to church leaders. Rev. Hagar advocated strongly for selecting the Woodlawn neighborhood as a new church home based on the following reasons:
Therefore, not only was a church needed and desired in this area, it was also the only logical location.
A resolution was immediately put forth at the meeting, recommending the purchase of several building lots on the corner of Woodlawn Avenue and Quail Street. The parcels were assessed and could be purchased for approximately $9,500. After some investigation and with the approval of the congregation, the Board of Trustees modified the lots in question. Rather than an orientation towards Woodlawn Avenue, Trustees found it possible, and preferable, to secure frontage along Quail Street between Maple and Woodlawn Avenues, with a reduced frontage on Woodlawn Avenue. The cost was noted as being roughly the same. The alteration was approved on February 5, 1917, authorizing the board to purchase the lots.
Rev. Hagar's last service at the downtown church was held in July 1917. The Eastern Star Hall at the corner of Hudson Avenue and Lark Street was used for worship.
First Congregational Church was committed to building its new home in the Woodlawn neighborhood and enlisted the services of the notable Albany architecture firm, Fuller & Robinson with William Sayles & Son serving as the contractor. The selection of Fuller’s high-profile firm was a great boost to the visibility of this project, however the church’s connection to Fuller goes back to the 19th century. In the late 1800s when Fuller was just beginning to make a name for himself, church records show that Albert Fuller and his wife, Sarah Shaw, had become members of First Congregational Church. When the church later sought out a firm they could trust with their new worship space, Fuller seemed a natural choice. According to a letter found in church archives, Albert Fuller later donated a portion of his commission for this project back to the church as a "personal gift" to the congregation.
Fuller’s original design for the new First Congregational Church called for two buildings – the church itself and an attached “parish house.” However, as the United States entered World War I on April 16th 1917, the cost for building materials dramatically increased. Church leaders were faced with a choice between building a smaller modest church with a parish house, or building the fully realized church proposed by Fuller but without the parish house. The congregation agreed a smaller church would be a safe choice but totally inadequate. So, in order to meet the “growing needs of the future in an adequate, modern way,” leaders chose to build the fully realized church, with the understanding that the Parish House (and possible parsonage) would be put on hold to “await the time of future financial ability.”
On November 25th 1917, the church cornerstone was laid with great ceremony which included the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” Four of the church members who attended the same ceremony in the old church in October 1869 were present: Mr and Mrs David A. Thompson; Daniel Underhill; and Dr. Charles Moore. Architectural renderings were unveiled to the public and an article in the Albany Argus noted:
“the architectural design is Colonial, a type associated with Congregational history from the beginning and familiar to all New Englanders. The main characteristics of the type are the simple rectangular outline, the pillared portico in front, with the bell-tower rising from it in the center.”
While the colonial design was familiar to Congregational history, the Argus noted it to be a departure from local church architecture, saying "there will be no other church building in Albany of this particular type." The article goes on to describe the building as having a large sanctuary and a spacious basement that would serve as the Sunday School, kitchen, and house a bowling alley for recreational use.
In November 24th 1918, the “lower auditorium” social hall in the basement was completed. It was on this date that First Congregational held its first worship in its new location.
By April 1919, the church was completed. In a weeklong ceremony from April 20ththrough the 27th, the church building was dedicated as the “Ray Palmer Memorial” in honor of its first pastor. Reporters heralded the church as one of the finest examples of New England architecture in the region. Inside, the spacious sanctuary was observed to be the largest indoor expanse of space created without the assistance of supporting columns in the middle or sides. The sanctuary also featured a number of items that were gifts and donations from the prominent church members:
Although most of the interior fixtures were new additions, two important items were reinstalled from the church’s previous worship spaces:
First Congregational Church also supported missionary activities and provided funds for John X. Miller who was serving as a missionary in India in 1919.
First Congregational also believed that social organizations within the community were just as important for the health and spiritual wellbeing of its members. The church hosted a number of youth groups including the Pilgrim Fellowship (for Junior and High School aged children) and the Scrooby Club, “an organization for older young people.” The church also hosted Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts troops. This was in addition to an expanded Sunday School program that met Sunday mornings and was divided into different classes based on ages (beginner, primary, junior and senior level). Children and young adults were also invited to sing in the senior and junior choirs of the church.
At a time when women had just been given the right to vote, the church was already hosting programs for women and families. The “Ray Palmer Guild” was organized in 1928 by Mrs. Richard O. Ficken as a fellowship for “business and professional women.” The name of the Guild was suggested by Miss Ruhamah Nichols, a charter member. The church also hosted the Women’s Association and the Mother’s Club for women with children in the church school. A Couples’ Club for young married couples of the church was also hosted monthly.
For recreation, the church participated in a bowling league with other churches. Known as the “Sunday School Athletic League of Albany, NY,” First Congregational Church competed with other church-sponsored teams from First Methodist, Park United Presbyterian, Protestant Evangelical, Calvary Methodist Episcopal, Hope Baptist and several other churches in the Albany area, all reflecting a wide range of Protestant denominations.
First Congregational Church continued to thrive and on November 14th 1928, the Rev. Richard O. Ficken was called to be pastor of the church. Under Mr. Ficken’s leadership, the congregation observed the 85th anniversary of the church in 1935. Services on October 6th 1935 featured:
First Congregational Church continued to be at the forefront of religious live in Albany during the 1930s and 1940s. In January 1939, the church hosted a panel discussion with representatives from local church organizations on the topic of “being an effective church member.” World Friendship dinners were also introduced to encourage cooperation between the denominations.
In 1941, the Rev. Lee Fletcher from Fairpoint New York became pastor of First Congregational and delivered his first sermon on September 7th 1941. Under Rev. Fletcher’s guidance, First Congregational remained committed to active involvement in local and regional religious discussion. Rev. Fletcher served as President of the Albany Torch Club (1946-1947); President of the Albany Ministers Association (1948-1949); and Moderator of the New York Congregational Christian Conference (1949). Rev. Fletcher was also a longtime member of the Board of Directors of New York Congregational Christian Conference and member of the Board of Directors of The Federation of Churches of Albany and Vicinity. He was also co-author of a book of daily devotions written for men in the services during the war. His sermon “The Roots of the Tree” was included in the book “Sermons of Goodwill” published by The Churchmen in its “Sermon of the Week” project. Each sermon was broadcast over a nationwide hookup and each writer given a citation.
The Rev. Lloyd R. Stamp was later installed as pastor of First Congregational Church in 1955. Owing to the success of First Congregational Church, the congregation was approached by the First Christian Church (also known as the “Second Congregational Church”) to discuss a merger. Under the proposed merger, the congregational of the First Christian Church would be inducted as members of the First Congregational Church, and the Christian Church building sold. The merger of these two churches took place in December 1956.
In 1959, the Rev. William R. Hampton was called as pastor. Rev. Hampton preached his first sermon on December 6, 1959. With the combined membership of First Congregational and First Christian Church members, increased pressures for additional space were being put on the church building. However, the increases in membership and financial standing allowed First Congregational Church to revisit Fuller’s original plans for an Education Wing (referred to in 1917 plans as the “Parish House”).
In celebration of its 110th anniversary, First Congregational Church broke ground for a new Christian Education Building on Palm Sunday, April 10th 1960. While the original Fuller and Robinson plans for the building called for a Colonial Revival style similar to the church (with a broad hipped roof and columns on its main façade to mimic the church’s entry portico), the proposal offered by architect Charles A. Schade was a contemporary Modern design. Schade was a well-known Albany architect during the mid-20th century and had already designed several local churches. Schade’s design featured a red brick addition with simple minimalistic lines to harmonize with the existing building. Also noteworthy: the addition was designed to have minimal impact on the original church building.
Inside the addition, Schade called for the creation of 11 new Sunday School classrooms, a nursery, a women’s lounge, and a choir room. As the addition would be located on top of the exterior access to the basement, access to the hall was moved to the opposite side. Additionally, Schade designed a new heating and lighting system and remodeled the basement recreation rooms, creating an updated kitchen.
On Palm Sunday, March 26th 1961, church school pupils and teachers marched into their new classrooms. A Jubilee Dinner on April 20th 1961 featured the Rev. Lee Feltcher, former pastor, and other dignitaries in attendance. A formal service of dedication for the Christian Education Building and re-dedication of the church was held on Sunday, April 23rd 1961.
By 1975, the church mortgage had been completely paid off. On Palm Sunday, March 23rd 1975, a “Mortgage Burning Ceremony” was held under the direction of the Rev. William R. Hampton and Mr. Leo Maynard. Th ashes from that ceremony are still held in the church archives.
On Saturday, May 1st 1976, the church celebrated its 125th anniversary with a banquet. A pageant written by Mr. Fletcher was re-written and updated by Mrs. W. Wilson Sumner, who also directed the performance. A large 125th Anniversary booklet was also published and contained pictures of earlier buildings, a brief history written by Jay Jakovic, photographs of church activities and pictures of the church families. On Sunday May 2, the special speakers at the morning church service were Robert Smith, representing the former First Christian Church, Leo H. Maynard, representing the Congregational Church, and the Rev. William R Hampton.
In 1982, Rev. Hampton announced his retirement. A dinner held on Saturday April 24th 1982 honored Rev. Hampton and his wife, Elizabeth, for their many years of faithful service. Rev. Hampton preached his farewell sermon on Sunday April 25th. The Rev. Dorman Avery stepped in as guest minister while the church searched for a new minister.
At a special meeting on June 27th 1982, a called was issued to the Rev. Paul Spear Fraser. Rev. Fraser’s first church service was held on Sunday September 12th 1982.
The Church continued to celebrate its history over the years. In 1986, First Congregational Church celebrated its 136th anniversary and in 2000 celebrated its sesquicentennial with a large dinner in the social hall. Past and present friends and members of the church were invited as was Rev. Hampton with his wife, Elizabeth. It was during the 2000 celebrations that the former Women’s Lounge was updated, refurbished, and rededicated as Hampton Lounge in honor of Rev. Hampton and his long dedication to the life of the congregation.