Steeple ChasingJan 01, 2023 10:43AM ● By Kirk House
“Where there is a church, there is civilization.”
~Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors
In the days when transportation required a horse, just about every rural hamlet had a church or two. While many are now gone, a fair number of country churches still speckle the small towns and small cities of the southern Finger Lakes region. Here’s a sampler—all still standing, and nearly all still active.
Pioneer aviation giant Glenn Curtiss went to Sunday School at Hammondsport Methodist Church when he was a boy. His grandfather had been minister at the time Glenn was born in the parsonage. Solicited to donate for organ repair in memory of his grandfather, the adult Curtiss asked how much was needed to finish the job, pulled it from his pocket in cash, and handed it over. The church has been altered since this 1951 photo, but the organ still sounds forth on Sunday mornings.
After several meetings and debates, Bath voters desegregated their schools in 1867, and at least by 1899 were hiring black teachers. They gave the former “colored school” (a polite term in those days) on Pine Street to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which had been founded more than half a century earlier by former slaves. The old school was replaced in the 1890s, but the congregation petered out around World War I. It’s now Bath’s Grange hall.
Pastor Thomas K. Beecher, yes, that Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, made Park Church in Elmira a large modern facility that was also a center for many activities, groups, and events from the larger community, thereby setting the standard for busy, community-oriented churches, and even pioneering the modern “mega-church.”
Grieving parents created a chapel on the Bluff (overlooking Keuka Lake) as a memorial for their son Charles Garrett, who died young of tuberculosis. Garrett Chapel’s stonework, forested setting, and remarkable location make for memorable summer services, conducted by the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester.
Margaret Higgins was baptized at the new St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Corning’s southside when she was born in 1879—and that was the high point of their relationship. Her militantly atheist father was constantly at odds with the church. And as Margaret Sanger, she herself spent half a century campaigning for the right to birth control, along with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and rights for women.
Students, families, and community members had gathered in 1972 to celebrate eighth-grade graduation at St. Vincent’s Church and School on Corning’s northside, only to be trapped by the flooding, courtesy of Hurricane Agnes. Over a hundred people spent the night on the upper levels, some even taking to the roof, from which the pastor called to neighbors and parishioners passing by in boats. The church, now inactive, was recently merged with St. Mary’s. New uses for the building are now pending approval.
The jewelbox Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, with its chalet-style roof and dramatic shingled front, is an unusual and delightful cobblestone edifice in Savona, created before World War I.
The 1845 Town Line Church in Rathbone has given up its steeple in the years since its construction. But it still has the unusual two separated doors, a New England practice that goes back to colonial days. Some Puritans figured that since Catholic churches had large central aisles, their own churches should have two side aisles. Town Line Church and Cemetery are on the National Register of Historic Places.
IBM founder Thomas J. Watson supported his boyhood church, Coopers Plains Methodist, all his life. The structure was originally some miles away, in an unpopulated stretch up toward Campbell. The tale is told that Coopers Plains residents literally stole the church one winter’s night in the 1860s, first jacking it up and then sledging it down the frozen Cohocton River!
In 1881 Clara Barton gathered a group of like-minded neighbors at what’s now St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Dansville. Together they founded the American Red Cross Chapter Number 1. Red Cross is still very busy meeting needs across the nation and the world. St. Paul’s Church and Chapter Number 1 both still serve the Dansville community.
Where can we find them? First United Methodist Church of Hammondsport, 35 Lake Street; Bath Grange (formerly Bath African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church), 21 Pine Street; The Park Church, 208 West Gray Street, Elmira; Garrett Memorial Chapel, 5251 Skyline Drive, Penn Yan; St. Mary’s Church, 155 State Street, Corning; St. Vincent de Paul, 222 Dodge Avenue, Corning; Church of the Good Shepherd, 33 Church Street, Savona; Town Line Church, 8343 County Road 119 (Canisteo River Road), Cameron Mills; Coopers Plains Community Church, 10 Race Street; St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 33 Clara Barton Street, Dansville.