The very first place we went to when we started this blog was the Asbury First United Methodist Church. We knew it had a long history and were interested in seeing the building and learning more. We arrived on a Saturday morning which was to be the first stop of a few on our very first ‘adventure‘ but we were met by a locked door. A little disheartened, we realized we needed to plan a little better and have learned to do just that. Just a few days short of the year anniversary of that visit, we got an opportunity to sit down with the church’s historian Dan Hines, and to be able to get in and see the building. We also became privy to a fantastic wealth of knowledge that we might not have had we just walked in like we intended the first time. Lucky you–this post is filled with way more info than it would have been a year ago!!
The Gothic Revival architecture of the Asbury First United Methodist Church on East Avenue commands attention as you drive down that stretch of East where Berkeley Street ends. The building was finished in 1955, but the history of the congregation itself actually pre-dates the City of Rochester. Buyouts, new buildings, mergers, acquisitions, fires and schisms all have helped shaped the lengthy, meandering history that has helped the church become what it is today. Methodism itself has a long complex history that begins with Francis Asbury arriving in the United States in the 1770′s on mission by the order of John Wesley. In 1784, Asbury was permitted by Wesley to establish the Methodist Episcopal Church of America, a proceeding that took place in Baltimore as part of the historical Christmas Conference. The church is often referred to as the M.E. Church, which should sound vaguely familiar if you read last week’s post, because that church was founded by adding the word ‘African’, and then later ‘Zion’–just one in the countless number of changes and adaptations that the faith would encounter over the 225 years following that meeting in 1784. After the Christmas Conference, Francis Asbury sent out itinerant layman called ‘Circuit Riders’ to spread the word of the faith and like so many others, they found their way to the area that is now known as Rochester, NY.
In September 1820 the group that had been meeting went on official record under the name of “The First Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church of the Village of Rochester”. (Note: In 1817 the city was actually called the Village of Rochesterville. The ‘ville’ was dropped in 1819, and then in 1820 the ‘village of’ was dropped.) The group would spend the next number of years meeting in multiple school houses until building their first chapel in the location where the Riverside Convention Center sits today, a chapel that they would outgrow within a decade despite an addition to the building. Soon thereafter a young, revivalist from the Presbyterian faith in the Rochester area began to garner a lot of attention. Charles Finney was beginning at this time to spread the concepts of his faith, and the City of Rochester that was beginning to double and triple in population by the year saw the boom of the Second Great Awakening. With the help of the Erie Canal opening in 1824 and a quickly increasing economy and spread of industry, the population of Rochester went from 800 to 10,000 in just a decade! As a result, churches of many different faiths began to see their attendance rates increase exponentially. The First Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church of the Village of Rochester decided to begin construction on a second church that would prove to be much larger, and was built on the Northwest corner of West Main and Buffalo Sts (Buffalo St is now called Fitzhugh) in 1831, with the construction taking only a single year.
The following years would see an immense history unfold in downtown Rochester in both the secular and religious communities. The congregation would see a meandering success that often looked dire for them. Buildings were sold, and buildings were built. Congregations split and later joined. Fires destroyed buildings and dreams of growth. Debts went unpaid, and generous financial gifts were received. The history that took place is as detailed as any history book I’ve ever read, and the church’s roots seem to have at one point made a stronghold in nearly ever corner of the City of Rochester until their most recent establishment at East Ave–and that’s where we had an opportunity to meet up with Dan.
The church owns the homes that sit on each side of it, and we planned to meet Dan at the one where the offices are currently located. We got there a few minutes early to take photos of the outside like always, and hung around looking at stuff on our own. Dan found us in the offices and started out with the question that we’ve gotten so often now, ‘so, what do you guys want to know? Luckily for many of our patient docents, we do a lot of research work upfront, and usually that’s how we discover that the place is something we’d want to see in the first place. Unluckily for them, what we want to know is ‘everything’! But, we realize that’s not possible, and we always share that we are willing to learn anything they’d like to share. Ahead of time, Dan had sent me a document of the church’s history. Many times a dedicated volunteer will stand in as the church’s historian, which is what Dan has done, but at one point there was an entire committee. Someone on that committee wrote the document that I was sent and I downloaded it and began to print without looking more at it. After a while of printing and wondering what was taking so long, I looked at the file and found that it was 200 pages!!!! We have never encountered such a detailed and lengthy history written by a volunteer! Admittedly, it was a bit much for even us to read, and reminded us that if we ask for everything–we just might get it.
We’ve always seen the homes adjacent to the church but had no idea what the insides, or story were like. Wilson Soule built the home to the right (if you’re on East looking at the church) in 1892 for his wife. A leading medicine mogul at the time, he spared no expense in the sprawling mansion, and adorned the rooms with gold leaf, ornate stained glass windows (one room reportedly is Tiffany), mosaic tiles, and different wood in each room–one of which was built entirely in India out of teak and then shipped here to be put back together upon construction and it is completely extraordinary. Much like many a rich husband in the 1800′s, Mr. Soule’s bride passed away before she could see the completion of the home. Nonetheless, he lived there for a few years before selling it to a young entrepreneur who needed a place for he and his mother to live while their mansion down the street was being built. George Eastman inhabited the home for seven years until moving to what we now know as The Eastman House. Dan gave us an entire tour of the house, and pointed out incredible intricacies in the wood and gold leaf lining the home like wall paper. I had no idea until we got there, but the basement is now a resale shop to assist the community, so if you’re in need of a place to donate stuff or a place to get cheap goods, here’s a good option! We even got to see the room that was once Eastman’s dark room, though most of it (and I literally mean most of it) is filled with donations waiting to be sorted. Dan took advantage of our endless curiosity and showed us every corner of the home from basement to attic, and we ate it up like two wide-eyed little kids at Christmas.
We went over to check out the church itself and glossed over a bit more of the history while we walked. The church bought the property in the early 1950′s in stages, and the church itself was constructed and opened in 1955. A few years later the education wing would be built, the houses on each side of the church would be purchased, and just a few years ago, the ‘connecting building’ between the church and the educational wing would be finished. The church itself was constructed in a simple interpretation of Gothic Revival style of architecture with an enormous grey tower and statue of Christ above two brightly red painted doors. Stepping through the doors, the first item you’ll encounter is a bust statue of John Wesley, a display to remind the church goers of their roots, but not to be revered as Methodists are typically careful to avoid worship of a false idol.
We walked through the cross-shaped sanctuary, which was built to seat 1,001 parishioners. The stained glass windows are tall and ornate, built and installed by a company from Pennsylvania after the church was already in use. There isn’t an over abundance of ornamental type decorations, but the simple stated architecture of the sanctuary provides a feeling of solidarity and foundation. The long line (supposedly one of the longest aisles in Rochester) of identical wooden pews, the wooden cross beam over the altar, the side altars with an empty wooden frame at them, they all seem so simple in comparison to something like an Orthodox Christian church, but nonetheless there is a sense of powerful stability present. Methodists don’t honor relics like some other religious groups, but they are adamant about remembering those who have passed on and particularly those that have played a large role in the faith. Dr. Weldon Crossland was the minister at Asbury when it was first built, and was integral to the success of the project. It was Dr. Crossland who after visiting King Solomon‘s Tomb insisted that the historical place have a physical role in their church, and arranged to have a piece of rock from Solomon’s Quarries sent to the U.S. to be used as the cornerstone for Asbury. Just as his ideas and dedication were a part of the building of the church, Crossland is now forever remembered by the congregation each time they look to the pulpit. Just under the altar, Crossland’s remains were buried, and a small plaque laid in the floor forever commemorates his dedication to his faith and the people in Rochester who looked to him for leadership in their own.
We spent a couple hours with Dan, and he was willing to spend more time with us showing us the other home, but we were quickly approaching another appointment we had made with our friends at the Hindu Temple. Dan showed us some things that I’m positive most parishioners never get to see, and were able to delve in to a fantastic history that has served the City of Rochester since it’s earliest roots. We’re both really grateful to have been able to get in to see Asbury First United Methodist and to meet Dan, and it was a perfect way to celebrate the one year anniversary of Luke and I beginning to explore the places we’ve gone.