St. Paul’s is the third church to sit here on the corner of Court and Aurora streets. The first was a wooden Greek Revival-style building with a dome-topped steeple and housed the community’s first church bell. It was erected in 1820. By 1864 the congregation had outgrown the 44×58-foot sanctuary, and the wooden structure was torn down to make way for a much larger red brick church. This church also proved to be too small and was razed. The third church is the one we presently worship in. The cornerstone was erected in 1907 and the actual dedication took place in 1909. It still looks much like it was when it was first built, except that a tower once rose from the center of the nave. It was declared unsafe and the tower was removed in 1925.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF METHODISM IN ITHACA
In 1790, a Mr. McDowell arrived in this area with his wife and two daughters. They erected their cabin, 12 x 14 feet, in Dewitt Park and this became the scene of the first Methodist Meeting.
In 1819 the Methodist Society was incorporated. In 1820 a 44 x 58 foot wooden church was built on a lot given by General Simon Dewitt at the corner of Mill (now Court St.) and Aurora Streets. This was the first Methodist Episcopal Church built in Ithaca, erected to the worship of God and dedicated by the Rev. George W. Densmore, the pastor, in 1820.
In 1826 the great revival added nearly three hundred persons to the church. In 1850 another great revival occurred and the membership reached an overwhelming 500. An additional building was erected in the western wilderness of Seneca and Plain Streets. The second Methodist Episcopal Society was “incorporated” and became the State Street Methodist Church.
Another fifteen years and the old Aurora Street building was over its brim again. The church was rebuilt bigger, and of brick. January 24, 1867 it was dedicated.
The Rev. Wallace E. Brown was appointed to the First Methodist Episcopal Church in 1903. In two short years, under his leadership, the church was on an upward spiral, which resulted in the erection of the splendid edifice that we now call St. Paul’s. In about nine months $50,000 was subscribed and on November 25, 1906 the last service was held in the old brick church, which had been the home for forty-one years.
The present church building had its cornerstone erected in 1907. The majority of the work was done in 1908 and the building was formally dedicated in January, 1909. The building contains two gorgeous stained glass windows. They are thought to be Tiffany (though this has been unable to be verified) and are “The Ascension” and “The Light of the World” (based on a painting in St. Paul’s Cathedral of London).
In 1952 ground was broken for adding the education wing (new Church House). Stone facing on the north side of the church was removed, carefully numbered and then placed on the street side of the new Church House to make the property appear to be the same building. The addition was 42 x 90 feet with a gymnasium on the second floor.
In 1957 a new Pels Organ, built in the Netherlands, with 4 manuals and pedals, 53 stops and 51 ranks of pipes and chimes was installed. Correspondence dated October 7 states, “your organ is on the ocean.” The installation was finished in December in time for Christmas.
After 82 years, the State Street Church, with the danger of the back wall collapsing, could not afford to build a new church. This resulted in it merging with First Methodist Episcopal Church. Both churches moved rapidly to ensure a smooth transition. On June 25, 1961 a service of dedication was held in First Methodist Episcopal Church. At this time the church was renamed, “St. Paul’s Methodist Church.”
In 1966, The National Methodist Church denomination merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church or more commonly called the EUB. Thus the church now became St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.
The church’s centennial was recognized in 2008 with a year long celebration, “Celebrate the Past – Embrace the Future” highlighting various activities and events of the church’s history.
One of the most significant decisions we at St. Paul’s, as a congregation, have made in recent years was to become a Reconciling Congregation. This was a four year process of education and discernment which was handled by the leadership of our church. And so it was on February 1st, 1998, that St. Paul’s became the140th Methodist Reconciling Congregation. At this time, we publicly declared our intention to welcome all persons, regardless of sexual orientation – as well as different ages, abilities, races, ethnicity, genders, backgrounds and nationalities — into the life of the church. “All Means All.”
Excerpts from “Celebrate the Past – Embrace the Future: St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 100 Years Young – 2008, Ithaca, NY.” by Richard and Mary Lou Tenney