Church flourishes in West Glenville
Rebuilt after 1964 fire
It’s hard to comprehend these days, but at one time the Reformed Church in West Glenville, tucked away in the northern hinterlands of Schenectady County, was within the city limits.
When the congregation first met at the home of Charles Geer in February of 1812, West Glenville was officially part of the city of Schenectady’s 4th Ward. That all changed in 1820, when the town of Glenville was created and the city’s boundaries were significantly reduced. What has endured is the church and the community that supports it, despite its remote location and a devastating fire that burned the building to the ground in 1964.
“There’s always been a good spirit at this church, and what I’ve learned is that among the members there is this pervasive concern for one another,” said the Rev. Bill Faulkner, who is serving as a part-time interim minister.
“They are very involved in their church and their community, and they take their faith very seriously. There’s an energy to their beliefs that has made it a joy to work with them.”
Reflecting early style
Officially called the First Reformed Church of Glenville, the present building is not an exact replica of the 1871 white wooden structure that burned in 1964. It was, however, designed by New Jersey architect John Dodd to resemble the earlier building and reflect the Colonial style that was prevalent in the small hamlet settled just after the American Revolution.
“Harmanus Van Vleck was the first settler here around 1790, and by 1812 there was a small community, probably a few families with a blacksmith shop,” said hamlet resident Don Keefer, a former Schenectady County and town of Glenville historian. “The early settlers were mainly of Dutch descent and members of the old Dutch church in Schenectady. Their attendance, however, was necessarily infrequent. The roads were poor and there was also the Mohawk River to be crossed, the first bridge not being completed until 1808.”
It was in 1810 that 4th Ward members of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady went before the consistory and asked about building a new church in West Glenville with financial help from the mother church. That initial appeal fell on deaf ears according to Keefer, who said it was the Rev. Cornelius Bogardus, pastor of the Schenectady church, who in the fall of 1811 began preaching about the need to establish a church in West Glenville.
“They met at a barn for a while, and then they had trouble getting lumber and nails because of the War of 1812,” said Keefer, whose own family can be traced to the West Glenville area for eight generations. “The precise date of our founding will never be known. The building was erected in 1812, but the work possibly extended into 1813.”
There were 27 original churchgoers, folks who had been attending the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, that made up the initial West Glenville membership, according to 1814 records. The first official pastor of the church was the Rev. Peter Van Zandt Jr., of New York City. Van Zandt was just 26 years old when he took the pulpit in September of 1818.
The place seems to have always had a progressive bent. It offered membership to blacks in the 1820s, and in 1839 it was home to the first-ever Reformed Church of America Female Missionary Society. In 1913, seven years before women got the vote, the church opened its doors to suffragette meetings, and in 1978, when Bill Kenneally and his wife moved to the Burnt Hills area, it seemed like a perfect place to help raise their children. Don Troost was pastor at the time.
“It’s a very friendly church, very open and welcoming with all different kinds of people,” said Kenneally. “We were looking for a new church after moving to Burnt Hills, and Don Troost was a very charismatic young minister who was doing a lot of great things there. My wife’s sister was a member there, so that’s why we initially went, but we’ve always loved it and never had any reason to leave.”
These days the congregation has another charismatic young leader in Jordan White, who shares many of the pastoral duties with Faulkner. White, a Gloversville native and Mayfield High graduate, became the church’s music director in February of 2009 and added the duties of director of worship and education in August of 2011. He is currently studying through the Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., and will one day, if all goes according to plan, become ordained as the church’s senior minister.
“I preach about half the time, right along with Bill, and he is serving as my mentor while I’m going to seminary,” said White, who studied music at a number of different schools and eventually got his four-year degree from Goddard College in Vermont. “I have a ways to go, but the church is doing pretty well and we have a good group of people coming. Our youth group is up to 16 so that’s pretty cool.”
West Glenville native Sharon Groat, the church secretary, has been coming to the First Reformed Church of Glenville all her life. When she moved to Galway 10 years ago, the thought of finding another church never occurred to her.
“I was born and raised here, and officially became a member when I was 14, which was 52 years ago,” said Groat. “I just feel like it’s home and part of my family. It’s my church. I wouldn’t go anyplace else.”
According to Groat, the combination of White and Faulkner, who retired as a regular minister a couple of years ago to New Jersey, is working out just fine.
“Bill is our interim minister, he is mentoring Jordan to become our pastor, and I think it’s working out just fine,” she said. “They’re a great duo.”
Along with a good nucleus of people from West Glenville, the First Reformed pulls members in from as far away as Amsterdam, Galway, Charlton and Burnt Hills. Attendance at regular Sunday morning services averages between 60 to 85 people. White plays both the organ and the piano at the church, and he also often participates with the church’s Praise Band, made up of two guitars, a bass player, a drummer, and a banjo player, who happens to be his wife, Jenna.
“We do one hymn with the organ, to keep that tradition going, and our band does do classic hymns at times,” said White. “But we also incorporate into the service some contemporary music, some of which I’ve written myself. My wife’s banjo kind of fits in with the idea of the West Glenville hill country, and our music has more of a folk feel to it than a contemporary rock feel.”
When fire struck
Keefer and his wife, Carolyn, live close enough to the church to hear the music on Sunday mornings during the summer, but in the early morning hours of Feb. 6, 1964, there was a different, much more ominous sound coming from just up the street. The church was on fire.
“The boiler failed, and we knew it was going to happen because you could smell it during the week,” remembered Keefer, who just a year and a half earlier had written a history of the church celebrating its 150th anniversary. “It was quite a morning. The windows in our kitchen were warm. Luckily the wind wasn’t blowing, but it was a wooden building that had been varnished over many times. It went up pretty quickly, and at one point we heard the bell come crashing down.”
Groat, meanwhile, a senior in high school at the time, remembers the fire as if it was yesterday.
“I came downstairs, and looking through our living room windows I could see the flames,” she said. “It was as if the fire was lighting up our living room. The trees were shorter then; I probably couldn’t have seen it these days, but it was something. Yeah, it was a bad boiler. They were getting ready to put a new one in.”
While a new church was being built, the Rev. Niles M. Poff and his congregation met at the West Glenville Grange, formerly home to the West Glenville Methodist Church. That group, created in the 1820s when an influx of Germans hit the community, had disbanded in 1902.
The Reformers, meanwhile, held a small Christmas service in their partially constructed new church in December of 1964, and opened the building for good in June of 1965. According to Ken Hayner, a West Glenville native, Charlton resident and longtime church member, the 48-year-old building is in generally good shape.
“We try to keep up with things as needed, and about five years ago we had a capital campaign to put on an addition in the back of the building,” said Hayner, vice president of consistory. “Now we’re keeping our eye on the roof. That’s probably our next big project.”
The addition behind the church’s fellowship hall included office space for the pastor and church secretary, two meeting rooms and a lift for handicap access. During the summer of 2011 the church also added a gazebo just to the east of the main church building.
“The people seem to enjoy what we’ve done here, and I think they come back because it’s a nice country church and a very low-key community,” said Hayner. “It’s not a high-pressure situation at all, and we try to be open and friendly when we see new faces show up.”