Editor’s note: Massena’s First Baptist Church at the corner of Main and East Orvis streets, was demolished Wednesday. Built in 1859, its roots date back to 1825. Local historian John D. Michaud III offers this look back on the institution.
By JOHN D MICHAUD III
MASSENA --- The Massena First Baptist church constructed in 1859 is now a pile of dust.
The Baptist Church of Massena sprang from the Baptist Church of Louisville. Some members of a Church in Vermont moved to Louisville, and for years heard no preaching of any kind.
Finally some men who were rafting lumber down the Grasse River came to lodge with a man named Calvin Clark, who inquired if they had any preaching in Madrid.
On being informed that they did, a company set out through the woods, going by marked trees, the ladies on horseback and the gentlemen on foot. They arrived at a log schoolhouse. Elder Johnson was the preacher. This was one of the first documented gatherings for Baptists in St. Lawrence County.
Meetings in several locations had been held since 1825 with another preacher named Elder William Parr. Around 1827, Colonel Uriel H. Orvis, who had been a trustee for the Congregation Church at Massena Center, built a frame house on West Orvis Street for religious meetings. Orvis had owned a large amount of land and donated property for a cemetery. The first documented burial was of his sister-in-law Miss Marth Emerson. She died in 1829. In 1837 there were 150 members.
On March 8, 1850, Earle Stone and Peter Ormsbee were chosen deacons. Services were held for a time alternately in the village and at Massena Center, being essentially one church with two places of worship.
In January 1854, the matter in buying the Baptist meeting house built by Mr. Orvis was discussed. No official action was taken for its accusation. Within a few shorts years the Baptists would receive a wonderful gift -- property to build a permanent church.
Mrs. Laura Orvis donated land on the corner of Harrowgate Street (now Main Street) and East Orvis for the erection of the present brick structure. She also donated generously for its yearlong construction. Bricks were shipped by boat from Raymondville down the river.
According to a Massena Observer newspaper article from 1942, no mention is made in church records of a decision to build the church, or a building committee. The only record is the June 23, 1859, ceremonial laying of the "Baptist House" cornerstone. The names of 150 members were placed inside a box within the marker.
The names of church officers at that time were: J. H. Walden, pastor; deacons Stone and Ormsbee, Moses Russell, Calvin Clark, Stephen Squires, c l e r k; Ransom J. Horton, and trustees Hiram Fish, Moses Russell, Allen W. Russell, Peter Ormsby, William S. P. Garvin, R. J. Horton, J. E. Clary, Joseph E. Orvis.
William S. P. Garvin was hired as the head contractor for the church's construction. He followed in his father's footsteps as a builder. He erected part of the old Massena Springs High School, the Bailey Dry Goods Store, the old Grand Trunk Railway Station in Prescott, Ontario, and many structures in Ogdensburg.
At the breaking of the American civil war, he entered the services as a Captain of Company I, 142nd New York Volunteers. Mr. Garvin's company was mustered out of service in 1865. He reached the rank of Major. His funeral services were held at the church in 1914.
Another veteran of the war from the church was Captain Martin J. Chamberlain. He served in Company F, 106 Regiment, New York Volunteers. When he left Massena, a farewell service was held at the Baptist church. A flag was presented to him by five young women dressed in white.
They were Elizabeth Ripley, Verona Grinell, Elizabeth Whitney, Sarah Willard and Molly David.
Chamberlain was seriously wounded at the battle of Monocracy on July 9, 1864. He died in a Frederick City, MD hospital. A funeral was held when his body was returned home. He is buried in Massena Center Cemetery.
On July 4, 1860, an old program, owned by a Massena artifact collector, shows various leaders of the church proposing toast for the newly constructed church. The toast was probably held on the lawn at a social event. The first official church service was held on July 28, 1860. It was recommended that each member should pay 68 cents that year to various missions and bible societies. One special feature at the church was the original pipe organ. A well had been dug and pipes were laid into the back of the church that created a special man powered irrigation water system to play the organ.
In 1873, Laura L. Orvis, transferred additional property to the trustees of the church with the deed stating," one dollar and good will." In 1875 the session room and baptistery were built on the east side of the church at a cost of $1,200, and a parsonage built at the south side of the church. (The location of the current parking lot on Main Street.)
The church's bell served for years as Massena's only fire alarm system. A serious matter back in the late 1800's, but amusing now, is a suit against two young men for breaking into the church on the eve of the fourth of July to ring the bell. It was a custom in that era to rings bells to celebrate America’s anniversary.
On July 26, 1895, one of the most memorable scenes in Massena's history occurred during an 11 a.m. church service. The bell to the tower started to ring vigorously. The front church doors flung open. A man ran inside screaming, "The creamery is on fire." Everybody dropped everything. Emptied out of the church at lightning speeds -- including the minister. They ran frantically down Main Street to the Grasse River to witness or help extinguish the flames. The creamery was a complete loss.
The bell was placed out of commission in 1915 when a modern fire station was build on Andrews Street with a siren horn. On March 30, 1911, the Massena Observer announced that the Rev. A. Barritt Ding would deliver his first sermon at the church.
The observer reported, "The Baptist church has been without a pastor for nearly a year, not withstanding earnest efforts on part of their people to secure one, but they have used great care in calling a pastor and consider themselves exceedingly fortunate in securing Ding, as he comes highly recommended by those with whom he has labored."
During the pastorate of A. B. Ding, a new addition was built on the south side of the church, new windows were placed, the baptistery moved from beneath the rostrum to its present location, new pews were put in, a new pipe organ installed, hardwood floors laid, and walls decorated.
The pastor formed Massena's first Boy Scout troop as Scoutmaster in September 1911. By mid-1912 he was also listing meetings for Camp Fire Girls. Some of the first members of the Boy Scout troop included: Ernest Haskell, Stuart Sheff, Durrell Young, Herbert Bright, Lasher Locke, Elger Dyke, Frank Bailey, Harold "Shine" Henry, Clark Hutchins, Albert Henderson and Walter Cline. They were known as the "Tiger Patrol, Troop 1, Massena, Boy Scouts Of America."
Mr. Ding resigned later to become a pastor in the U.S. Army in Europe.
The Baptist sold their old parsonage on Main Street in 1917 to Charlotte Dixon. A new parsonage was constructed. When the great world flu epidemic of 1918 rushed through Massena, killing around 75 documented citizens, the church served as a makeshift hospital. Fourteen people died at the church. The First Baptist church was damaged in the September 1944 earthquake. Several cracks formed within its brick structure. They were repaired. Those cracks can still be seen.
On July 12, 1959, the church celebrated its 100th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone. A centennial dinner was held at the Massena town hall, displays of artifacts were shown under glass, and a service was held with guest speaker H. C. Wilkins. An organ recital was given by Miss Marjorie E. Densmore to dedicate the newly installed electric Hammond organ.
The late Leonard H. Prince, editor of The Massena Observer, in 1959, praised the church in a newspaper article. "The First Baptist church has served the community well. The lawn has often been a place for socials and community events. The Christmas tree for the entire community is usually placed on the Baptist lawn," he said in an editorial.
"The people who built this edifice a hundred years ago would be amazed at the changes which have taken place. No one in 1859 could have foreseen Massena Village of today. And today no one dares to predict what the Massena of 100 years from now will be like."
"The people who founded the church would surely be well pleased with the way the church serves is serving today, the sincerity of the people, the spiritual program for young and old," he continued. The Baptists were offered money from developers recently to sell the valuable corner property. But they voted down all offers. We commend the Baptist for their decisions."
In 1965, the church re-acquired its old Main Street parsonage building. The structure was demolished for a parking lot. During the late 1990's, after the death of Mitchell Rubin, money from his will was given to the church for renovations. The roof was replaced along with various other upgrades.
John D. Michaud III is an amateur historian and Massena resident.