A History of Westminster: 1854-1994



 THE EARLY YEARS: 1854-1892

Forty North Street area residents founded Westminster Church on September 3, 1854, with deep Christian commitment and great faith in the future of Buffalo. With ten members of First Presbyterian Church, this group, led by Jesse Ketchum, established a new Presbyterian congregation just beyond the northern boundary of Buffalo, then a city of 42,000 people. Jesse Ketchum, a Christian businessman and civic leader, provided the land on which a new chapel was constructed in 1847. Today, the spot is occupied by the present church.

On August 26, 1858, this small band of Christians laid the cornerstone for what is essentially the same sanctuary now used for the worship of the congregation. The first sermon was preached in the new building on September 20, 1859, when the Synod of Genesee held its meeting here.

The early years were marked by the courage and vision of the congregation. By the 1870's, Westminster had launched several programs which were to lay the foundations for a tradition of Christian outreach to the community. Several missions, chapels, and Sunday Schools were begun -- one as far away as what is now Delaware and Hertel Avenues. Formation of a Young People's Association and a Women's Missionary Society, the first of its kind in Buffalo, provided gifts for local and overseas missionary efforts. Projects included work with the Native Americans of Western New York, Sunday School missionaries in the mid-West, and the medical mission in Persia. In 1880 the dream of Dr. Joseph P. Cochran was fulfilled with the establishment of Westminster Hospital in Urumia, Persia. Later moved to Kermanshah, this hospital was supported by Westminster until after World War II.

A Period of Growth: 1893-1931

Dr. Samuel Van Vranken Holmes was installed as Pastor of Westminster in 1893. His forty year pastorate was marked by distinguished leadership in Biblical scholarship, preaching, and social service. The closing years of the last century found Buffalo and Westminster beginning a period of rapid growth. There was widespread and enthusiastic response to Dr. Holmes' liberal spirit and effective presentation of contemporary understandings of the Bible. He initiated an annual series of lectures at the Teck Theatre on Main Street, bringing a ministry to the community at large in 1924. He saw the possibilities of extending this work via radio and the first live broadcast of worship at Westminster was carried by WGR in 1925. This broadcast ministry continued for fifty years earning the distinction of being the longest such series.

With the strong support and participation of the members, Dr. Holmes led the congregation into many bold social programs. Westminster Community House was established on Buffalo's East Side in 1894, the second settlement house in the United States. The women of Westminster held their first Linen Sale in 1899 for the purpose of raising funds for the work of Westminster House. In the years which followed, substantial monies were raised by the Linen Sale for the support of a wide range of mission work at home and abroad. In 1920 the acquisition of a camp at Angola given in memory of Marion Clement Taner made it possible to provide outdoor experiences at the lakeshore to the children of the Community House neighborhood.

At the time of Dr. Holmes' retirement in June 1932, the congregation numbered 1800 members.

From Strength to Strength: 1932-1962

Dr. Albert G. Butzer began his thirty-year pastorate in September 1932. Uniquely gifted as a Pastor, Dr. Butzer provided wise counsel and strong support to countless numbers of persons through the Depression, World War II, and the period of unusual growth in the 1950's. The great celebration of the congregation's centennial saw the redecoration of the sanctuary. This, linked with Dr. Butzer's decades-long project of placing the gothic revival stained glass windows in the sanctuary and his leadership in bringing Hans Vigeland as organist and choirmaster to Westminster, provides testimony to his and the congregation's commitment to beauty and to excellence.

The new Aeolian-Skinner organ was dedicated in 1958. Post-war change and growth called for expansion of facilities and parking space. In 1947, the older portion of the Education Building was acquired for the rapidly expanding Sunday School and the newly inaugurated weekday pre-school program, "The School of Religious Impression". The Sunday School assembly room was re-done to create the present Holmes Chapel; the Case Memorial Library provided the congregation with much needed space for meetings as well as a resource for study. New groups and organizations were formed to meet the needs of the post-war generation; high priority was given to community service and ecumenical ventures. Members of the congregation were encouraged to provide leadership in community organizations.

Transition and Change: 1962-1970

Dr. Ray H. Kiely was installed as Pastor of Westminster in November 1962. A few month later, Martin Luther King would write his "Letter From Birmingham Jail". American society would be tested as never before by the need for rapid social change, by the involvement in war in South East Asia, and not least, by the corollary to the suburban development of the 1950's: the decay of the cities. Under Dr. Kiely's leadership, the congregation met the challenges of the decade with imagination and patience.

Recognizing the global character of the church's work and of emerging issues, Dr. Kiely initiated the "Ecumenical Minister" program, which brought leading clergy from other countries for an extended stay in Buffalo. The exchange of perspectives and ideas provided increased understanding of the church's mission. The youth programs moved out beyond the city to a series of work camp experiences in Puerto Rico and Maine and Appalachia. The radio ministry was extended to include television with a brief early morning devotional program titled, "Just A Minute". Acknowledging the importance of self-determination, Westminster Community House was reorganized as an independent, community-controlled agency. It became a member agency of the United Way. When Temple Beth Zion burned, Westminster was able to provide its facilities to the congregation of Beth Zion while its new building was erected. This recalled the hospitality extended to Westminster by that congregation in 1902 when our sanctuary was being redecorated.

In 1967, a large addition to the education building was completed and dedicated to the memory of Albert G. Butzer. As the tumultuous decade of the 1960's came to an end, the congregation was poised and ready for the future. Dr. Kiely accepted the Call of the Grosse Pointe, Michigan, congregation in the spring of 1970, leaving with the congregation's appreciation for effective leadership through years of transition for church and country.

A Light to The City: 1971-1994

The Reverend Thomas P. Stewart was installed as pastor of Westminster in May 1971. In recognition of the fundamental changes in society and church, the congregation has given high priority to adult study programs, human sexuality, liturgical renewal and new forms of group life. The new facilities available with the Butzer Education Building's completion made it possible to expand the "School of Religious Impression" from a modest enrollment of sixty to seventy little children to more than 200. Programs were added in the areas of speech and hearing difficulties and the developmentally disabled. Today, Early Childhood Programs at Westminster provide a major resource for the entire community. The land once occupied by the 'old Manse' was developed as The Churchyard at Westminster, a memorial garden which renews the ancient Christian practice of having the place of burial in or adjacent to the place of worship.

In addition to the two groups of Alcoholics Anonymous that meet at the church weekly, hospitality and help is given to Alcohol Consultation Services, Care Ring, a telephone assurance program for shut-ins, Suicide Bereavement, Recovery, a self-help group for persons with emotional problems, Fireside, a group for single young adults, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and a wide variety of other community groups that use the facilities. We have maintained a working relationship with the Lavendar Hill Dutch Reformed Mission Church through the Wynberg Presbytery in South Africa as well as a continuing effort by our young people to help our friends in Maine each summer.

Members of Westminster actively participate in programs that strengthen people and neighborhoods such as: the Concerned Ecumenical Ministry of the Upper West Side, the Church Mission of Help, Benedict House, and Habit for Humanity for which our annual Spaghetti dinner draws support from all of WNY. The bequest of the Cobb sisters has made it possible for the church to provide scholarship aid to young people and new programs for the elderly. The Session continued our tradition of service to the city by committing capital resources to St, John Baptist Church for the erection of McBurney Gardens apartments at Michigan and Goodell Streets and to the Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers, successor to Westminster House.

During the summer of 1992, as improvements were being made to the building exterior, grounds and sanctuary, Westminster accepted the generous invitation to worship at Temple Beth Zion. Under the direction of Space Planning committee, the exterior was improved and tempered glass protection for the stained glass windows installed, the south lawn was landscaped and a cloister entrance constructed with a "west narthex" passage to offices and the Sanctuary. In the Sanctuary, the choir loft and chancel were expanded, new carpeting was installed on aisles of the new hardwood flooring, both doors leading from the west narthex were widened and the staircase by the Praise Window was rebuilt. The Tiffany-designed stenciling in the Chancel and Chancel arch was restored, woodwork and molding around the stained glass windows was renovated, the walls and panels of the Sanctuary were brightened with a rich textured patina "red" with a golden "ochre" for the upper sections and, finally, the ceiling finished in a medium blue with stenciling to complement wall colors. While the stained glass windows remain the centerpiece, Westminster's rich decorative heritage was restored by these enhancements of color and form. A particularly attractive part of Westminster, today, is the Delaware entrance with its new doors, bright windows, restored rotunda, chandelier, wall sconces and walls finished in the red of the Sanctuary.

In his sermon on December 13, 1992, the day when we worshipped in the sanctuary for the first time, Pastor Stewart expressed the feelings of so many when he said:

"What we have done and what we will do in the next years, represents the commitment of this congregation to worship God and to serve this city. We are here to stay. We are here to grow; to grow in faithfulness to God and in service to the people of this community as well as to the wider, distant communities of which we are a part."

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