OUR RELIGIOUS ROOTS
Oppenheim

  

Written and kindly contributed by Oppenheim Historian,
Hector Allen.

Mr. Allen has written a recent book based upon Oppenheim's history and has graciously allowed us to post a chapter concerning the area's local church history. Please note: This text is based upon his "DRAFT" - it is NOT a final version of the book and may vary from the final printed edition.

Many thanks to Linda Darling Rood for typing this detailed chapter of history.

Return to part one of "Our Religious Roots"


  

ST. BRIDGET’S ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

This church was built in the hamlet of Middle Sprite, on the northern boundary of our township. Irish immigrants began moving into this area in the 1840’s, many of them refugees from the devastating famine then taking place in Ireland. By the 1870’s they were ready to build a church of their own. (More about the Irish Settlement at Middle Sprite in a later Chapter.)

It is likely that religious services were held in Middle Sprite by the Catholic congregation before the church was built. The Irish people, 15 or more families, had lived in Middle Sprite close to 30 years before the construction of St. Bridget’s, ad I am sure that they found places in which to celebrate Mass during that time. It was common in those days to use District school houses, private homes and even taverns for religious services.

The Catholic Church at Middle Sprite was built in 1879. In 1929, on the 50th Anniversary of the completion of the church, the “Evening Times” wrote a brief history: 

CATHOLIC CHURCH AT MIDDLE SPRITE
HALF CENTURY OLD

“Flow of industry created a strong parish in the community, but most of them are now gone—old families were the backbone.”

St. Bridget’s Church, Middle Sprite, will celebrate the half-century of its edifice on August 31st. The cornerstone was laid in the summer of 1879.  The rise and fall of this parish is another example of the ebb and flow of a population to meet the changing conditions of industry. Once a congregation that crowded this place of worship, now a small body is ministered to monthly as an out mission of St. Johnsville.

The cornerstone was laid by the Rt. Rev. Francis McNierney of Albany and he was assisted by a number of priests from nearby parishes. Rev. William Smith, Assistant Pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Little Falls, preached the sermon on the occasion and is remembered for his eloquence.

The little settlement at Middle Sprite, known as the Irish Settlement, was then an out mission of St. Mary’s Church in Little Falls and was in the charge of the late Rev. James M. Ludden, then Pastor in that city. The plans for the structure were drawn up by the late architect G. F. cooper of Utica and the size of the building was 50’ by 30’. The contractors were the late firm of Charles Eagan and Andrew R. Cavanaugh of Little Falls.

Middle Sprite in those days was a thriving little place and plenty of work was always to be had. Bark was used for tanning leather and bark peeling kept many men at work. The tannery at Emmonsburg was in operation and employed many hands and the bark was drawn to Little Falls and other places and sold in four-foot lengths.

The Helterlines, W. H. Waters and others carried on big lumbering jobs which attracted many to that part of Fulton County and most of them were of the Catholic faith.

The Church was completed and dedicated late in the Fall and was crowded each Sunday when Father Smith would drive from Little Falls to celebrate Mass.

Among the substantial families recalled who lived there at that time were the Donlons, Wards, Dunnings, Fitzgeralds, Troys, Barretts, Donnelleys, McCaffertys, Helterlines, McGuires, McRaes, Cassidys, Heaneys, Ashes, Murrays, Welchs, and Murphys.

The Church is still there and services are held once each month. Most of the old parishioners have passed beyond and the younger ones have moved to other parts so the congregation has grown small. The parish is now the charge of St. Patrick’s in St. Johnsville.

Not many years after this celebration the Irish Settlement would be essentially deserted. Bark was no longer used as a tanning agent for leather when chemical tanning was developed, and the competition from Maine and Northwestern lumber pretty much finished the large-scale logging operations. While subsistence farming, just raising enough for your family to eat, could be done this style left nothing extra with which to purchase the multitude of consumer products coming on the market in the early days of the 20th century. In other words, if you wanted to buy one of Thomas Edison’s phonographs or one of Henry Ford’s Model-Ts, you needed a job with a paycheck.

Miss Margaret Ward of Herkimer, who retired from teaching in the West Winfield school district a number of years ago, was born in the Irish Settlement. She told me that her father ran the Middle Sprite Store for the Brownells when she was a little girl. When the settlement lost population and the Store and Post Office closed, her family moved out. She also provided me with a number of very interesting pictures of members of the Ward family, one of the most prominent families in the Irish Settlement. It was the Ward family which donated the land on which the church was built in 1879.

When the combination Store/Post Office was closed and the local saw mills ran out of work there was no more local employment so people were virtually forced to move out. In those days there was no HUD check, no welfare check, or even Social Security; you lived on your savings and when that was gone you moved out and found a job someplace else.

I don’t know exactly when St. Bridget’s Church ceased to celebrate Masses, but I think it was in the early 1930’s. It must have been a sad day for many of the older people who remained when the Church finally closed. I have been told by Leo Fitzpatrick and others that some of the lumber from St. Bridget’s was taken down to St. Patrick’s in St. Johnsville and used to build an addition on the back of that Church.

When David Dinneen and I were doing the research for a slide program on the Irish Settlement in 1974 we were told that Ed Dockerty and Frank Matis used to go out to Middle Sprite with the Priest as Altar Boys. The Priest was Father Cunningham, who may have been the last Priest to say mass out in the Pine trees; after the church closed the melodic phrases of the Latin Mass and the scent of incense would be gone forever from Middle Sprite.

Jim Brucker, one of my students in Little Falls High School in the early 1970’s, wrote an excellent paper on the Irish Settlement as an assignment for me. When Dave Dinneen and I created the slide program a few years later we used Jimmy’s paper extensively. I am including his paper as Appendix, and you should probably read it now. More will be said about Middle Sprite in another Chapter.

 

THE FREE METHODIST CHURCH AT MIDDLE SPRITE

This Church is actually in the Town of Stratford, about 150 yards north of the Oppenheim-Stratford town line. I am including it since many of its members lived in the Town of Oppenheim. The Church itself is within sight of the Middle Sprite store and Post Office.

In the mid 1970’s Mary Brown from Dolgeville lent me an excellent picture of this church. The congregation is outside, in front of the Church, the Pastor brought the podium out and is standing in front of it, facing the congregation and it is a fine picture. The Church building in the background looks to e freshly painted or perhaps new. I cannot date this picture, but I would guess it is in the 1880’s from the dress of the people.

In the Spring of 1994 Mrs. Carolyn Walker, Town Historian in Stratford, told me that the Free Methodists still pay a small Fire Tax on the lot where the Church used to be. I wrote to the Free Methodist Church in Saratoga and eventually began a correspondence with Rev. Leonard. He sent me quite a bit of data on this remote Church in Middle Sprite, some of which follows:

The Middle Sprite Church was in the Susquehanna Conference of the Free Methodist Church, Utica District. In 1889 Rev. R. M. Snyder was the Minister, and he attended a conference from Sept. 11-15 in Binghamton. That same year the records list a John Drake as a “probationer.”

In another yearly report, undated, the Minister is listed as M. S. Babcock. There were 25 members of the congregation, and three probationers. There was a Sunday School with six teachers and 30 scholars, and one “lay preacher.” The Preacher’s receipts, (his salary, I assume), that year were $235.72. The congregation raised $1.30 for the African Missionary Fund. The church building was valued at $1,000.00 and the parsonage was worth $200.00. (The parsonage is still standing, sometimes used as a camp. It doesn’t appear to be in good shape now).

The next set of records is dated from 1897. By this time another Free Methodist Church has been established in nearby Scotch Bush, probably five miles away in the Town of Ephratah.

The Minister for both Middle Sprite and Scotch Bush was Rev. D. C. Stanton. A George Skinner is also listed as a Minister in this yearly report. There were 37 members and 10 probationers in both churches. Both Churches had a Sunday School. The Preacher received $307.23 this year, and the congregations contributed $5.55 to Foreign Missions.

Both Churches continued into the early 20th century. In 1909 Zenas Miner of St. Johnsville was listed as a “Supply Preacher,” and Orson Crouse of Dolgeville is listed as a “Local Preacher.” J. C. Hessler is also listed as Preacher. In 1909 for the first time $3.16 is collected for the “Bishop’s Salary,” and the women raised $6.50 for Foreign Missions.

By 1912 Zenas Miner is the only Preacher, J. C. Hessler having been transferred to Saratoga Springs. The last record in the batch sent by Rev Leonard was for the year 1915. Scotch Bush stood alone, so the Middle Sprite Church must have folded between 1912 and 1915. The membership in 1915 was 31, so perhaps people from Middle Sprite traveled to Scotch Bush. An encouraging sign was the number of scholars; there were 60 of them enrolled in Sunday School in 1915.

The Church at Scotch Bush still holds services, but the one at Middle Sprite is only a fading memory. Dave Dinneen and I walked through the trees and brush that have grown up over its foundation a few years ago. I believe that a person could see the Catholic Church from the front of the Free Methodist Church when they were both in existence. I am sure that they listened to each other’s bells peal on Sunday mornings. Now it is pretty quiet up there.

 

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH ON DOLGE AVE

Not many people still remember the neat, stone church built on Dolge Avenue in the late 19th century. The Episcopal Church established there in 1893 did not last very long, due to financial problems.

Miss Lulu Z. McKee wrote to Mrs. Marion Mang in May, 1976 and detailed the short history of this parish. Miss McKee said the building was completed in 1893 when the Rev. D. C. Donnar was in charge. Rev. Donnar only stayed until 1895, and he was succeeded by Rev. F. S. McLean who only stayed one year. The Rev. R. Scott also served for a brief time. By 1897 the Pastor was Father Rasay, who also was the Pastor in Little Falls.

In 1899 Miss McKee said a catastrophe came when Rev. Marriatt was the Priest in Charge. There was a mortgage of $2,000.00 on the building, held by the Church Pension Fund in Brooklyn and the parish could pay neither the amount due on the principal or even the interest. The mortgage was then foreclosed and shortly after the Roman Catholic Church bought the property.

I wonder if Alfred Dolge, whose home was in sight of this church and who was known for philanthropic sentiments, might have donated some money to get the parish over this crisis. By 1899 Dolge had been forced out of business by some of his “friends,” and he no longer lived on the Avenue that bore his name. It is an interesting speculation, at any rate.

In 1972 Mrs. Mary Fehlner wrote a history of St. Joseph’s Church in Dolgeville, and also the St. Bridget’s Church in Salisbury. She said that the church on Dolge Avenue was used by the Catholics from 1899 until the new Catholic Church was built across the creek in the Village of Dolgeville in 1923.

The church building was then used for a variety of purposes. At one time it was used as a recreation center and gym. Local boxers Charles Eck and Joe Conrad used it as a training center. When it was eventually torn down, part of it was used to build the stone wall at the corner of South Main St. and Lamberson St. in Dolgeville. I have a postcard picture of the church, mailed to Miss Mae Youker in 1911. It shows a very nice looking building.

 

KINGDOM HALL
JEHOVAH’S WITNESS CHURCH

The most recent church to start here in the Town of Oppenheim was the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recently I spoke with two representatives of this church, David Tarbox and Frank Skrzynecki. They provided me with a great deal of information on this congregation, some of which follows:

The congregation began in 1972 and firstmet in a vacant store on Main Street in Dolgeville. A few years later a Mrs. Wright gave them some vacant land on the Lottville Road in Oppenheim and they commenced building Kingdom Hall in 1975.

The building was constructed by members of the local congregation, assisted by members of other Jehovah’s Witness congregations. The total cost of the project was $15,000.00. Some material was donated and some, including a furnace and some plumbing fixtures was purchased at a reduced price from a Kingdom Hall on Long Island. The original building was 40’ by 60’, and featured a mural on one wall that was painted by Edna Chu from Johnstown.

The day that the church was to be dedicated in 1975, there was an accident with the plumbing. A hot water pipe burst and one of the workers was scalded. He was taken to the hospital in Gloversville and fortunately recovered.

The church was operated by a group of Elders. The first Elders in the Church were Frank Skrzynecki, Allen Christensen, Dan Callichio and Jim Carbone. No Minister is hired, and no salaries are paid. Every member is considered a teacher and their primary function is to spread the word of God and the Bible. Possibly you are familiar with those Witnesses who go door-to-door, teaching and sharing the “Watchtower”magazine with those who are interested.

Sometimes members are called on to assist other Witness congregations. A few years ago after a hurricane struck Puerto Rico, David Tarbox left from Oppenheim to assist a congregation there. In cases such as this the members often pay their own expenses, air fare and all. In return, other congregations are ready to assist the one in Oppenheim if a need arises.

The local congregation gets assistance from their national organization. The “Watchtower” paper is printed, books are published and guides are printed for the use of members.

When this Church was established in Oppenheim in 1975 there were approximately 40 members in the congregation. At this time, 2002, they have over 80 members. This growth necessitated a move to a larger hall, since there was no room at their original site in the Town of Oppenheim.

In 1993, after 18 years in Oppenheim, the Jehovah’s Witness congregation moved across the East Canada Creek to the Town of Manheim. They have built a much larger, modern Church on the Brockett Road just west of the Village of Dolgeville.

 

IN CONCLUSION

A few things were different in our religious life here in the Town of Oppenheim years ago. In looking through what few records exist for the 19th and early 20th centuries, I found no church weddings! Couples were married often in the home of the bride’s parents, or even in the Parsonage, but not in the church building itself. I have no idea when the first “church” wedding took place in our township, but it would be interesting to find out. Our very elaborate and expensive weddings today are fairly recent innovations, and from the rate of divorce it seems as if they don’t “take” as well as the older, simpler ceremonies. Think of that, good parents, when you get ready to spend large sums of money on a “modern” wedding.

These interesting items appear in these old records. Jacqueline Murphy, former County Historian for Montgomery County, sent me this note from the old Montgomery County records of July 18, 1830:

Know all men by these presence

That I Elagh Hedding one of the Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America under protection of Almighty God and with a single eye to his glory the inspiration of my hands and prayer (being assisted by the Elders present) have this day set apart Samuel Waters for the office of an Elder in the said Methodist Episcopal Church a man whom I judge to be well qualified for that work and I do hereby recommend him to all whom it may concern as a proper person to administer the Sacraments and Ordinances and to feed the flock of Christ so long as his spirit and practices are such as becomes the Gospel of Christ.

In testimony thereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this eighteenth day of July in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty.

Done at Utica
N.Y.
Elegah Hedding
Joseph Hewitt Town Clerk

I have no idea why this religious matter, probably pertaining to our Methodist congregation, was inserted into the records of the Town of Oppenheim. I have never seen any other like it in our public records.

The following interesting item comes from Clemonsville, sometimes called “Overswamp” by Old Timers. It was written by Raymond Rawson’s mother, Frances Duesler Rawson and was part of Raymond’s journal. She wrote this in 1953, and probably the time period she was referring to was in the 1880’s or 1890’s:

Prayer meetings were held regularly in the old school house, (District # 15). Mrs. Rawson told of herself and Lizza Williams – it seems that John or Daniel Clemons let the prayer meetings and whey they prayed they would always kneel in the same spot behind the desk, so these young ladies somehow got the scent sac of a skunk and before the meeting placed it on the floor where the Clemons’ would kneel and sure enough, he came down on top of it, the results were an empty school house, much perfumed, and two giggling girls watching the proceedings.

Many religious meetings were held in our one-room schools. They were very handy for that purpose. In the Methodist Church history booklet the following comments from Mrs. Martha Cross are recorded: “In October, 1842 religious services were held for the first time in the Lottville School by the Minister from Dolgeville.” Perhaps this was part of an attempt to set up a church in Lottville; Crum Creek, Youkers Bush and Middle Sprite did, why not Lottville?

Lew Decker sent me an item from the “Gloversville Intelligencer,” dated May 18, 1877, to the effect that a “Rev. Charles Astin of Ilion preached in Middle Sprite last Sunday.” He could have given his sermon in the Free Methodist Church, if it was built by that time, or in one of our District schools.

Another interesting item comes from an autograph book owned by Will Cline, dated February 23, 1887. It is a poem written by Rev. O. M. Kelly, Pastor of both the Lassellsville and Oppenheim Methodist churches. Rev. Kelly left these churches in 1887, probably a few months after he wrote this poem for Will:

“At the dawn of day,
take time to pray,
for God will answer prayer.

At the Midnight hour,
Sunshine or shower,
Cast on Him every care.

When the evening abode
The Earth invade,
Let Him thy burden bear.

I found another item involving the Rev. Kelly purely by chance. Our eldest daughter, Mary Elisabeth Allen Jones who lives in Apalachin, N.Y. is co-owner and co-editor of the “Tioga County Courier,” a weekly newspaper published in Owego, N. Y. On April 9, 1985 the following obituary was in that paper.

 

MARTHA KELLY BAKER

Martha Kelly Baker, 100, of Route 17C, Campville, died April 9 at home of her closest friends, the Philpotts.

She is survived by a brother and sister-in-law, Georgeanne McPherson and a great-granddaughter, Valerie McPherson, both of Torrence, CA.

She was born in Lassellsville, N. Y. on July 30, 1894. She was the daughter of Rev. Orson M. and Margaret Jennie (Daley) Baker. She was a lifetime member of the Eastern Star having become a Matron in 1943, a past Noble Grand in 1973. She was also a member of the United Methodist Church in Owego. Burial in the Evergreen Cemetery, Owego.

Whoever sent in this obituary obviously made mistakes. She was the daughter of Rev. Kelly, and her married name was Baker. She was also born in 1884, to be 100 years old when she died. 1884 was the first year that the Oppenheim and Lassellsville Methodist Churches would be joined, that partnership lasting until 1909, or twenty-five years.

At any rate, I was really pleased to find this obituary. Among other things, it proves to Mary Elisabeth that I read her paper.

A final news note on our religious roots is provided by the St. Johnsville “Enterprise.” In May of 1901 this paper reported that a Sunday School Convention was held in the Town of Oppenheim, arranged by the Sunday School Association of Oppenheim. I assume this was a multi-denominational organization. At that time, 1901, we had the following churches operating:

Oppenheim Methodist, Crum Creek Lutheran, Youker’s Bush, Roman Catholic on Dolge Avenue and also at Middle Sprite. It is unlikely that the two Catholic Churches would participate in what was probably a protestant affair; ecumenism wasn’t in vogue at this early date, but surely the three Protestant Churches were involved, and possibly some people came out from Dolgeville, St. Johnsville and Lassellsville. The “Enterprise” did not provide many details.

This concludes the chapter on our religious roots. Aside from the names and statistics, can we get a sense of what it was really like in our early churches? Can we picture our ancestors walking miles of dusty, dirty roads to get to services? Can we see them riding in horse-drawn buggies, or in sleights on cold Sundays in the winter, all bundled up in robes and shivering? When they arrived, the churches themselves would be cold in the winter, so cold in the ole Methodist Church that they would adjourn to rooms over the General Store to keep from freezing. Those pews would also be plain and hard, not much was wasted on frills in our early churches. On dark days there would be no electric lights to chase away the shadows, just some oil lamps and in the earliest churches not even these.

Yet our ancestors went to the services, spent their hard-earned money to build the churches and often did manual labor to erect them. Of the churches created in our township, only two are still holding services. One became a Grange Hall, two stand idle and two were torn down.

 


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Last updated Tuesday, 13-May-2008 13:25:36 PDT