Written and kindly contributed by Oppenheim Historian,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.