Turn UM Church into ‘Sacred Sites’ discovery center

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 28 August 2013 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers

The First United Methodist Church in Albion has a important role in the religious fervor that swept the “burned-over district” in the 1800s.

ALBION – It was called the “burned-over district,” the swath of western and central New York that was fertile ground for religious fervor in the 1800s.

Churches sprang up, including new denominations, and church leaders pushed to make believers out of the new settlers who were drawn to the area once the Erie Canal was under construction beginning in 1817. Church leaders especially targeted the canal workers, who were viewed as the underclass in need of spiritual direction.

One of the most famous evangelists, Charles Finney, referred to the area in his 1876 autobiography as the “burned-over district,” saying then the area had been heavily evangelized. There was no “fuel” (unconverted population) left over to “burn” (convert).

Joseph Smith started the Mormon Church in Palmyra. Spiritualism started and found a home at Lily Dale in Chautauqua County. (I grew up in Lily Dale.) Other religious movements emerged in the “burned-over district.”

Albion plays an important historical role in the push to evangelize and also to shape social issues. One church denomination, the Free Methodists, opened their first church in Albion, across the street from the Methodist Episcopal Church (now the United Methodist Church). The new church was strongly in support of freeing slaves, not charging pew fees and welcoming women into leadership roles in the church.

Loren Stiles preached those messages and he was expelled in 1859 from the Methodist Episcopal Church in Albion. Stiles and a new congregation built the Free Methodist Church across the street. That church launched a denomination that has grown to more than 1,000 churches, with most of the church membership outside the United States. About 53 percent of Free Methodists live in Africa.

The first Free Methodist church in the world opened across the street from the United Methodists after Loren Stiles was expelled. He formed the new church in 1859. There are now more than 1,000 Free Methodist churches in the world.

The original church remains in Albion, where about 200 people attend church on Sundays. (I go to that church.)

I felt sick for a few days last week after the United Methodists announced they planned to abandon their historic building, and turn it over to the denominational conference. The church needs about a $1 million repair to the roof and its support system. The congregation of about 30 families doesn’t have that kind of money.

I fear the church will be stripped of all the stained-glass windows, the pipe organ and ornate woodwork. And the building could be knocked down. That would be a blow to the congregation – and to Albion, Orleans County and New York State, which has a rich history.

I think the eight churches in the Courthouse Square are one of Albion’s great assets, buildings that are like walking into a time capsule from the 19th Century.

Albion is the only place I know of on earth that has eight historic church buildings, all representing different stories, so close together, with a courthouse from 1858 as the center.

The buildings are loaded with ecclesiastical art, including windows from the famed Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in New York City. The Pullman Memorial Universalist Church has a breath-taking window of Jesus that almost looks three-dimensional.

The “Christ the Consoler” window in the Pullman church is a tremendous work of art by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company.

I’ve been in all of the churches. They’re all different, showing an array of architectural styles. Most of the buildings have giant stained-glass windows that bear the names of prominent families from ore than a century ago, names like the Swan family that started Albion’s first public library. (You can find that window in the Baptist Church.)

The dedication at the bottom of a window dedicated to William Gere Swan in the Baptist Church.

So, about the United Methodist Church building. Let’s turn it into a “Sacred Sites” Discovery Center that would talk about the religious and social movements that swept upstate in the 1800s, with some of those movements gaining strength and going world-wide.

The Sacred Sites center could provide an introduction to the different denominations and religious movements. It wouldn’t be a place to proselytize, but for people to learn the origins of the faith traditions of the different denominations.

The center could educate on church architecture and art, highlighting the works of some of the masters, such as Tiffany. Albion is truly a showcase of some awesome ecclesiastical artistry.

The United Methodist building could become a significant attraction, especially when combined with the seven other churches in the Courthouse Square. With the building’s new purpose, telling the stories of the social and religious movements that were so important to the state, it only makes sense to me that New York should help pay the bulk of repairing the roof and its support system.

It would be far easier for the state to help with this project than putting the entire financial burden on the 30 families that go to the church. (If this becomes a Sacred Sites Discovery Center, I think the sanctuary should continue to be used for church services, with the United Methodists welcome to use the building on Sunday mornings. The church could also use the site for other outreach ministries, especially with meals from the fellowship hall.)

The United Methodist Church has a failing structural support system for the roof over the sanctuary. The church is using five wooden beams to offer some structural support. A proper fix could top $1 million.

New York has a rich history and many museums tell stories of abolitionists, the women’s suffrage movement, pioneer settlers and even the best professional athletes.

New museums and “discovery centers” are added all the time, with a grape and wine center in Westfield among the most recent additions. A Finger Lakes Museum is planned for Yates County. More projects are on the drawing board, including a Medina Sandstone Hall of Fame.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo loves the state’s history, and he has put state resources behind heritage tourism, wanting New Yorkers and visitors to know about the many inventors, social justice leaders and battlefields in the state’s history.

We have sites that talk about Jell-O in Le Roy and toys in Rochester. When I lived in North Chili, there was a dollhouse museum a couple blocks away.

The state should work with Albion to create a Sacred Sites destination. We can work around the separation of church versus state by focusing on the social and cultural history behind the religious movements, and the art of the stained glass and pipe organs.

I would encourage the village, county and our local state representatives to give this idea consideration – soon, before the United Methodist Church is picked of its assets.

If we created the Sacred Sites center, we’d need an army of volunteers to help run the place, including some paid staff. We’d need local dollars to help convince the state the community supports this.

We may need to form an Albion Historical Alliance or something like that and start getting aggressive about preserving and promoting these assets. Besides the churches, we have an abundance of riches with cobblestone homes, spectacular Medina Sandstone structures, and so much more.

The Presbyterian Church is one of eight churches in Albion that are named to the National Register of Historic Places.