Cohoes Churches - Some History
Breea Willingham, Staff writer of Times Union, Albany
First published: Saturday, October 4, 2003
Webpage by Cliff Lamere 9 Oct 2003
Presented here with the permission of the Times Union.
Original title: "City finds new uses for vacant churches"
Subhead: As congregations have merged, challenge has been to reuse wealth of sites
(Capital Region section, page B1)
Churches in Cohoes are not what they used to be. St. John's Episcopal Church is now a public library, construction on a new park is under way at the site of the former Silliman Church, and The Baptist Church has been vacant for three years.
Over the past 15 years, Cohoes has lost 11 of its 25 churches as a decline in the city's population prompted many to merge or close.
"Cohoes was once considered the city of churches because there was a church for every little enclave. There were so many churches, they were all over the place," said Walt Lipka, the city's historian. "Back in the '60s and '70s, all the churches had their own unique congregation."
For instance, St. Agnes and St. Bernard were Irish, St. Michael's was Polish, St. Rita's was Italian and St. Joseph and St. Maries were French.
"There's that need that isn't there today because people merged into the total population," said the Rev. Lawrence McTavey, pastor of St. Bernard Catholic Church for 31 years. The church was established in 1847 and is still open on Ontario Street.
Churches were often the center of social life for the city's various ethnic and cultural groups, and helped them maintain their cultural traditions, language and customs. "St. Bernard's and other churches, they were obvious gathering spots for people to go to for faith-based and social events," said Mayor John T. McDonald III, a member of St. Bernard's. "St. Bernard's used to have a lot of parties in its heyday. A lot of people were involved. It really bought the community together."
The churches also served as a safety net for those struggling against poverty or other social ills. "There was a great network amongst parishes in ad hoc work before social services came to Cohoes. Nowadays we do the best we can and rely heavily on organizations to do the work," the mayor said.
In the late 1800s, when the city was at its peak as an industrial center, philanthropists helped finance a number of churches, and edifices such as St. John's Episcopal, St. Agnes and the Silliman Memorial churches were built, according to the Spindle City Historic Society.
Many of the congregations started small, meeting in locations such as private homes and shops. For example, the German Baptist Church, established in 1874, held its services at the Scandinavian Pilgrim Church and the Jewish faithful met at a home at 76 Newark St. before the Beth Synagogue was established in 1896 at 294 Remsen St.
By 1958, the Baptist, Reformed, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic and Russian Orthodox were all represented in the city's 19 different congregations, according to the historic society.
"There were so many Catholic churches in one area, but when the population diminished, they combined," said June Cherniak, treasurer of Spindle City.
St. Patrick's Catholic Church, St. Agnes Catholic Church and St. Maries Catholic Church merged about 10 years ago into the Holy Trinity church on Vliet Street; St. Patrick's reopened as Calvary Grace Church in 1990.
St. Agnes was taken over by Troy's Good Ground Family Church in 2001, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the Van Schaick Island neighborhood merged with St. Rita's Catholic Church to form the Mission Church.
"It's always good when a church closes and opens as a new church. Most were kept as churches and not changed into anything else," Cherniak said.
Although St. John's is being reused as the Cohoes Public Library, the building's architecture is still intact with its high ceilings, stained glass windows and archways. The library opened at the Silliman Church in 1970 and moved to St. John's in 1972.
The Baptist Church on Mohawk Street is still vacant, but McDonald said he has faith that the building can be restored. "My philosophy is what's salvageable we save. What's rubbish, we remove. That building is worth being saved," he said.
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