ELIZABETH – Last week, the Old First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth turned a page in history when two giant cranes hoisted a brand new steeple, weighing roughly 27 tons, to the building’s summit. Local leaders attended a public ceremony marking the occasion.
The steeple renewal project – which has been in the works for nearly a year – was funded by a $1-million grant from the Harold B. and Dorothy A. Snyder Foundation. It is the latest in a series of major renovations and repairs to the church’s main building, Parish house, and cemetery that will help restore it to its original state. Founded in 1664, Old First was the first English-speaking church in New Jersey and one of the oldest houses of worship in the nation.
“Few, if any, new steeples of this size are raised these days,” said the Reverend Charles Brackbill, president of the Old First Historic Trust. He called it “a dramatic once-in-a- lifetime experience.”
Spearheaded by the Old First Historic Trust – a group of community leaders who each have an intimate connection with or appreciation for the Old First Presbyterian Church – the renovation process aims to restore, protect, and preserve a significant landmark listed in the state and national Registers of Historic Places.
With its modest beginnings in the wilderness 344 years ago, the Old First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth has withstood the test of time. It serves as a powerful historic testament to almost three hundred and fifty years of city-, state-, and nation-building. Its was originally built by a group of New England Puritans who settled into modern-day Elizabeth after signing a treaty with native Indians for a parcel of land that stretched across what is now New Jersey.
The church gave refuge to thousands of brave men and women searching for new beginnings. At first, it provided them with a place to meet and run the public affairs of the city and region. Later, when Elizabeth Town became the capital of New Jersey in 1751, it began to play an even more prominent role in regional politics. It provided a venue for managing the affairs of the state, as many prominent men, from mayors to governors, conducted their business in this meeting house. But later, Old First came to provide much more to the state and nation than a meeting place for day-to-day public discourse. It trumpeted the battle cries of New Jersey’s Independence movement during the Revolutionary War.
It also simultaneously gave rise to prominent scholastic achievements – most notably the creation of the College of New Jersey, which seeded the roots of today’s Princeton University. It boasted, among its pastors, students, congregation members, and patrons, leading American scholars, theologians, politicians, revolutionaries, patriots, and statesmen – among them noted theologian Jonathan Dickinson, famous statesmen Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, General Lafayette, “Fighting Parson” James Caldwell, Declaration of Independence signer Abraham Clark, President of the Confederation Congress Elias Boudinot, and signers of the U.S. Constitution William Livingston and Jonathan Dayton.
The church’s burial grounds, where General Lafayette paid homage to his fallen brothers, houses more than 2,300 historic gravestones that speak volumes about defining moments in history. The oldest dates back to 1667 and many are still in remarkably good condition despite the centuries passed. The cemetery is now undergoing a restoration process to reverse the ravages of time and preserve these valuable remnants of historic development. To further the process of historic preservation, the church has also undergone a recent restoration of its main interior, as well as current repairs to its Parish House, which are slated for completion in late 2008. In addition, plans are currently underway to develop a visitor center and archive for safekeeping of the many valuable artifacts accumulated by the church over the centuries.
“The church’s past is invaluable from an archival standpoint. It testifies to such an impressive length of time, and has witnessed so many landmark events, moments, and individuals in history that it is impossible not to appreciate its accumulated historic cache. But the church’s value far exceeds its longevity. Its mission today to serve those in need is a close reflection of its original mission 344 years ago, which is just as urgent now as it was then. The church continues to be a place of comfort and a force for positive change in the community and region, as it always was, and that is where its true value lies,” said Gerard Nelson, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Old First Historic Trust.
With its mission to “Preserve and Serve,” today, Old First provides much needed services to the community’s less fortunate. Still deeply committed to the cause of its founders – to give hope, comfort, help, and guidance to those in need – the church strives to meet the burgeoning human needs of the growing inner city. It serves more than 12,000 meals each year to the homeless or economically disadvantaged, a program launched 8 years ago, which has now served over 80,000 meals to date. The church also provides a healing ministry to those afflicted with HIV/AIDS, a clothing closet, a wellness program, a life skills program for non-violent young offenders, an Alcoholics Anonymous support group, and the space for bilingual religious services (in both English & Spanish) for new immigrants.
Old First, which has received multiple public and private grants for maintenance and renovation work, continues to actively pursue and eagerly welcome funding from public and private institutions. It is this type of support and patronage that will ensure its ability to fulfill its valuable two-fold mission – preserving the past and serving thousands of people in need, in the present and in the future.