For 200 years, music has played prominent role at Potsdam’s First Presbyterian Church
By CRAIG FREILICH
POTSDAM – From the time 200 years ago when members were first signed up to today, music has played a prominent role in the life of the First Presbyterian Church of Potsdam.From prayer and song at the first meetings of the congregation in a single-room building, to a pastor who wrote two well-known hymns, to the shared origins with the Crane School of Music, to broad support for music from the Sisson family of early North Country settlers, music has been a constant backdrop to events in the church’s 200-year history.
The church is planning several events leading up to the big bicentennial celebration in June. Among the first will be a concert at the church at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 3, with hymns and handbell, piano and organ performances.
Church historians put the founding of the church at June 9, 1811, when the church society was formed and memberships were recorded. About a year before, early Potsdam settler, land agent and judge Benjamin Raymond and his family hosted Sabbath gatherings of Scripture readings, prayer and song.
The gatherings soon grew too large to be accommodated in his house, so he built what became known as the old academy, near where the post office is today. The single large room with a steeple and a bell became the first meeting place for the congregation.
That building also eventually housed the forerunner to SUNY Potsdam and the Crane School, St. Lawrence Academy, from 1816 to 1826, and marked the beginning of participation by students and faculty from Crane that continues today.
Julia Crane herself, and her successor as dean at Crane Helen Hosmer, participated in church music events. Hosmer was substitute organist at the church, and was part of the church’s 150th anniversary celebration, when she narrated celebratory presentations.
Crane Professor Emeritus Arthur Frackenpohl, who still will not refuse an invitation to sit at the piano and play, has written a new hymn for the celebration, based on a text from former Pastor Scott Barton.
Church member and longtime Crane Librarian Sarah “Sally” Skyrm, who died in 2007, has been honored by the dedication to her of the church’s recently refurbished pipe organ.
That organ was donated in 1931 by the Sisson family in memory of Sarah Hamilton Sisson, who had been church organist for many years.
The Sisson family also gave the church choir two of its directors, Charles Sisson in 1894 and F.T.E Sisson, choir director for 32 years, from 1906 to 1938.
At this week’s concert, the well-known hymns with lyrics written by Jeremiah Rankin, a pastor at the Potsdam church in the mid-1800s, will be performed. The best known of his hymns are “God Be with You ’Til we Meet Again” and “Tell It to Jesus.” He went on to be pastor of the First Congregational Church in Washington, D.C., in 1869, and president of Howard College in the capital city in 1889.
Another notable pastor of the Potsdam congregation was Azel Lyman, who arrived in 1810 and was one of the founding members of the church. According to a letter he wrote when he was 82 years old Deacon Lyman recalled that the first church meeting held in the building Raymond built was the funeral service for his first child, a two-year-old daughter.
But not long after Lyman disappeared from church records. It has since been confirmed that he took his family west to Illinois, founding churches in communities along the way.
Several more buildings have housed the Potsdam congregation over the years. The movement to build a separate church began in 1818, and the “White Church” was finished in 1822, the first church in Potsdam to be completed, on what is now the site of Clarkson University’s downtown Snell Hall.
The “Brick Church” was built on the same spot and served the congregation from 1853 to 1867. The current Potsdam sandstone edifice at the intersection of Elm Street and Lawrence Avenue was begun in 1868 and was finished in 1872. A community center was added in 1970.