Not all of this town’s churches with deep roots in local history stand on Huguenot Street. The New Paltz United Methodist Church, located since 1929 at the corner of Main and Grove Streets, began as a stop on the preaching circuit of Ezekiel Cooper in the late 18th century, only 20 years after the Methodist Church first came to America.
The earliest surviving documentation of Cooper’s visits to the Deyo and DuBois homes in New Paltz is dated 1787, according to the Reverend Bette Sohm, pastor of the local flock since 2010. But the itinerant preacher began making the rounds of what was then called the East Jersey Circuit in 1786 and may have first visited New Paltz then; so the local congregation officially dates its establishment as of 1786. Sohm is using this year to mark the church’s 230th anniversary by organizing a busy calendar of guest pastor visits, lectures, musical presentations and other activities. “We’re doing glorious things,” she says.
The majority of those glorious things have to do in one way or another with the church’s history. Each month, for example, a guest pastor is invited to speak, and each one is either a former New Paltz United Methodist Church pastor, former member of the congregation, child of a congregation member or otherwise has some past association with the local church. The yearlong celebration began in December with a visit from the bishop of the regional UMC conference, Jane Allen Middleton, who spoke about the church’s history and then was fêted with a potluck dinner featuring dishes that had appeared in recipe books published by the church as fundraising items going back to the 1950s.
The church has also kicked off a lecture series named in honor of a recently deceased congregation member, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Carleton Mabee. The first lecture, in January, featured Anna Bates of Empire State College, who is currently compiling a “social history” of the New Paltz United Methodist Church, distributing a questionnaire to congregants seeking stories of how they and their families became connected with the institution. Bates has also brought in a couple of student interns to create an archive for the church from records packed away in boxes for decades.
The Carleton Mabee Lectures continued last Friday evening with an appearance by Lee Pritchard, director of the Camerata Chorale and longtime professor of Music at SUNY New Paltz. He gave a talk on the “seven streams” of Methodist hymnody and led the congregants in a participatory hymn sing. Dr. Morris Davis of Drew University will deliver the next lecture, beginning at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 11, on the topic of “The Evolution of Methodist Theology.”
All the talks and concerts are free and open to the general public, and the lecture scheduled for April 17 is likely to appeal to a broad audience: Bill Rhoads will be giving one of his popular talks on local architecture, combined with a walking tour that traces the sites that have been home to the New Paltz United Methodist Church since the 18th century. From its beginnings as informal meetings in private homes, the congregation established its first building at the corner of Main and Church Streets, according to Reverend Sohm. “In 1878 they moved the building down the block and then added to it,” she relates. “That’s the building that now houses the New Paltz Jewish synagogue.”
But by the early 1900s, when the Methodist Church was serving as a “mission church” to the young women at the New Paltz Normal School, the Church Street location proved a liability. “It was next door to a livery stable,” Sohm explains — a situation that prompted attrition among the daughters of Methodist families to the Dutch Reformed Church on Huguenot Street. The pastor at the time therefore wrote to the regional Methodist conference pleading for money to build a new church, complaining that the Church Street site “stinks and is full of flies.” Eventually the congregation’s wish was granted, and relocated to its present site at 1 Grove Street in 1929. An education wing was added in the 1960s, and more recent remodeling has modernized the building and made it handicapped-accessible.
The next guest preacher to speak at the church will be the Reverend Kevan Hitch, who served as pastor of the New Paltz United Methodist Church in the early 2000s, conducting the worship service on Sunday morning, March 6. The first of four musical events, a concert by several past church organists, will be presented in May. That series will wind up in October with Sweet Singer, a one-man biographical performance by baritone Steve Kimbrough of the life of Charles Wesley, brother of Methodist Church founder John Wesley and author of more than 6,000 hymns.
For more information about events over the coming year, check out the church’s website at https://newpaltzumc.org/events/230th-anniversary-celebration-2016. “As opportunities come up, we may add to an already jam-packed year,” says Reverend Sohm. “I may not survive it, but it’s a wonderful opportunity!”