Discover West Baptist Church, Oswego
The West Baptist Church, at West Third and Mohawk streets, in Oswego, has opened its doors to worshippers since 1867.
It’s still a vibrant place. Its congregation meets every Sunday for services and reaching out to the community. And the church building is a treasure trove of history, with connections that transcend Oswego County.
Thomas Kingsford and his family were among the church’s earliest supporters; the Kingsfords, who built a a huge starch factory in Oswego in the 1840s, contributed more than half the cost of building the church.
The church building was completed under the leadership of the Rev. David Charles Hughes, who served as pastor of West Baptist Church from 1866 to 1869. His son, Charles Evans Hughes, served as the top justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and is considered one of the most important jurists of the 20th century.
To this day, there are traces of the influence that Kingsford and the Hugheses had on the church. Come and discover them.
Starch and the Supreme Court: The Founder of the Kingsford Starch Co. and a chief justice of the United States play roles in the history of the church
by Janet Clerkin
Contributing writer to The Post-Standard Neighbors, Oswego.
Oswego’s West Baptist Church has served as a house of prayer since 1867.
Look closer and you’ll see that the history of the elegant red brick landmark at West Third and Mohawk streets is interwoven with the stories of two families that shaped America’s commercial and political landscape during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Brass nameplates identify pews rented by Thomas Kingsford, founder of the Kingsford Starch Co., and his family. And a faded name plate on a stained glass window of Christ at Gethsemane identifies that the window was donated by Charles Evans Hughes, when was chief justice of the United States.
The highly respected statesman and Supreme Court jurist lived in Oswego for three years as a young boy. He became governor of New York, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and later candidate for president.
His father, the Rev. David Charles Hughes, served as pastor of West Baptist church from 1866 to 1869 a period of growth and prosperity for the city and the church. During David Charles Hughes’ tenure, 106 new members joined the church and the church building was completed. Although his residence was brief, when the church undertook the installation of a new set of windows, Charles Evans Hughes donated the window depicting Christ at Gethsemane on the northwest side of the sanctuary in memory of his father. During that same year, under Hughes’ leadership, the Supreme Court upheld the right of workers to collective bargaining and declared the Social Security Act to be constitutional.
When David Charles Hughes arrived in Oswego with his wife and young son, the Kingsford Starch Factory on West First Street employed 700 people and was producing millions of pounds of cornstarch annually. Members of the Kingsford family were among the original founders of the church and their influence is still evident today.
Before 1853, Oswego’s Baptist community worshipped at First Baptist Church near the County Courthouse on East Oneida Street. Today the building is the synagogue of Congregation Adeth Israel.
A group of 48 members many of them West Side residents, left the First Baptist Church and founded West Baptist in 1853. Thomas Kingsford was the first treasurer of the new congregation.
According to the 2003 church history, compiled by Stancy and Sandra Smith: “Two things doubtless, led to the formation of this church, one, residence on this side of the river on the part of those who constituted its charter members. The other, the conviction that the city was large enough to sustain, and that there was work enough for two Baptist churches.”
For a time, the West Baptist congregation met in Old City Hall on Water Street, and later in the “Tabernacle,” a building purchased from Gerrit Smith on east Bridge Street.
When the congregation decided to build a church on Oswego’s West Side, the Kingsford family was instrumental.
Vincent D’Ambrosio, retired professor emeritus in the technology department of the State University College at Oswego, has served as the church’s historian for more than 25 years.
Many of the original church records were destroyed in a fire years ago, and D’Ambrosio has done extensive research to reconstruct details of the church and its members.
“The Kingsford family gave the land and about 50 percent of the money needed to build the church,” said D’Ambrosio.
Thomas Kingsford and son are listed as the “largest subscriber” for the church’s construction in 1867, at a sum of $36,548.43. The total cost of the building project came to $64,579.
The church was designed by architect A. J. Warner of Rochester. D’Ambrosio said Warner was a widely known architect who “designed a number of edifices connected with Protestant and Catholic Churches, and many office buildings in Rochester.”
He said that Warner also submitted plans, which were not accepted, for Oswego City Hall. W. D. Gardner, an Oswego builder and a member of the church, supervised the building’s construction.
The church’s elegant interior reflects the generosity of the Kingsford family.
Most of the original furnishings remain intact.
The polished woodwork and pews are made of black walnut imported from the BLack Forest in Germany.
The original gas light fixtures have been wired for electricity.
The baptistry was installed in 1896 is still in use today; its coal heating was eventually converted to gas.
A balcony overlooks the spacious Fellowship Hall, where members continue to gather for social and church functions.
A large stained glass skylight in the center of the ceiling illuminates the room.
The interior walls around the podium were originally decorated with an elaborately painted border.
According to D’Ambrosio, the Kingsford family hired an artist to come to Oswego every year from New York City to repaint it.
The bronze church bell, which weighs more than 3,500 pounds, was forged at the Menleely Foundry in Troy. The same foundry manufactured the Kingsford Starch Factory bell that is now displayed at Breitbeck Park in Oswego.
Stancy Smith, a fourth generation member of West Baptist, said her father remembers the church bell being run by firefighters as the fire alarm on the city’s West Side.
Through his research, D’Ambrosio found a newspaper article, dated June 4, 1869, that noted David Charles Hughes was moving is family to Newark, N. J.
The Kingsford family continued its close involvement with the church until the family left the community, following the merger of Kingsford Starch with Argo Starch in the early 1900s.
In May 1952, during the church’s centennial celebration, the West Baptist congregation adopted a resolution affirming the “Christian influence and strong leadership that the Kingsford family exerted during their long and faithful membership in the West Baptist Church.”
The congregation has sponsored several restoration projects over the years. The memorial windows installed between 1936 and 1942 replaced small diamond-shaped colored glass in the original church windows.
Manufactured by Haskins Glass Co. of Rochester, each of the new panels depicts a Biblical scene and was donated in memory of an immediate family member.
The Brennan Glass Studio of Syracuse restored the windows during the 1980s under the pastorate of the Rev. Norman Bardsley.
Charles Evans Hughes went on to lead a remarkable public life. He graduated the youngest in his class in 1881 from Brown University.
During the early 1900s he served as counsel for the New York State Legislature and a special assistant to the state attorney general. With the backing of Teddy Roosevelt, Hughes was elected governor of New York in 1906, defeating newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.
In 1910 he was appointed to the U. S. Supreme Court by President WIlliam Taft. He resigned six years later to run as the Republican candidate for president against Woodrow Wilson.
Hughes lost the election by 23 electoral votes. The popular vote was 8,538,221 for Hughes and 9,129,606 for Wilson.
In 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed Hughes chief justice of the United States. He served in that capacity until 1941. He died at age 86 in Osterville, Mass, according to D’Ambrosio’s research, at the home of his daughter, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a 4-cent stamp in his memory in 1962.
In some ways, the church has come full circle, said D’Ambrosio. He noted it was originally formed as mission of the First Baptist Church on the East Side, and services were held in public buildings “until we had our own building.”
“The church has been a part of the Oswego community for so long,” he said. “When the First Baptist Church closed its doors (in 1967), many of their members came to our church, to continue the cycle of the two churches.
For Smith, the history of the church speaks for itself. Smith is a moderator, or lay leader, of West Baptist. What continues to make the church so special, she said, is its caring and friendly environment.
“It’s a really nice family,” she said. “Everyone watches out for each other.”
from: Janet Clerkin, “Starch and the Supreme Court,” The Post Standard/Neighbors Oswego, Thursday, April 20, 2006.