This is the birth place of Presbyterianism in Johnstown. The building was erected at the end of Market Street on the bank of the Stonycreek River. Some will know this as the location of the old Joseph Johns Junior High School. During the week, the building was used for educational purposes, and on alternate Sabbaths, the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans held services of worship. The building was a one room framed structure. This building was sold in 1856 to the highest bidder for $63.00.
In 1835, the Presbyterians had grown in numbers to warrant a building of their own. The Red Brick House was erected. The building was used for both schooling and a place to worship. Unfortunately, not much documentation about this building has ever been found.
The two-story buidling was erected in 1856. Under the direction of Rev. Beale, a parsonage was built on Lincoln Street behind the Main Street Church for $4,000.
In 1889, the church had much to overcome. In May 31, 1889, Johnstown suffered a natural man made disaster that stood as the singular event to kill the most people until events of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane and the events of 9/11.
Johnstown was used to being flooded quite often every spring. However, this time was very different. Swollen streams, two days of rain and a very weak dam changed the lives of all those associated with Johnstown forever.
During the flood, Dr. Beale, his wife, two sons and a daughter were virtually trapped in the third floor of the Lincoln Street manse. This building was located directly behind the church. Mr. Beale thought only of saving the old family Bible and his daughter took the canary in its cage. The family lost everything else. The rushing water made the frame of the manse creak as those inside watched friends and parishioners swept away by the water. The Beale family was helped through a window and over the roof into Alma Hall. The manse later collapsed under the pressure of the water that night. The church itself was deluged with three feet of water above the pews and the basement was filled with mud.
Clara Barton & The Red Cross
Clara Barton requested that the church be used as a morgue. Planks were placed over the pews and the dead bodies were laid there so that they could be viewed by those searching for loved ones. This did not go over well with the congregation. Dr. Beale kept a book where he recorded the names of identified flood victims and described, as best as possible, unidentified bodies or body parts. Sometimes a body wore only a wedding ring; other times, the minister sketched the pattern of clothing found on a nameless victims. This grim task involved stripping, washing and identifying corpses, including members of the minister’s own congregation.
The flood’s aftermath strained the minister’s already tense relationship with one of his elders, John Fulton. Fulton was angry that Beale turned the church into a morgue. On June 13, 1889, the state Board of Health, fearing an epidemic, urged Johnstown residents to leave town. An exhausted Rev. Beale visited his mother in central Pennsylvania and also spent time in Baltimore.
When the minister returned a few months later in September, Fulton accused him of abandoning the congregation to recuperate and write his flood memoir. In December 1889, members of the First Presbyterian Church held meetings with the congregation debating on whether to remove Rev. Beale as a pastor. After two meetings, it was decided that Beale would be retained.
The following is a direct quote from Rev. Beale: “Regard for the dead and the living required us to
suppress our sentiments and yield for a time to what seemed to us a religious duty. We did what we had a right to suppose the Master of Faith would have done if he had personally been present.”
Despite the humanitarian work of the gallant minister, he found it hard to change the opinions of his congregation of broken hearts, mixed feelings and factions. Despite the help and contributions from many people, the church was left helpless and destitute. Dr. Beale, after most trying and bitter experiences, resigned in 1890.
The building was sold in 1911 for $125,000. This was a profit of $124,600.00. Yes, the original price of the ground was $400.00.
In 1989, the 100th anniversary of the Great Flood, a theater on Main Street, the Embassy, was to be torn down. When this happened, remains of the church were found inside. The theater was built around the church. The seating for the theater was where the pews had been and the screen was where the pulpit and choir loft had been. In the building, the old church is still visible. The stained glass windows are visible as soon as you enter the front of the new building.
First Presbyterian Church at Lincoln & Walnut Streets
By 1909, the congregation had grown to over 1,000 members. Sunday School attendance had grown to almost 600. The Main Street building was over-taxed and there was no room for expansion. A change of location was a necessity. On May 12, 1909, the congregation purchased the old Campbell homestead at Walnut and Lincoln Streets for $55,000 with $5,000 of the price donated by the Campbell heirs as a memorial to their mother. In June 1911 construction began on the sandstone building. The cornerstone was laid that November. The building which could be termed a semi-cathedral and is modified English Gothic. The building contains a sanctuary seating approximately 1,200 people including a spacious balcony which is constructed so that it does not extend out over the main floor of the worship space. The educational rooms were built to take care of 600 people.
It took approximately 22 months to erect the new church building. No men were injured during construction. The total costs on the new building were $255,000. New Home Week was celebrated from April 27 through May 11, 1913. Members were able to use the Lecture Room and Sabbath departments on September 8, 1912. The church was formally dedicated on May 4, 1913. On January 11, 1914, Dr Hays quoted, “This is the greatest day in the church’s history!” The reason was the accepting of new members. On that day 284 new members were received into the congregation. Of the 284, 138 were men, 117 were women, and 29 children. Another 50 children were in training at that time to become church members. At this service, the sanctuary was filled to capacity and chairs were placed in all available locations.