190 years ago this past week, on November 12, 1827, a group of men gathered in a school room in Albany’s South End, organized a new Episcopal congregation to be named “St. Paul’s Church or Congregation in the City of Albany” and elected the congregation’s first vestry. A week later, on November 19, the vestry elected St. Paul’s first rector, Richard Bury. The new congregation had been meeting in that room since the previous summer, gathered there by the Rev. Mr. Bury (previously priest-in-charge at Christ Church, Duanesburg) and two of his friends, Charles Skerritt and John Le Breton.
The first announcement of this event was in the Albany Argus for November 16, 1827:
St. Paul’s Church in the City of Albany – On Monday evening last, the 12th inst[ant] an Episcopal congregation, under the pastoral charge of the Rev. Richard Bury, was duly organised, and designated by the title of “St. Paul’s Church in the City of Albany.”
The wardens and vestry of this congregation intend, as soon as sufficient funds shall have been raised, to erect a church in the south part of this city, for the accommodation of its numerous and increasing population; until which time the services of the church will be conducted in a large and commodious room, to be prepared for this special purpose. They will indulge the hope that in this undertaking, they will be favored with the approbation of their fellow-citizens in general; but particularly with the good will and earnest prayers of those, who having “tasted that the Lord is gracious,” are desirous that others also may be brought to a knowledge of “the truth as it is in Jesus,” and to a participation of the blessedness of those who know the Lord, whom to know is life everlasting.
We next find the formation announced in The Christian Journal and Literary Register, Volume XI, No. 12, Dec 1827, page 376-377, which repeats the second paragraph of the Argus announcement exactly, and credits it to one of St. Paul’s first vestrymen. It then appends another paragraph, this also attributed to the anonymous vestryman:
It affords me peculiar pleasure to add, that it is with feelings of the most unfeigned kindness towards the congregation of St. Peter’s, and its venerated and truly estimable rector, that the wardens and vestry of St. Paul’s have commenced their operations. This is as it should be for when members of our holy and apostolic church, in the exercise of that Christian love which should always characterize her faithful followers, unite their humble efforts for the extension of her primitive discipline, evangelical doctrines, and inimitable liturgy, may then not hope that He who has built his Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and who has solemnly declared. that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her,” will crown their undertaking with success, and enable them to “bring forth their top-stone with joy.”
Since that beginning, St. Paul’s has owned four buildings in the city, and worshiped in two others (St. Peter’s Church in 1839, and Trinity Church 1964-1966), but this building, where we only stayed from summer 1827 until summer 1829, holds a special place as the congregation’s birthplace. There is some confusion, however, about what sort of school room this was, where it was located and who owned the building.
Many of our sources describe their meeting place as a “school room” on South Ferry Street but are vague on its exact location. One says that it was “below Ferry,” and two specifically place it at the corner of South Pearl and Rensselaer Streets. One also mentions that the school room was in the upper room of the building. Is this a literal description, or just a reference to the apostles meeting in an upper room In Acts 1:13?
When you think of that school room, don’t picture a cute little red school house, because this seems to have been a very simple old building. In 1827, the city of Albany had no public schools. The first building built as a school in the city (other than the Lancaster School on Eagle Street) was not erected until 1832. This must have been a private school of some kind, using whatever sort of structure was available.
Albany Tax Assessments are available for these years, and they list 158 South Pearl, on the northeast corner of Rensselaer, on the rolls for 1827, 1828 and 1830. In 1827, it was described as “old wood building.” In 1828, when St. Paul’s was using it, it is noted: “at present a place of worship.” In 1830, after St. Paul’s had moved into its new building on Ferry Street, it had reverted to use as a schoolhouse.
Throughout this period, the building was owned by George Charles, who lived next door. We assume that he plied his trade there, and even with the windows closed against the November chill, the odor of his tannery must have been strong in that school room. There seems, then, to be no doubt that the building in which St. Paul’s was organized was owned by George Charles. But an early (and otherwise very reliable source) tells a different story.
From “Our City Churches – XIV: St Paul’s (Episcopal)” Albany Evening Journal 28 Jan 1871:
The first named committee [authorized “to obtain a room for the temporary use of the congregation”: Bristol Fox, John Nelligar and either Agur or Hezekiah Wells] reported on the following week that Mr. McDougal, the owner of the school house which they then occupied, had offered to repair the building, and put it in a condition suitable for worship for the sum of $230 in advance and $50 annually thereafter, while they continued to occupy it. This offer did not seem to meet with much favor, as they rejected it, and authorized the last named committee [authorized “to secure a lot for erection of a church”: Edward A. Le Breton, Barent P. Staats and Bristol Fox] to treat with Stephen Lush and Mr. Kenyon for the purchase of lots facing on Ferry Street, and finally succeeded in purchasing three lots – two from the former for the sum of $2,500 and one from the latter for the sum of $500, in the following spring.
This Mr. McDougal must be John W. McDougal who was also a member of St. Paul’s first vestry. It would certainly make sense that the congregation would use a building owned by one of the organizers. If McDougal did own the building, and was, as the article claims, rejected in his offer of a long-term lease of the building, this might explain why, after this mention, he disappears completely from church records.
So, while can be certain about the school room’s location, we are left with a mystery concerning it’s ownership. The Albany Evening Journal account has the ring of truth, and may help us understand why Mr. McDougal left the church immediately after it was formed. But the tax assessments are very strong evidence that the old wood buidling was owned by George Charles.