In November 2027, St. Paul’s Church in the City of Albany will celebrate its 200th anniversary. The purpose of this site is to gather and share materials to be used for a bi-centennial history, and to host other ramblings on the history of “this Antient and respectable City of Albany.”
A Historical Sketch of St. Paul’s Church, Albany
“St. Paul’s Church or Congregation in the City of Albany” was formed in the year 1827. Since then, we have worshiped in four different buildings and in four different neighborhoods, all in the city of Albany. Our history is intimately tied to the history of this city.
We are this city’s second Episcopal congregation, organized by Richard Bury, then rector of Christ Church, Duanesburg, with the enthusiastic help of two of his young friends. These three saw a need in Albany’s rapidly-growing South End for an Episcopal Church more convenient for members of St. Peter’s who lived in the area and for the unchurched looking for a church home. The first meetings were held at the southwest corner of South Pearl and Rensselaer Streets, in an old wooden building that had previously been used as a schoolhouse. After formal organization in November 1827, the first vestry decided to build a church, with costs to be paid by the sale of pews, the common method at that time. They chose a lot on what is now the corner of Ferry and Dongan streets, and hired Philip Hooker to design a building. The structure was dedicated on August 24, 1839.
From the beginning, the young congregation faced financial difficulties. Albany’s South End did not continue to grow as expected, and the building remained on the city outskirts. More important, few of those joining St. Paul’s were wealthy enough to purchase pews.
The young congregation barely survived its first dozen years. In early 1839, shortly after the arrival of William Ingraham Kip, the fourth rector in the church’s short life, matters reached a crisis. The congregation was forced to sell the building. Kip and a new set of lay leaders chose to leave the South End. They purchased a theater on South Pearl Street in the city’s center, and renovated it as a church.
The twenty-five years on Pearl Street were happy ones. Situated in an affluent residential section, and with the financial problems resolved, the congregation was able to grow and thrive. The congregation created a Free Mission Chapel on lower Madison Street, which, among other programs, provided the first services for the deaf in the city.
By 1862, the congregation found that the neighborhood that had once been ideal had changed; the affluent who had once lived there had moved to the west part of the city, and Pearl Street was now the city’s business district. Plans were underway for a new building farther west, when disaster struck: four Albany banks failed within two weeks, and the church lost its financing for the new building just as it agreed to sell the former theater. Fortunately, the bank failures that created the crisis also created a solution. A Dutch Reformed congregation had almost completed construction of a building on Lancaster Street, and because of the crisis could not pay to finish it. St. Paul’s bought the building on Lancaster Street, and made its home there for the next century.
The period between the Civil War and World War I was a time of prosperity and growth for the congregation. Now located in an affluent neighborhood, the congregation grew and prospered. With one rector serving from 1864 until 1891, and a senior warden serving from 1862 until 1903, and with vestrymen serving average terms of thirteen years, church leadership was remarkably stable. This stability was evidenced by a new concern for outreach: continued support of the Free Chapel, the founding of St Andrews and St. Mark’s Chapel, as well as clergy support for Grace Church and St. Stephens, Delmar. Toward the end of this period, despite financial security, there were signs of stagnation and fear of the future. In a 1902 sermon, the rector spoke of changes that would be required if the congregation was to survive. One option was moving to a new neighborhood, but that was not practical or financially feasible. It was only in 1906 that a revival began, with major renovations to the building and a new music program. The congregation also organized a campaign to collect enough donations for an endowment, allowing the church to support itself entirely from pledges, rather than relying on the sale of pews, as had been the common practice.
The post-World War II era saw the culmination of social change in the city of Albany. The neighborhood declined, and many of St. Paul’s members moved to the suburbs. By 1958, discussions began about the possibility of the church making yet another move to follow its members, but once again a move was impractical and financially unfeasible. As in 1861, a second crisis created the solution for the first: construction of Governor Rockefeller’s Empire State Plaza meant that St. Paul’s would have to move. While leaving their home of a century was painful, reimbursement from the state, and the gift by the diocese of land in the Good Samaritan Center (adjacent to Child’s Hospital and St. Margaret’s Home, and soon to be joined by Nelson House), allowed St. Paul’s to build a large new building on Hackett Boulevard.
St. Paul’s recently noted the fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of our church on Hackett Boulevard. We continue our tradition of service, both locally and internationally. And we continue the congregation’s long history of support for the Anglican musical tradition in worship and in concert. We look forward now to our 200th anniversary in 2027, when we hope to be able to say, as Bishop Nelson did in 1927, “St. Paul’s parish is looking forward to a new century of life and of usefulness.”