Less than two weeks after merging with the , the sanctuary at the former is already experiencing new life.
More than twice as many worshipers attended services at the Fairfield Avenue church Sunday—and that’s literally music to the ears of Pastor Donald Brown.
“There were twice as many people as what we were used to seeing,” he said. “Hearing voices sing when I’m standing in the front, it’s just such a better worship experience.”
With a history tracing back to the early 1800s, the Presbyterian Church of West Caldwell is no more. The Fairfield Avenue church was absorbed by the First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell effective June 1.
The two congregations are moving forward as one.
First Presbyterian Pastor Rick Sommers said the move was approved by both congregations earlier this year and was given the blessing of the Presbytery of Newark on May 29.
Rev. Sommers is Senior Pastor of the united congregations, while West Caldwell’s former pastor, Rev. Don Brown, is the Associate Pastor.
The conversation to merge the churches started several years ago, with the West Caldwell Presbyterian Church facing an increasingly smaller and aging congregation.
“The West Caldwell folks did choose this and I applaud them,” Rev. Sommers told Patch Monday. “So many churches in our area are simply just dying out.”
West Caldwell adds about 40 congregants to First Presbyterian’s more than 800. The Fairfield Avenue facility where West Caldwell Presbyterian Church stood since the 1940s, as well as all the church’s assets, have been transferred to First Presbyterian.
The West Caldwell site is now called the "First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell, West Caldwell Campus," and opens many possibilities to serve the community, from a potential senior center to a place to hold contemporary services.
On Sundays, the West Caldwell Campus is holding an 8:30 a.m. worship service, while First Pres has dropped its 8:30 a.m. service and continues offering a 10 a.m. service.
Brown, who was pastor at West Caldwell for more than seven years, said the small membership made it difficult to carry out the church’s outreach work.
“We could have dug our heels and frankly just watched those numbers decline year after year,” said Rev. Brown. “We decided to take a proactive approach and seek out fellowship with a congregation that had a lot more things going on ...”
With such few hands, Brown said, there just weren’t enough opportunities beyond managing the church itself.
For example, he said, “Instead of having to go to a meeting to discuss a budget, the members can choose to serve at a soup kitchen."
The Winds of Change
Robert Thiemann, a lifelong member and Elder of the Presbyterian Church of West Caldwell, was instrumental in the church merger. Thiemann presented the plan of union to the Presbytery along with John "Jack" Dusinberre.
Thiemann said he was inspired by Pastor Brown’s words: “The breath of God is going to move this church forward.” He said, “I got this image in my mind of us sailing in a ship and the breath of God moving us.”
He said the Presbytery was impressed by the plan and voted unanimously to approve it.
Immediately after being told, “You are now one church,” Thiemann described an approaching storm that caused every window to “open and shut and open and shut” in the room.
History of West Caldwell Presbyterian Church
The history of the West Caldwell Presbyterian Church stretches back 210 years, according to Pastor Brown.
The original location was just up the street where the West Caldwell Firehouse now stands. A number of families purchased the Franklin Schoolhouse around 1802 and began to worship there, with the service given in Dutch and English on alternating Sundays.
One of the early pastors was Richard Cleveland, father of U.S. President Grover Cleveland.
In 1912, with the congregation growing, the church became known as the West Caldwell Union Chapel, a non-denominational church.
Land for a new building was donated by Ida May Blauvelt and Julia Potwin (daughter of Nathan Crane). According to Brown, a number of families worked on the original building, including the Franciscos, Lockwards and Bartons. Construction began during the Depression and was completed in 1946.
The church became the Presbyterian Church of West Caldwell in 1954, when it started building a new sanctuary. The expansion was completed in 1961 and about 375 members worshipped here in the 1960s and 70s.
“That’s pretty much a peak,” Rev. Brown said, adding that the population was shifting during those decades. He said according to a report he read, in the 1960s, four out of five new residents of West Caldwell were Roman Catholics.
“The tides were beginning to turn even back then. The dynamic of the community was drastically changing,” he said.