A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
Binghamton's Oldest Church
Christ Church Celebrates Its 200th Anniversary

To a wealthy land investor in 1790, the picturesque confluence of two rivers set in the rolling hills of New York’s Southern Tier must have seemed an ideal setting for a new community. That’s when William Bingham purchased a large tract of land, including the area known today as Binghamton.

Bingham would never visit the land he purchased, but in 1798 he contracted 25-year old land agent Joshua Whitney to develop the area, known at the time as Chenango Point.

Soon a road was cleared, a bridge was built, and a small village took shape. In 1806 Broome County was established and the first courthouse was built. It was September, 1810, when a small group of residents, including Joshua Whitney, met in the new courthouse for the purpose of establishing a church. Named St. Anne’s, it would be the first organized church in Binghamton.

That was 200 years ago. To put things in perspective, our fourth President, James Madison, was in office. There were just seventeen stars on our nation’s flag. Across the world Napoleonic wars were raging, and in the arts, Goya was painting, Shelley was writing, and Beethoven was composing.

The meeting at the courthouse produced a church, but a building would have to wait. For the next several years services were held in the courthouse. By 1816, although still officially “Chenango Point,” the small village was commonly referred to as Binghamton, and St. Anne’s was revived as “The Binghamton Church.” Soon after that Joshua Whitney donated land at the corner of Henry and Water Street. Renamed “Christ Church,” services would be held in a newly completed academy on that site.

In 1822 a new, larger structure was built on the site which served the community for the next thirty years. This was a period of rapid growth in Binghamton, due in large part to completion of the Chenango Canal in 1837.

Eventually a larger building was needed, and in 1853 the cornerstone was laid for a new stone church. Of Gothic Revival style, it was designed by the foremost church architect of that time, Richard Upjohn. Church member John Stewart Wells, who built many of Binghamton’s most prominent structures, had the building constructed with distinctive blue-stone taken from quarries at Guilford, New York.

Now officially designated “Binghamton,” the town was prospering. As a leading cigar manufacturer, Binghamton was second only to New York City. In 1854, brothers Horace and George Lester, both members of Christ Church, launched a shoe-making enterprise that would bring people and prosperity to the area.

While Binghamton thrived, Christ Church faced challenges. The impressive new structure came at a price, and as a result, it would not be completed as designed. To cut cost, the steeple was not built…. not built, that is, until nearly fifty years later. In 1903, John Stewart Wells contacted architect Isaac Perry and obtained plans for the steeple consistent with Upjohn’s design. Wells re-opened the Guilford quarry and had the steeple built, all at his own expense. As the story goes, sometime later it was discovered that due to a miscalculation, the steeple is actually two feet shorter than Upjohn’s original plan!

In the bell tower just below the steeple is a set of chimes, manufactured by the Meneely Bell Foundry in Troy, New York. A faded, nearly invisible inscription appears on one of the bells: “In Memory of the Jarvis Family. Chime of Eleven Bells, Presented by C.M. Jarvis to Christ Church, 1903.”

A complex web of ropes, cables and pulleys connects eleven bell tollers to a console located two floors below, where large wooden levers are manually activated to play the chimes each Sunday morning.

One hundred years ago the church celebrated its centennial. At that time extensive renovation of the interior was done and several stained-glass windows were added.

In 1974, Christ Church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A major restoration project began in 1996 when the slate roof was replaced, stained-glass windows were restored, and the 1954 Casavant pipe organ was upgraded. Five years later, when the 110-foot stone steeple was repaired, then rector of Christ Church, Rev. W. Frisby Hendricks III commented “In nine years we will have our bicentennial, and the church must be ready.” Today, exterior restoration of stone and mortar is underway, and indeed, the church will be ready.

Planning for the bicentennial celebration began five years ago, said member Lynda Helmer, co-chairperson of the Christ Church Anniversary Committee. A series of monthly events was scheduled, starting last year and culminating September 18 with a worship service of rededication and thanksgiving. In addition, “we have created several commemoratives for our congregation in honor of our 200th year,” Helmer said, including a history book and 30-minute video documentary.

So much has changed since that meeting at Broome County Courthouse two centuries ago. In Joshua Whitney’s wildest dreams he could not have imagined the lifestyle we take for granted today. Some things have not changed… wars still rage, artists still create. But the church that came out of that meeting has remained steadfast through it all… and like the two rivers that surround and define this community, for 200 years its “river of the water of life” has continued to flow constant and true.

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