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First Presbyterian Church in Dexter celebrates 175th anniversary

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DEXTER — Just before the Rev. Gail R. Parsons rang a little glass bell marking the start of the 11 a.m. Sunday service at First Presbyterian Church, 118 W. Kirby St., friendly greetings and gentle embraces were shared among the tiny congregation.

The church’s main doors remained open throughout the service, welcoming any and all to join. That, the Rev. Ms. Parsons said, is what will help keep the church alive for years to come.

It was during that service the church celebrated its 175th anniversary. The open-door theme remained embedded through prayer, reflection and the singing of hymns, such as “All Are Welcome,” to remind parishioners that in order for the congregation to grow, members must welcome in others and then help spread the word of God.

“We do not live in the past; we look forward to the future,” the Rev. Ms. Parsons said. “It is good to celebrate our past; that is our foundation. We have life, active people and the hope of the future in this congregation. We can add to it. A lot of history has gone by, but we have a lot of history to create.”

The church was the first religious society to be organized in the village, on July 2, 1839, with 18 members, according to a historical account from the church’s 150th celebration. It wasn’t incorporated until September 1842, and didn’t have a permanent location until nearly a decade later.

While the red brick is original, many changes have taken place inside to keep the church functioning properly. Back in February 1916, a fire broke out in the furnace in the basement just as then-pastor the Rev G.T. Wood stepped into the pulpit. No one was injured, but after the fire came up through the basement into the main church, there was about $3,500 worth of damage. Later on, the church’s annex was built and used as a fellowship hall and gathering area.

The church’s men’s club has since ended, but select women remain in the women’s group.

Inside the quaint church, which seats about 150 people, are handmade felt coverlets decorated with religious symbols. At the center of the altar is a golden cross and an open Bible.

Melba Jean Ellingsworth said she has attended the church since she was 3, when her landlady took her to services. Mrs. Ellingsworth became a church member at age 10, and has remained one throughout the past 67 years. She said she recalls attending church school in her youth, before becoming a Sunday school teacher at just age 15. Mrs. Ellingsworth stopped teaching church school only in 2009.

“We eventually had no new little kids coming in,” she said. “We’re small in numbers now. Not as many people come to church, but as the congregation size is smaller than it used to be, the energy is still there.”

Although about 60 church members are on the rolls, she said, only about 20 are active. Twenty people attended Sunday’s service, but church neighbors and parishioners of the Methodist Church across the street also visited during the post-service barbecue anniversary celebration.

Whatever the church needs, its parishioners and some community members give. A few years ago, Mrs. Ellingsworth said, 10 parishioners gave $350 each to replace a frame for the church’s 10 stained-glass windows.

A new furnace was purchased recently, and now the church hopes to raise a total of $5,000 to help with that cost and to replace the front sign. About $2,300 has been raised thus far. The Rev. Ms. Parsons said people can contribute by sending a check made payable to First Presbyterian Church Dexter and sent to the church at P.O. Box 573, Dexter, N.Y. 13634.

Aside from financial assistance, the Rev. Ms. Parsons said, a little faith will help keep the church going strong for the next 175 years.

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