Grace Church History

with Tree in Blossom

As early as 1790, what was to become Middletown was a loose cluster of houses built up along a strategically located road, formerly trails, used for the transportation of produce to the Hudson River. The first physician settled in the area in 1810, Dr. David Hanford. From 1829 until 1849, the hamlet was called South Middletown and changed to Middletown in 1849. From 1807 to 1842, this hamlet grew in population from 45 inhabitants to approximately 500. In 1841, the Erie Railroad was completed causing Middletown to become a large shipping center drawing businesses and people from surrounding areas. The last train through Middletown was in April 1983. In 1842, the Wallkill Academy, the first institution of secondary education was completed.

 

Prior to 1845, there were no Episcopal services in Middletown. There were parishes in existence in neighboring areas: St. George's in Newburgh, St. Andrew's in Walden, St. James in Goshen, and St. David's on the Otterkill, Burnside.

 

Elisha Wheeler came to Middletown as a result of the Erie Railroad and was largely responsible for creating Grace Episcopal Church. He was a signer of the Act of Incorporation, the first Junior Warden, then Senior Warden for the rest of his life. Mr. Wheeler, an important man in the community, founded the Orange County Furnace Company, a major employer and industry of the era, was first president of the Board of Education, a village trustee, a trustee of the first Board of Trustees of the State Hospital, and prominent in the Lyceum and fraternal organizations. He was ruined financially in the depression following the inflation after the Civil War.

 

Some newcomers to Middletown were Episcopalians who missed and wanted services of their church. Grace Episcopal Church parish was incorporated on February 18, 1845. Services were held on Sunday afternoons in the Congregational Church, the old Methodist Church on South Street, the Baptist Church on Mulberry Street, Lyceum Hall and Gothic Hall. From its beginning Grace Church attracted many of the foremost and prominently wealthy citizens of the village. (Presently the church is predominantly middle class.) In 1845, after much deliberation, land was purchased to erect a church on North Street, the current location. Although there were churches of other denominations in the area that were founded long before Grace Church, it is now the second oldest church building still in use in Middletown, with the First Baptist Church being the oldest. The first church service was held on Christmas Eve, 1847. Consecration of Grace Church was by Bishop William Heathcote DeLancey, D.D., L.L.D., of Western New York, on September 12, 1848.

 

The Reverend G.W. Timlow was the first rector. He served from 1845 until 1851. Early services were held in the afternoon since that was the most convenient time. The salary of the first rector was $600 a year. To augment this salary, a "donation" visit (dinner and entertainment), was held with a collection plate passed, generally raising an extra $250 to be added to the rector's salary.

 

The Rev. J. Selden Spencer was the second rector, serving from 1851 until 1855. The first Grace Church fair organized by ladies of the church was held January 11, 1852. This was to become the prototype of all bazaars and dinners to follow. The proceeds went toward building a fence around the church and other necessary projects. A portion of that original fence still stands, although it has been moved. (Proceeds from current bazaars and dinners are still raised to meet the needs of the church.) In 1856, there were approximately 25 communicants. Pews were numbered and rented. Every January, a notice appeared in the local paper declaring vacancies available to rent for the next year.

 

The third rector was the Rev. P.T. Babbitt, serving from 1855 to 1862. Little information is available concerning this period.

 

The Rev. Alexander Capron was the fourth rector from 1862 to 1877. The Rev. Mr. Capron took an active role in civic affairs, especially during the Civil War and the Great Depression. (The side altar is in memory of him.) During this period the Gallery in the church was removed and the Chancel was moved further to the rear to add more pew room. A larger and better organ was purchased in December, 1863. Also, an additional lot was purchased to be used for expansion in July, 1864. A small addition was built and more pews added in 1864. The north transept was built about 1866 and the south transept in 1868 with funds given by Mr. Elisha P. Wheeler. Eighteen gas street lamps were added to Middletown during the Civil War. In 1868, the wooden steeple was taken down as far as the roof and the spire was built through the efforts of E.M. Madden, J.M. Matthews and Charles Horton. In 1874, the State Psychiatric Hospital was opened. Middletown's first telephone service was organized in 1881.

 

The Rev. George D. Solomon was the fifth rector, serving from 1877 to 1882. The Rev. Mr. Solomon disliked the method of renting pews as a means of raising money for the church. A vote of 95 to 5, in favor of free pews, was passed and the vestry put an envelope system for pledged offering into effect as a means of providing income, a method which exists to this day. The remains of the old wooden steeple were removed and the stone work below torn away to finish the roof with a window added. Mr. Solomon organized the women of the Church into three groups for work: a Sewing Society to teach sewing to children, a Ladies' Aid Society to look after the poor and social interests generally, and an Altar Committee to look after the altar and to furnish flowers. As time passed, these groups evolved with the Ladies Aid becoming the chief money-raising agency of the church and the Altar Committee became St. Martha's Altar Guild.

 

In late 1876, it was written of Middletown: "There are 9,000 inhabitants, the town is scattered over half a dozen irregular ridges that edge up to the Erie Railroad, a shabby old depot, a good number of business buildings, smart stores and shops, a show of churches, a tannery, creamery, hat factories, a stereotype foundry, a State Hospital (Homeopathic Insane Hospital) and three weekly papers." In 1880, five Middletown women were elected to the Board of Education, although only four of them agreed to serve. One of those serving on the Board was the wife of the Congregationalist minister. In 1881, telephone service began to be installed. In 1884, on Thanksgiving Day, the failure of the Middletown National Bank was made public.

 

The Rev. Pascal Harrower was the sixth rector, serving from 1882 to 1884. The seventh rector was the Rev. William McGlathery, serving from 1886 to 1890. Mr. McGlathery organized a vested choir of men and boys. He also took an active part in the village affairs and public schools, eventually serving on the Board of Education. Several times he wrote letters to the paper on such matters as the need to keep saloons closed on Sunday. Liturgically, the church was still celebrating Morning Prayer services with the addition of an organist in surplice and the men and boy's choir. Members of the choir not only sang during services, but also shared many other activities outside of the church, such as playing baseball, and trips of various kinds.

 

Meanwhile, Middletown continued to grow, being incorporated as a village in 1848 and granted a city charter in 1888. Also, in 1888, a group of Orange County women organized the Home for Aged Women on South Street. In 1887, subscriptions began to be solicited for the first hospital with the help of many in the community, including Mrs. S. Maretta Thrall. The Thrall Hospital opened with twenty-six beds in 1892. In 1889, an electric power plant was built and lights replaced the old-fashioned gas jets. In June 1887, the Rev. Philip Wheeler Mosher, grandson of Elisha P. Wheeler became the parish's first Candidate for Holy Orders.

 

The Right. Rev. Charles Scadding was to become the eighth rector, serving from 1890 to 1891. Mr. Scadding was interested in building up the lay organizations of the parish and reorganized a Men's Club, St. Cecilia's Guild, the Knights of Temperance, and the Women's Missionary Society.

 

The ninth rector was the Rev. David J. Evans, serving from 1891 to 1904. The Rev. Mr. Evans was very involved with the life of the community; he married a Middletown woman, his first children were born in Middletown, and one of his sons died here, as well as his wife. He may have been one of the earliest of our rectors to serve the homeless, officiating at the burial of an unknown tramp who had been killed by a train. During this time the Men's Club flourished and a new pipe organ was bought and installed. The City of Middletown built its first Post Office at the corner of James and West Main Streets (currently housing the Middletown Police Department) in 1911. A brewery was established in 1897 (currently a middle income apartment complex overlooking Fancher Davidge Park).

 

The Rev. Francis S. Smithers, Jr. was the tenth rector, serving from 1904 to 1918. In May 1912, the excavation for the foundation for the new Parish House began, the cornerstone laid in September 1912, and construction completed January 1913.

 

The Rev. Maxwell W. Rice was the eleventh rector from 1919 to 1920. During this time, the mortgage of the church was burned on a silver platter during the celebratory activities for the 75th anniversary of the parish under the supervision of the Rev. Mr. Rice and Mr. John Bright, Vestryman. The first rectory was purchased at this time at 36 Highland Avenue.

 

The Rev. H.E. Batcheller arrived in 1920 to become the twelfth rector, serving from 1920 to 1922. He remained for only a short time due to poor health but retained close ties with Grace Church over many years.

 

The Rev. Roman L. Harding served as thirteenth rector from 1922 to 1933. During his ministry, the Midnight Choral Eucharist and the children's Easter service of the Flowering of the Cross were introduced. Extensive improvements were made to the church including new pews. At some point toward the end of the Rev. Mr. Harding's time here, there began an association with volunteer fire companies and the inception of Fire Chaplains. Since the 1950's, one of the priests of the parish has been a chaplain for the volunteer fire companies. Although there was a gap in this association in the 1940's, it is still in effect today with many of the men of the parish being involved as volunteers in the local engine companies. It was also during the 1930's that a move was made toward a liturgically higher church. The Rev. Frank R. Wilson was our second candidate for Holy Orders. The Rev. Mr. Wilson also had a close relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt. There were two additional candidates for Holy Orders: the Rev. Douglas Northrop in 1936, and the Rev. Harold C. Swezy in 1929. Also, in 1929, Horton Memorial Hospital opened its doors. Horton joined with Goshen's Arden Hill to become Orange Regional Medical Center and is now located on East Main Street. The old Horton building is expected to become an osteopathic school in 2014.

 

The fourteenth rector was the Rev. Harold L. Andress from 1934 to 1942. The church spire and roof were repaired and the Lady Chapel was made from what had been the rector's office. The parish grew spiritually during this time. The Rev. Spencer Gilley was the fifteenth rector, serving from 1943 to 1951.

 

The Rev. Mr. Gilley was of the orthodox Catholic tradition which brought about liturgical changes in the church. Mr. Gilley was actively involved with children's education. During this time the boys' choir was very active with each boy signing a choir agreement and receiving a certain stipend per month, less the fines incurred for absences from rehearsals or services, tardiness, misconduct, etc. Grace Church celebrated its 100th anniversary during the Rev. Mr. Gilley's tenure and was again free of indebtedness. Orange County Community College opened its doors in 1950 in the old Morrison Mansion on South Street, giving the area its first institution of higher learning. The College still stands on South Street although numerous buildings have been added to meet the needs of the community.

 

The Very Rev. Herbert M. Barrall served as sixteenth rector from 1952 to 1959. St. Mary's Guild and the Women's Auxiliary were united into one organization, the Episcopal Churchwomen. They became the missionary society of the parish and also were responsible for the United Thank Offering. The Guild of the Holy Comforter did not merge with this group and was responsible for home mission work and for raising money for special gifts to the parish. The liturgical style of the parish was more broad during Mr. Barrall's tenure.

 

The Rev. Joseph P. Matthews came to Grace Church in 1959 and served until 1979. In his early years, Morning Prayer was still celebrated three Sundays out of the month with the fourth Sunday being "Communion Sunday." Gradually the church became more Anglo-Catholic liturgically with two Sunday services celebrating the Eucharist. Through a gift from a parishioner and fund-raising, the parish purchased a new organ and refurbished the parish house basement for Church School classes. The church was redesigned and the altar was moved away from the back wall. The acquisition of the new Austin organ was celebrated by a "Festival of Religion and the Arts," a program of concerts, plays and art exhibitions. There was liturgical development and renewal as well as involvement of the parishioners in the community life, whether or not it was church-sponsored. Fr. Matthews was involved with the Peace Movement during the Viet Nam War and suffered harassment from the Middletown community because of his stand. Also, during his time, the Guild of St. Margaret Soup Kitchen began in the form of vouchers for food at Coney Island Restaurant.

 

Women were first elected to the Vestry of Grace Church in 1961 fulfilling a new nationwide permissive church ruling allowing the seating of women on the parish governing bodies. Mrs. Charles M. Horton was elected to serve a term of three years, Mrs. Howard W. Weale for a term of two years, and Miss Marie Mersheimer for a term of one year. A full-time assistant was appointed to work in the area of religious education. Father Kenneth Waldron joined the parish family and remained affiliated with Grace Church for the remainder of his life. Deacon Donald Lofman also joined the parish family. January 1965 heralded the appearance of the Lord Bishop of North Queensland, Australia, the Right. Rev. Ian W.A. Shevill, who spoke words of faith at the teaching mission. The Right. Rev. Paul Moore, Jr. was installed as Bishop Coadjutor of New York in 1970. Bishop Moore was controversial because of his activist stand, picketing against poverty, demonstrating against the war and speaking out against injustice. The early 70's saw another first at Grace, Father Ian Mitchell, a "guitar priest," who wrote music for the Roman Catholics, performed at folk festivals, and for a year, served here. The "Third Order of Liturgy," the Episcopal Church's newest form of the Mass appeared in 1971. Authorized for use by the Standing Liturgical Commission in 1970, the unconventional Mass was designed to involve as many lay people as possible. "Mission 1972" declared a goal within the next 5-10 years to establish a firm base in every part of the community and operate to have positive Christian impact on every aspect of the entire community of Middletown and vicinity through helping minorities, helping to eliminate the threat of drugs, helping the aged, assisting in low income housing and getting youth involved. A majority of these programs actually materialized in the 1980's. The first annual Christmas dinner (for the hungry) was offered to the City in 1972 with the help of parishioners, members of RECAP (Regional Economic Community Action Program), Catholic Charities and volunteers. In 1975, Grace Church purchased the corner lot of North and Depot Streets after the existing building was destroyed by fire. This area is now landscaped to enhance the Columbarium built into an exterior wall of the church in the late 1970's. Another major aspect of Fr. Matthews' tenure was support of the ordination of women in 1975.

 

In the early 1970's, Orange Plaza opened on Route 211. This essentially ended shopping in the downtown Middletown area with which lacked the convenient parking and indoor shopping benefit. This plaza has since been closed due to the construction of bigger and more modern shopping plazas. Basically the Middletown area has gone from a light industrial railroad area to a service area. The city is currently trying to revitalize the downtown area by encouraging specialty shops and small restaurants to open businesses.

 

The Rev. John A. Osgood became the eighteenth rector, serving from 1979 through 1996. During Fr. Osgood's ministry, the church experienced many liturgical changes. The use of bells and incense was introduced. Lay ministry increased and was encouraged. In his first sermon, Fr. Osgood emphasized the connection between the altar and the starving. A multitude of outreach programs began. The number of people needing food assistance increased to the point that vouchers were no longer a practical solution; thereafter, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were made by the parish secretary and served with the help of a few volunteers in the Parish House. Eventually, the need became so great, the operation was moved upstairs. The Guild of St. Margaret Soup Kitchen formally began operation in 1981. This organization, staffed by members of Grace Church and members of other churches in the area, is open seven days a week and serves about 4,000 meals per month. The RENT (Relief from Eviction for Needy Tenants) program, a part of the Guild of St. Margaret, emerged to help local residents who might not qualify for help from Social Services or other public assistance programs, avoid being homeless. In 1982, Emergency Housing Group, Inc., located on the grounds of the Middletown Psychiatric Center, was formed with 17 beds and donated supplies. It was run by volunteers from Grace Church and other Middletown congregations. The Alcohol Crisis Unit of Emergency Housing was formed to provide detox services. This is now known as the Middletown Addictions Crisis Center. Another program of Emergency Housing, A Friend's House, provides shelter for runaway teens. A member of Grace Church is always on the board. The Stillness Project was the first effort of Grace Church to minister to those living with HIV/AIDS. A Place of Grace, Inc., which includes R.A.I.N. (Regional AIDS Interfaith Network) and H.O.P. (Homebound Outreach Program) was formed to help those living with HIV/AIDS. Art for AIDS is a separate organization which raises funds to help those living with HIV/AIDS and raises public awareness about prevention of HIV/ AIDS. Some of these various efforts have not been greeted with approval by community officials. In 1994, a joint venture began between Grace Church and the First Presbyterian Church for Wednesday evening healing services, alternating ministers and use of church space. There has also been a sharing of our building with the New Jerusalem Baptist Church. In the early 1980's, Fr. Kenneth Newquist became an important member of our parish and remained closely connected with us until his untimely death. Brother Stephen Christopher came to us in the early 1980's, serving on the Altar and opening a gift shop affiliated with the Holy Cross Monastery. This became Gifts of Grace gift shop, but no longer exists. During Fr. Osgood's ministry, four priests were sponsored by Grace for Holy Orders: the Rev. Linda Strohmeier, the Rev. Bernard Healy, the Rev. Robert Friedrich, and the Rev. Carl Lunden.

 

During the anniversary year of 1998, the church welcomed the Rev. John B. Warfel as its nineteenth rector. He celebrated his first Mass at the end of March for the Feast of the Annunciation. Father Warfel has continued, and built upon, the parish tradition of Anglo-Catholic liturgy, bringing to the Mass a new facet in his strong singing voice. Newness is in the air as changes have abounded in the years Fr. Warfel has been with us. Most notably, renovations to the church school and nursery have given children a cheerful Sunday morning environment and church school has been expanded to include grades 7-12. The parish house and rectory have also received recent improvements. Changes in lay leadership and the influx of new parishioners give the parish a feeling of renewal.

 

Grace Episcopal Church is home to a very diverse church family and welcomes all who wish to worship in a quiet, peaceful place of prayer.

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