Reflecting On Our Sesquicentennial Year Part 2

First Presbyterian Church of Cranford

By George A. Weisgerber

Chapter 7 – Opening Years in Our Church, 1851–1925

From our base membership of twenty-two people when we were first established in 1851, the Craneville congregation grew steadily, drawing people from nearby neighborhoods and participating in the population growth of those years.
As previously noted, during the first two years our pastor was Arunah H. Lilly. Two pastors serving shorter terms followed him. Then, Reverend Hollis Read was with us for ten years, 1854-1864, a period including much of the Civil War (1861-1865).

The state of New Jersey sent some 88,000 troops into that violent conflict. Starting in April 1861, the first call for volunteers was for a three-month enlistment and this was quickly overfilled, mostly from the cities. When it became obvious that the fighting would take much longer, there was another call—for three-year enlistments—a call which was much less well received! A system to encourage enlistments was set up whereby state and local bounties were offered at $25 to $50 each. The system also provided the option for a drafted person to purchase a substitute to carry out his service. Volunteering on the conscription board was our member, Josiah Crane, Sr.

William D. Wood Although Craneville was still a small village, there were several volunteer soldiers from our town. The precise number is not known. At least one was from our church: William D. Wood. After his return from wartime duties, he served four terms as mayor of Cranford. He also served as Captain of the Cranford Thief Detecting Society, an investigative service. He was Superintendent of the First Presbyterian Church Sunday School for twenty-one years and was very popular with the young people, being known affectionately as “Billy Wood.” He died in 1893, as the building of our third sanctuary was just underway. We recognize his service in the stained glass window at the rear of the current sanctuary.
Reverend Alfred H. Sloat led our worship for the years 1867-1868. During his tenure it became clear that our church was already outgrowing its home in the 90-seat Alden Street church, only seventeen years after we first occupied it. We needed seating for 300 worshippers.

Dedication of our second church home was a joyous event, with musical selections accompanied on the newly purchased organ. To provide room at this location for the growing Sunday School, the Alden Street chapel building was moved from its original location and placed behind the new church building. (A small portion of the chapel is visible in the photo above.)

Our generous benefactor, Josiah, stepped forward again and arranged to have a large bronze bell cast for the belfry of the new building. To this day it still calls parishioners to worship, but in those early days the bell also served as a general alarm for the town. Because there was no regular police force, a few of the trusted citizens formed the Vigilance Committee and had a key to the belfry for quick entry and response, to sound the alarm!

Our second church home, 1869 Once again a building committee swung into action, with stalwart members subscribing. A new location at a beautiful site was chosen – the corner of Springfield and North Union Avenues, where a plot was purchased from John Grant Crane, son of Josiah. A lovely classic steepled church was erected, at a cost of $13,000. With the cornerstone laid in 1868, the new building was dedicated in 1869, under the pastorate of Reverend A. A. MacConnell.
Two notable pastors followed: Reverend William Henry Roberts preached with unusual eloquence, later served as seminary professor, and for a number of years was the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. Reverend James F. Riggs also was a brilliant scholar and preacher; he was a member of a distinguished family of ministers and missionaries. He was an ancestor of our contemporary, Mary Riggs Wells, being a first cousin, twice removed.

In Chapter 8 we will learn about the pastor who cared for our church during a forty-year tenure, Reverend George Francis Greene.

Chapter 8 – Our Dynamic Activities Continue

All the while the church was steadily gaining new members, and by 1885 our membership was about 125. The town of Cranford had grown from about 50 adults in 1850 to about 1,450 in 1885. We were recognized as a desirable residential community for people with business in New York and Newark. A building boom ensued. The new families found a stimulating and wholesome social life in this active “Venice of New Jersey.”

Our missionary outreach also became ever wider, especially through the efforts of various women’s groups. We gave regularly to foreign missions and to home missions; we contributed aid to the needy after tragedies such as the floods of Johnstown, PA (1889) and Galveston, TX.

These were the days when church functions were at a peak, with visiting revivalist preachers touring the country. Many preached at our church. One of the notable ones was the outstanding evangelist, Reverend Dwight Moody of Chicago.
By 1893 our congregation had once again outgrown the church facilities. There was discussion about whether to simply put an addition onto the 1869 church building, but the argument prevailed that we “…should not put a new patch on an old suit of clothes,” but instead should erect a brand new building with seating for 550 worshippers. Reverend Greene’s appeal for funds was oversubscribed with great enthusiasm (and this was in a year of financial panic!)

Our third church home, 1894 Today we enjoy worship services in this beautiful sanctuary, and the stained glass windows remind us of the former members and their dedication.

In Garwood the Presbyterians had been meeting in a schoolhouse, as we had done earlier, and were interested in escalating their worship program. In 1898 they sought the support of the Cranford church, and we helped them form a chapel and employ seminary students. In 1906 a new building was dedicated, with Reverend Greene presiding at the event. Cranford provided organizational and financial support for some twenty-five years, until 1925, at which time the Garwood church became fully independent.

These were glorious days for our nation at the turn of the century. It was an age of refinement. The family home, the church, the well-planned classroom, and the great outdoors were venues for nurturing our gentle culture.

Soon the high-wheeled bicycles were supplanted by the even-more-daring horseless carriages. The age of automobiles was born and with it an increased mobility that soon dominated our culture. This growing mobility began to entice us away for long Sunday drives, when we should have been in church!!

Reverend George Francis Greene, Minister from 1885-1925 Into this scene we welcomed another great new pastor, Reverend George Francis Greene. He had been a public school teacher in Basking Ridge, and was encouraged by that Presbyterian minister to enter the ministry. After graduating from Princeton Seminary, Reverend Greene accepted a call to the Cranford ministry, where he served his entire career, which spanned forty years. He proved to be a man who thoroughly believed in his work and he strived to develop all aspects of church life.
The grand moments of exciting social events were brought to an end by the harsh realities of World War I. Cranford mobilized and sent our service people off to war, with fifteen sons of the town making the full sacrifice. There were seventy-two members of our church who served in WWI. Their names are listed on the plaque in the narthex of the church.

The amazing forty years of Reverend Greene’s tenure ended in October 1925, when he retired with failing health. Reverend Orion C. Hopper, a very capable individual who had become the assistant minister in 1923, fresh from seminary, subsequently replaced Reverend Greene.

The next chapter covers the period following the forty-year pastorate of Reverend George Francis Greene, which ended in 1925.

In 1901 there was a grand celebration of the 50th anniversary of our church founding, with the sanctuary interior draped with bunting for the “Golden Jubilee.” The week of festivities included major guest speakers, vocal and instrumental concerts and receptions, with daily newspaper reports of these events.

The vibrant social life in Cranford centered around riverside activities, carnivals, floats, parades, sports events, bicycling, ice-skating, and dances at the old Casino, located next to the river. Cranford even had its own Opera House (until it burned to the ground in 1912).

Those dynamic days enjoyed by all seem to us to typify the “Good Old Days” that many long for. Here the steam launch “Madeline” takes its passengers for an afternoon cruise. The Rahway River provided recreation in winter as well as summer.

On a Sunday afternoon, in front of the landmark Cranford Casino, entire families skated along the Rahway’s frozen surface.

Chapter 9 – Through the Depression and WW II

During the last two years of Reverend Greene’s remarkable tenure, his assistant Reverend Orion C. Hopper, was assigned the evening service and the work with the young members of the congregation. When Greene resigned in 1925, Hopper was immediately installed as pastor. Hopper really took hold. Already familiar with the congregation, while at the same time popular with the members, he was able to move effectively in strengthening the fellowship and organization of the church. New organizations formed included Young Women’s Bible Class, Young Men’s Club, Young People’s Federation, Boy and Girl Scout Troops, and a Church Council within the church to facilitate communications.

Church Membership, 1851-1929 During the 4-year period between 1925-1929, membership shot up from 626 to 964 and the Sunday School grew from 488 to 700. Increased space was needed by 1927, at which time a campaign was initiated to raise funds for an improved and larger Sunday School building. As in the past, the effort received strong support from the congregation!

The popularity of Hopper and his successful leadership is illustrated in the graph showing our church growth in these early pastorates. With the good progress made here, Reverend Hopper moved on in December 1929 by answering a call to the Memorial Church in Newark, where he remained as pastor for 22 years.

Hopper continued his Christian leadership, serving as Alumni Secretary for the Princeton Seminary. Later, he helped set up an entirely new Presbyterian congregation for the Belle Mead/Somerville area. (He died in 1969, followed by his wife’s death in May 2001—at age 101.)

It is an interesting coincidence that our present interim Pastor, Reverend Charles Brackbill, remembers Hopper well. When Charley was at Princeton, the professor teaching a course on mission work was none other than Reverend Hopper!
Reverend Orion C. Hopper, Pastor from 1925-1929 A popular leader, Reverend Hopper helped strengthen many of the church clubs and activities.

The Pastor Nominating Committee reached out across the seas for our next pastor, Reverend William R. Sloan. Reverend Sloan was a rather earnest man with a serious demeanor, who accomplished important things for Cranford during the fifteen years that he was with us. He had a strong interest in music, and made constructive changes in the music program. In 1932 the H. P. Moller pipe organ was installed.

He engaged a music director supplied by the Westminster Choir School, he initiated an annual presentation of “The Messiah,” combined with the Roselle church choir, and he formed three junior choirs. He increased the number of Elders to twenty-four, rotating in three groups, and he established the Board of Deaconesses to visit shut-ins and new residents.

These were the years of the Great Depression and some may remember the 5-cent apple, a main article of trade for unemployed workers. We may well recall the hard times in our family and neighborhood. Our church was not immune to financial woes. Receipts for church operations lagged, expenses were in arrears, we had an outstanding mortgage of $25,000, and gifts for benevolences were reduced. The Session appealed to the church organizations and to individual members, and gradually the funds were raised, although it took until 1945 to lift the debt. Reverend Sloan saw us through these difficult times.

Reverend William R. Sloan, Pastor from 1930-1945 He had been serving the Westbourne Presbyterian Church in Belfast, Ireland, in the portion of the island that was predominantly Protestant, populated with Scottish settlers. (It was not until 1949 that Northern Ireland and the larger area of Eire were clearly separated, but the unrest continues today.)

In this same period, World War II descended upon the world, our nation, and our town. Industrial mobilization moved quickly and our nation’s resourcefulness was clearly demonstrated. Conscription for the draft was a daily concern, as families were dislodged and lives were redirected. Cranford provided 2,020 service men and women to the conflict, and 57 of these brave people gave their lives. From our First Presbyterian church there were 198 who served, of whom seven were lost (listed on the tablet in the narthex.)

Many of today’s church members have vivid memories of personal involvement in that great struggle of WW II, while many others carry the scars of later conflicts. Not many talk about their experiences, but there are many untold stories that could be related by those seated in the pews. We all owe much to these courageous people.

In November 1944 Reverend Sloan announced his resignation from the pastorate, however he offered to continue as pastor until a successor was found, thus serving as his own interim. After leaving us, Reverend Sloan moved to Ocean Grove, where he served at a church in Barnegat, NJ, before returning to his homeland. (We since have had correspondence with his grandson, who sent his greetings to Cranford.)

Succeeding Reverend Sloan was Reverend Robert G. Longaker, who was with us from 1945 to 1971.
In Chapter 10 you’ll see how the dramatic growth curve reflected our urge to pick up the pieces after the war.

Chapter 10 – Swords into Plowshares

In this long history of the church we now come into more familiar years for many of us—from 1945 to 1971—entering the pastorate of Reverend R. G. Longaker. This was yet another remarkable period in our church.

A whole new phase awaited First Presbyterian with the ending of WWII on May 7, 1945 (Europe) and September 2, 1945 (Pacific). It was not long before everyone sought to reorder their lives. Many servicemen enrolled in the GI Bill to prepare themselves for new careers. We remember the rush to build new housing-—no matter how small the houses were, we were proud and happy to have them. Cranford had its share of those convenient bungalows, occupied by growing families.

The industrious veterans, filled with hopes and ambitions, undaunted by challenges, now formed a whole new force in society. It was a “can do” era. Joining a church and worshiping with their families was an enriching experience for many. They were eager to have their children committed to wholesome values. Our enthusiastic leader in this exciting period was Reverend Robert G. Longaker, “Reverend Bob.” He previously had served as pastor at the Presbyterian churches in Campbell Hall, NY and Sparrows Point, MD.

Reverend Robert G. Longaker, Pastor from 1945-1971 Our new minister, as he arrived from Sparrows Point, MD, to be with us for 26 years.

He was greeted with the welcome challenges of a rapidly growing church, and at his first congregational meeting he took executive action, setting up a Planning Committee to develop proposals on three concerns: (1) physical needs of the church, (2) appropriate architectural changes, and (3) methods for financing the changes. In short order plans for a new Education Building were implemented, with the cornerstone laid in 1950. The old manse had been used as the Sunday School, but was now replaced by the new three story building with good classroom spaces. That was the first major “bricks and mortar” change achieved by Reverend Longaker.

In planning for future expansion, the church had already purchased the property at the corner of Springfield Avenue and Miln Street, and that became the site for the second major building project—the construction of Fellowship Hall, which opened up for us the convenience of a large meeting hall. This was implemented in 1956. Later on, we renamed the building to honor two of our long-time church members, Mr. and Mrs. George Bates. Mrs. Elizabeth Bates led a very distinguished life in the town and the church, and is fondly remembered by many.
In the 1970 period, structural changes were made to the entrance of the Sanctuary with the addition of the narthex. Replacing the entrance, which had been open to the elements, was a practical and very useful alteration, although it modified the architecture of the original Richardson Romanesque style.

Other progressive changes occurred during his pastorate. Most striking was the increase in enrollment and attendance. We reached a high point in 1964, with membership at 2650. In those days, the many worshipers, especially at Christmas and Easter, overfilled the Sanctuary, requiring remote speaker set-ups in the anterooms, even with multiple services.

Ground Breaking L. to R.: Bob Crane, Ray Vincent, Harold Snyder, Burt Belden, D. A. Hopper (architect), Reverend R. G. Longaker. In this fourth major project, we removed the inadequate original rooms adjoining the 1894 main Sanctuary and constructed Memorial Hall in 1967-1968. This gave us many useful spaces-chapel, lounge, library, offices, choir room, and youth center. This was the last of the “bricks and mortar” work done under Reverend Longaker, who was very skilled at fund raising. The church members enthusiastically supported these projects, which greatly improved the functional value of our physical facilities.

The surge in membership is illustrated by the accompanying chart. These were very exciting years for all, up until the mid ’60s.

It can be seen also that the grand increase in growth was lost when membership fell off during the late ’60s and ’70s, as was the typical experience of many other churches in those difficult years. One attributes the drop-off to demographic and cultural changes, and to the sad repercussions of the Vietnam War. This loss in church membership and participation continues as a main concern today, and each of us needs to bring more disciples into worship.
Church Membership, 1851-2000

Reverend Longaker strongly supported programs that involved the children and youth. Communicant classes for teenagers were well attended. A full-time Director of Christian Education was employed for Sunday School. In 1950 there were over 900 children enrolled. Further growth is shown by the records of March 1959, which documented a communicants class of 55 young people, in addition to 24 adults! To reach out to the preschoolers, a nursery school was inaugurated in 1952 under the direction of a wonderful leader, Helen Klase Baldwin.

In 1951, our church marked the 100th anniversary of its founding, and there were services of celebration. In addition, we commemorated the occasion by establishing the “Centennial Scholarship Fund,” as a means for encouraging young people to enter ministry careers. Four of the first students who used the fund were John Sloat, John Hunn, Brenton Stearns, and George Rankin. Others followed as beneficiaries and the fund is still available to applicants.

Reverend Bob was especially effective in welcoming people and making them feel at home in the church. He always had a cheery greeting, and he visited parishioners in their homes. Early in his pastorate he helped promote the idea of a “Couples Club,” for the purpose of wholesome fellowship. He continued to support the Margaret Greene Association, the Women’s Bible Class and the Everyman’s Bible Class, and the Men’s League, activities which had been started in earlier years, and now thrived.

Longaker kept in close contact with field missionaries sponsored by our church and brought mission awareness into our worship. During his pastorate, the young people were very active in outreach to needy areas, and carried out several trips to churches in Appalachia during summer work/vacations. Also, for the young people, a successful information program was organized, entitled “After High School, What?” which provided career ideas.

Throughout his ministry, Reverend Longaker benefited greatly from the help of a number of assistant ministers and seminary students. Also, we especially remember the dedicated staff and lay workers, including Connie Miskelly, Peggy Cummings, Grace Mack, and many others, continuing through today. Reverend Longaker retired in 1971 after 26 years of service with our church. He and his wife, Doris, enjoyed their following years together until he died on November 18, 1991.

In the next chapter, we will recall three pastors: Frank Goodlake, George Pike, and Bruce Williams, our most recent, and much mourned, leader.

Chapter 11 – Some Events of the Past 30 Years

In the last chapter, we saw the powerful growth in membership following WWII, with many young families eager to join the church. Then we saw the beginnings of drop-off in church participation. This losing trend has continued in most of the mainline, established denominations, and is today’s highest priority concern. This challenge has faced all of our recent congregations and pastors.

After Bob Longaker’s 26-year tenure, our next pastor was Reverend Frank C. Goodlake. A native of Chicago, he completed studies at Crane College, Elmhurst College, and then operated a decorating service in Chicago. After deciding to enter the ministry, he next earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Dubuque Theological Seminary, followed by a Master’s degree from Luther Theological Seminary. Before coming to Cranford, he had been the pastor at the Presbyterian Church of La Crosse, WI. Goodlake was a member of the US Naval Reserve, where he served as Chaplain during breaks from his Cranford duties. Reverend Goodlake served us for six years. During his pastorate, the idea of Advent Workshops took hold. It continues today as an absorbing activity during the Christmas season.
Reverend Frank C. Goodlake, Pastor from 1971-1977 While pastor, he promoted the Lenten Dinners, combining fellowship and worship services.
Continuing through Goodlake’s tenure was Kay Cronk, who served as Director of Christian Education. Kay was devoted to her work and was extremely effective in recruiting a strong teaching staff, in addition to carrying out active programs for young people. One of Kay’s special contributions was her leadership of the popular program “No-Frills Bible Study.”

Our next pastor, Reverend George H. Pike, led our congregation for ten years, 1978-1988. Reverend Pike was not only an accomplished preacher, but he was also a very capable administrator. He took prompt action to improve the financial and business side of our operation.

He encouraged the formation of the Youth Club (grades 4 through 6) and he revitalized the Youth Fellowship program. We joined an outreach program called SCEEP (Suburban Cultural Education Enrichment Program), bringing children from the Protestant Community Center in Newark to our church for tutoring and cultural enrichment.

Improving financial support was one of George Pike’s special contributions. In stewardship for the annual budget, the “Pony Express” and the “Neighbor to Neighbor” ideas brought forward improved pledges. Special drives included the Major Mission Fund, Mission Advance Fund, and Mission Plus.

It was a pleasant diversion when Reverend Pike escorted some members on trips to the Holy Land. The experience was extremely inspiring to those who went. Upon return, the travelers reported to the “stay-at-homes,” who then regretted not making the trip themselves!

Reverend George H. Pike, Pastor from 1978-1988 Reverend Pike, who spent his youth in Chatham, New Jersey, returned to this area after leaving his post in Vancouver, WA. An exceptional administrator, as well as preacher, he established a much-needed Capital Improvement Fund for work on the buildings.

In 1987 our church was pleased to join a special outreach via the H.O.M.E. Program, giving a share of overnight shelter to homeless people in the county. Church members continue today to serve in this important, compassionate work.
In 1988, George Pike left us to serve as Executive Director in the Bicentennial Fund, a worldwide effort to raise $125–175 million for strengthening the mission of the Presbyterian Church.

In 1989, we welcomed our next pastor, Reverend Bruce D. Williams. He had previously served in churches located in Plymouth and Lisbon, OH and York, PA. Reverend Williams and his family were joyously received into our circle. It took very little time for the Williams family to become involved in our church activities and they often served as hosts for backyard picnics at the manse.

Mrs. Williams (Patti) took on a most uplifting task—shepherding the Cherub Choir, whose frequent appearances in Sunday worship services have always been a delight. Eric, the oldest of the Williams children, while in high school served on various church committees. He has since moved on to a business career and is working towards an MBA. Karla, Reverend Williams’ daughter, assisted regularly in teaching Sunday School and is now teaching autistic children. Adam, the second Williams son, set up and maintains an Internet web site for the church. He is currently completing his undergraduate work at Drexel.

Reverend Williams was especially successful at welcoming young adults into the church family. The “Baby Boomers” organization was very active in bonding that group of members in fellowship. He greatly enjoyed the friends he made; more young families were seen in worship, encouraging their children to participate in the “Children’s Sermon” and attend Sunday School. During this time our church established another avenue of outreach to the community, opening our doors to “PrimeTime” after-school care. This started with 11 children and is now caring for over 150!

Reverend Bruce D. Williams, Pastor from 1989-2000 Reverend Williams was especially successful at welcoming young adults into the church family. The “Baby Boomers” organization was very active in bonding that group of members in fellowship.

Reverend Williams promoted several “All Church” events that afforded moments of warm fellowship. The Christmas Party has always been a rousing evening for the whole family. He also set up the Sunday morning Kerygma Bible Study program. During the past three years the informal discussion group has been examining sections of the Old and New Testaments, and they become very absorbed in this learning process. The Greek word Kerygma can be translated as “The Essential Gospel.”

A successful drive for Capital and Mission Funds was carried out, which helped Elizabethport’s well-planned building improvements and for work needed here in Cranford. In recent years, our physical plant has been wonderfully cared for and improved. Many Trustee and volunteer hours have been dedicated to keeping our church efficient and presentable.

Very sadly, our much-loved pastor was called home to God on October 12, 2000. We still grieve for the loss of our leader and friend, as well as the loss suffered by his family. Surely Reverend Williams would have wanted us to carry on with even greater energy in delivering Christ’s message.

Our Associate Pastor, Reverend Valencia Norman, has been a strong force in preserving our forward momentum in programs during these harrowing months, while continuing her fine work with the children and young people programs.
We are fortunate also in having the services of Reverend Charles Brackbill as Interim Pastor. He comes to us with a rich background in handling broadcast services for our denomination. Many of us are attentive to his persuasive sermons, sprinkled with clever humor. Although this is a short-term post, Charley accepts the full mantle of challenge, eager to work with Divisions and Committees toward building our dedication to Christ’s work through this church.

Chapter 12 – Today and Tomorrow

Now we come to the end of this year of celebration, and we bring to you a few closing thoughts—not about past history, but concerning where we are now, and where we may be going in the future.

We hope that you have enjoyed, as much as we have, our journey through the past decades of our church. It has been fun to relive these historical and inspirational times. We have been led by ministers and lay leaders with remarkable dedication. Through their efforts and with the help of the parishioners today, we have built a church home that is a dynamic force in Christian ministry in Cranford. However, we must keep moving forward, there is much to be done and many opportunities to be taken.

At this time, we are being sorely tested. Foremost, in our deeply shaken lives, is the spectre of the unreasoned attack on September 11, 2001, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. We will need to reach into the reserves of our faith.

As we plot our future course, we must seek out those directions which truly strengthen the mission of the church. We will need greater ability to discern the proper course of action, as we are faced with difficult choices. What can we do in our church life to arouse a strong sense of unity toward meaningful Christian goals? We must deliberate carefully on the issues, but never fall into hasty decisions which lead to unintended, undesirable consequences.

In brief, our church in Cranford is now facing a number of challenges which threaten to divert us from Christ’s mission. Two issues which need immediate attention are:

We need to reverse the creeping attrition of membership-—to rebuild our evangelistic efforts, bringing more people into the joy of our worship—to increase the warmth with which we welcome our new members. A second challenge concerns our financial viability. As member enrollment slips and operating costs increase, we are approaching the brink. Major corrective actions should be sought. How wonderful it would be if even more of us—every one of us—were involved in a concerted effort to recapture those glorious days of the past, when church activity involved us all. Let us continue to celebrate this anniversary year by rededicating our efforts.

May God bless our congregation, our church, and our country.

The Dove Window, donated by Robert Rindell.


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