The United Presbyterian Church of Ridgewood came into being when the St. James United Presbyterian Church, also of Ridgewood, made overtures to unite with the First Presbyterian Church of East Williamsburgh, by which name our church was known since its founding in 1863. The merger of the two churches took place in October 1993, coinciding with the 130th anniversary of the East Williamsburgh Church.
There were 26 persons who banded together in the Civil War year of 1862 to petition the Presbytery of Nassau to organize a Presbyterian church in this area in which the preaching would be in the German Language. They were led by the Rev. Louis Eulner, a missionary from the American Tract Society, who had conducted Sunday School in their homes. In October 1863, the church called its first pastor. A little white wooden church was built and dedicated in 1864 on the site of the present edifice. It was not until 1875 that Rev. Eulner returned to the struggling young church and became its fifth pastor, a position he held for 20 years.
In 1903, the Rev. John Dietz answered the call of the congregation and served for the next 25 years. During that time, the old building outgrew its thriving congregation and, with the help of the Ladies Aid Society, the church raised the necessary funds ($78,000) to erect this Renaissance-style building, its precious stained glass windows imported from France. The dedication took place on May 22, 1910 when the congregation numbered 500 and there were 750 pupils in the Sunday School.
In the summer of 1928, a grateful congregation honored Dr. Dietz by sending him and his wife Frieda on a trip to Germany (it was his 25th anniversary as pastor). His doctors had recommended the trip abroad so that he might recover from a nervous condition brought on by overwork. On the long sea voyage he preached twice, and while in Germany met President Von Hindenburg. He wrote frequently to his flock at home and his letters were read from the pulpit by the clerk of Session. His health, however, did not improve. It was while he was seated in the compartment of a train en route to Berlin that, without warning, he was stricken with a heart attack and died. He was 64 when death claimed him and was laid to rest in Lutheran Cemetery.
The pastor who delivered the eulogy at Dr. Dietz's funeral, a friend of the congregation, Dr. Frederick W. Hock, became Dietz's logical successor, leaving a church in Newark to become pastor here in February 1929. He was educated in German universities and, on coming to America, entered Bloomfield Seminary. Later he attended New York University where he was awarded the degrees of A.M. and Ph.D. He spoke nine languages fluently. One of the first changes that Dr. Hock made upon coming to Ridgewood was the introduction of services in the English language. German services were continued until the 1940's when the congregation was predominately English speaking. In the depression years that followed, Dr. Hock nevertheless boasted that he was the highest paid minister in Ridgewood. His salary in 1933 of $3,500 probably entitled him to that distinction.
It was during his pastorate that the church became known as "Old First". It remained for his successor, the Rev. Paul T. Bahner, to remind the congregation of its original name, which was then restored. For its annual fundraisers the church relied primarily on a Spring Concert and a Fall Bazaar. The concerts, held at Brooklyn Labor Lyceum, brought in about $1,200 each year, while the Ladies Aid week-long bazaar netted sums in excess of $3,000, big money in those depression days. When Dr. Hock died of a heart attack in 1939, his son George was called and served but one year, dying of cancer on October 1940.
A younger, more vigorous man was sought, and Rev. Bahner filled the bill. He reorganized the church from top to bottom. His missionary outreach during World War II resulted in sponsoring the Rev. Robert Urquhart in Korea and the beginning of Great Commission Associates (GCA) Family night programs. He built up the church to over 500 members again and corresponded with the 120 men in wartime service around the world. In 1949 he left us to become pastor of the East Hampton church. He died in November 1994.
Bahner's successor, the Rev. Maurice D. Robertson, served as pastor from 1950-1954. It was under his inspiration that the church held annual fall retreats and instituted Every Member Canvass, practices which his successor, the Rev. Gordon C. Gravenor, continued during his 8 1/2 year pastorate. Rev. Robertson, now 80, is retired and lives with wife Barbara in Lakeland, Florida, where he is in charge of an adult residence.
Rev. Gravenor was well liked for his visitations to the sick and homebound and for his insight into peoples' problems. During his pastorate our church celebrated its centennial (1963) at which time the sanctuary was redecorated. He resigned at the end of that year to head the Green Bay, Wisc. Branch of the American Institute of Religion and Psychiatry. He died suddenly in his sleep in October 1973.
After a brief interval, during which the Rev. William C. Walzer served as stated supply, the congregation called the Rev. Alan B. Chaves who was installed as our 14th pastor in June 1964. He took an active role in the ecumenical movement that sought to bring Catholics and Protestants together, in consonance with the Roman Catholic church's Vatican II. An Adult Bible class, which Rev. Gravenor had started, was now led by Marion Jenkins, who came in from Princeton Seminary each Sunday morning. The Rev. Roger Martin, supported by the Session, became the first young man from our congregation to go into full-time Christian ministry. He now serves a church in upstate New York.
It was during the Chaves ministry (1964-1991, the longest in our church's history) that the Handbell Choir, led by Myrtle Tennie, toured the Presbyterian churches of Puerto Rico during Christmas week 1971. Our church's mission budget included support for two missionaries, the Rev. Joseph Prakasim (Durban, South Africa) and the Rev. Sam Roura (San Juan, P.R.), both of whom had been visited by the Chaves family.
In 1972, with the consent of Presbytery and the congregation, Rev. Chaves began devoting his weekday mornings and afternoons to counseling young people at LaGuardia Community College. He is now Dean of Admissions at Long Island University. When he retired from active ministry in 1991, he and his wife Joan, now also retired, moved to Lakewood, NJ
Fortunately, the congregation had not long to wait for another pastor. Before the Pastor Nominating Committee could meet, the Rev. Diana G. Mahida appeared as a part-time interim pastor (October 1991). Her background in formal education was impressive: after ordination (1980) by the Presbytery of Piedmont, she attended Union Theological Seminary, 1985 (Master of Sacred Theology, Psychiatry and Religion); General Theological Seminary (Certificate, Spiritual Direction 1988); and again to Union Seminary to receive her Doctor of Philosophy, Psychiatry and Religion degree. She quickly became and active member of the New York City Presbytery, serving on various committees. She also served as Bible Study leader at the Spanish Youth Camp at Denton Lake.
Pastor Mahida, with the help of a revitalized Evangelism Committee, introduced an annual Healing Service and celebrated a Faith Journey Weekend, using the leadership of the Knox Fellowship and Perry Wootten. Adult Bible classes are held more regularly than in the past. Our church is also blessed by sharing its space with the Indo-Pak Presbyterian Fellowship, led by the Rev. Shahbaz Khan. Rev. Mahida has also conducted bilingual services (English-Spanish) on Sunday afternoons. At the present time, she is also interim pastor at Ridgewood Presbyterian Church. In addition, she has involved herself in community affairs and improvement of church facilities (the need of an alarm system and city action on the flooding of the church basement).
-- Henry F. Heinlein, Clerk of Session