By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
When the Scribner brothers founded New Albany in 1813, they had a plan.
Among the initial plotting of the wooded land to be sold, 10 lots were designated for the building of churches. Religion and education were dear to the men from the Northeast, and the allocation of their holdings represented this fact.
Two hundred years later, more than 100 different religious congregations worship in Floyd County. To celebrate their rich history, the New Albany Bicentennial Commission has published a book “200 Years of Church Histories.”
The compilation details these individual institutions, both young and old, and their growth through the decades.
“Since New Albany’s founding in 1813, churches have played a significant role in the shaping of our community. In fact, at one time, New Albany was known as the ‘City of Churches’,” said New Albany Bicentennial Commission co-chairpersons Shelle England and Bob Caesar in the forward of the new book.
“Our city can also boast of several firsts in the state such as the first Sunday School held in 1819; the first meeting and organization of the Indiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church held in New Albany in 1832; the first Episcopal Church, St. Paul’s founded in 1834; and the first Salvation Army established in 1883.”
After the Scribner boys platted the lots and attracted some settlers, organized churches began to form pretty quickly in the growing town. Two congregations in particular, one Presbyterian and the other Methodist, vied for the title of the first official church in New Albany.
Established Feb. 16, 1816, Union Church of New Albany and Jeffersonville won the honor with a scant eight parishioners, including four members of the Scribner family. In 1817, the Jeffersonville contingency broke off and the church was renamed First Presbyterian Church of New Albany. It was here, at Hale Tavern, the first recorded Sunday school in Indiana took place.
In 1837, the rapidly growing congregation split and 103 members formed Second Presbyterian Church, also known as the Clock Tower Church. Notorious for its abolitionist ideas, the religious institution and its congregants aided slaves seeking Northern freedom before and during the Civil War.
“James Brooks, president of the New Albany and Salem Railroad ... and a ruling elder of Second Presbyterian Church, helped hide escaped slaves in his church as well as giving out free passes on his railroad,” the book said.
While undergoing additional moves, splits, mergers and name changes, the church founded nearly 200 years ago received its present name, St. John United Presbyterian Church, in 1969.
Close on the heels of the Presbyterian congregation, Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church was only several months behind Union Church in its formation. In October 1816, weekly Methodist meetings started to be held, and, on June 20, 1817, the first Methodist Episcopal Society in New Albany was officially organized.
Once again, the Scribner family played a role in the church’s creation by donating land for the erection of, as founder Mary Wicks Stoy described it, “a log structure of most unpretentious appearance” in which to worship.
In “200 Years of Church Histories,” the book notes many of the men and women involved in the lucrative ship-building industry began to attend Wesley Chapel, and through time it became knows as the “Old Ship.”
Due to immense growth, members of the congregation branched off and formed new parishes, including Centenary United Methodist Church in 1839, and Robert’s Chapel, now called Main Street United Methodist Church, in 1850.
Undergoing several moves itself, the current Wesley Chapel recently relocated to Floyd Knobs, where it continues to serve the community.
Numerous other denominations also contributed greatly to the history and culture of New Albany, though the list is too exhaustive to chronicle in a single article. The bicentennial book, however, gives considerable length to each of the institutions. Some highlights, however, should be noted.
∞ In 1820, a group of Silver Creek Baptist Church members traveled to New Albany with the mission of forming a new congregation. In 1821, First Baptist Church was officially established with meetings held at future pastor Seth Woodruff’s tavern.
∞ Organized by German immigrants in 1837, the church now known as St. Marks United Church of Christ first gathered at on old schoolhouse on State Street. Until 1918, at least one of their services was delivered in German.
∞ As a member of the first African-American denomination established in all the United States, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church became the first black church organized in New Albany, in 1848.
∞ While Catholic services existed in the Knobs toward the latter 1700s, New Albany received its first documented Catholic congregation, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, in 1852. While Holy Trinity ministered to predominantly those of Irish and French descent, St. Mary of the Annunciation Catholic Church, formed in 1858, serviced mostly German-speaking immigrants.
St. Mary’s also has the honor of counting Cardinal Joseph Elmer Ritter, a key figure in the desegregation of Catholic schools, as one of its distinguished congregants.
After a fire destroyed Holy Trinity in 1975, the two congregations merged into the current St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Eighth Street.
For those interested in a more detailed look at these and other churches, “200 Years of Church Histories” may be purchased for $15 at several businesses: Ben Franklin, J.O. Endris Jewelers, Gallery on Pearl and Strandz & Threadz.
Proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to the nonprofit group Hope Southern Indiana, formerly Interfaith Community Council.
Editor's note: This version is a corrected version of the original story.