First Presbyterian Church
A Phoenix from the Ashes
Records of the early First Presbyterian Church have been lost. What is known is that the church had its beginnings in 1834 when Titus Bronson, the founder of Kalamazoo, and his wife Sally began meeting with 12 other residents in a schoolhouse on South Street.
Joint Venture with the Congregational Church
In 1842, the First Presbyterian Society of Kalamazoo joined with the Congregational church, using the same form of government, but keeping separate belief systems. This came about as a part of the Plan of Union, arranged in 1801 that seemed reasonable for the “frontier” lands of New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. These hybrid churches were sometimes called “Presbygational.” The congregations met in the first church built in Kalamazoo near the southeast corner of South and Rose Streets. The basic differences in the two faiths inevitably led to the first conflagration, which resulted in 51 members adopting the First Presbyterian constitution, confession of faith and covenants in February of 1849, and leaving to form their own church.
They didn’t go far, however. That same year, what became known as the White Church rose up across the street from the first church on the northeast corner of South and Rose Street, what is currently the Miller Canfield Building. On the evening of 5 December 1883, flames were discovered in the building around 11:00 o’clock. The fire had made too much headway to be stopped, however, and soon the bell in the tower crashed into the basement and “…the organ died with a groan heard by spectators across the street.” By midnight the church was nothing but a smoking ruin.
Undaunted, the church congregation met in the nearby Kalamazoo Academy of Music until what became known as the Brick Church rose on the site of the White Church and was dedicated on 1 July 1885. In some ways the new church was modeled after the Academy of Music because it had a square auditorium with galleries on the south and west sides, a long platform across the east end and a choir balcony above the pulpit platform. “By no means a gem of architecture, the brick church was typical of the pompous, nondescript style of many churches built in the generation after the Civil War. Yet, as the years passed, it acquired the sort of beauty often given to undistinguished structures by pleasant memories and long associations.”
The church flourished. By 1921, membership had grown to nearly 1,150 persons. In 1925, the cornerstone was laid for the Church House, which was located on what had been the Prange family property on the southwest corner of St. John’s Place and Park Street, the site of the current church building.
On the evening of 6 July 1926, the third fire in four months to break out in the Brick Church tolled its death knell. Previous fires had been discovered near a motion picture projection booth and near the front end of the building. The final blaze left the church nothing but an empty brick hulk. It was the third big church fire in Kalamazoo that year. Previous arsons had destroyed the First Congregational and Methodist churches. In total, 14 fires had been set in Kalamazoo, 12 of them in churches or in buildings in which fraternal organizations held meetings. It is not known if these blazes were the work of one or of several persons.
The large congregation held Sunday services in the old Central High School Auditorium from 1927 until the current Gothic sanctuary was completed and dedicated on Palm Sunday, 13 April 1930. It rose majestically on the South street site where it stands today. A prominent feature of the church is the Rose Window that faces South Street. It was made of imported glass, the color being in the glass and not enameled over the top. It follows the scheme of the solar spectrum, with high lights in the center, grading through rubies to purples and rich blues. In the center is the seal of the Presbyterian Church of America and the six “Shields of the Martyrs,” which have historically stood for heroic martyrdom in the past and represent the part the church played in the Protestant Revolution.
The First Presbyterian Church has been involved in outreach efforts throughout its history in Kalamazoo. In 1864 it began the Mission Woods Sunday School, which became Kalamazoo’s North Presbyterian Church. It also operates its own health clinic for indigent and homeless individuals, and has housed programs for mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed children. It joined other Presbyterian churches to help resettle families from Vietnam, provide low-income housing, and participate in the Loaves and Fishes food pantry network. The church also extended its aid to Mexico and overseas to Ghana, West Africa.