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First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ


First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

Full Description


Congregationalism is deeply rooted in the fabric and history of the United States. The Congregationalists arrived on The Mayflower, and, as is their custom, held a congregational meeting before disembarking. Their method of operation, in which the congregation rules, had a great influence on the framers of the Constitution, many of which were members.

The Church embraces a liberal faith which is evidenced by the fact that Congregational Colleges were among the first in North America to open their doors to women and African Americans in the 1830’s. The Church was also the first to ordain women and African Americans, and, in 1972, the first denomination to ordain gays and lesbians.

Congregationalism came to Nevada in 1870 when eight Reno Congregationalists, J. C. Hagerman, Kitty Hagerman, Mary F. Poor, Annie L. Poor, James Weston, E. Crane, Mary E. Crane and Mary A. Kinney, responding to the wild life that was normal in most early western pioneer towns, petitioned the national organization in Boston “to enter a scriptural, Calvinistic and orthodox church organization generally known as Congregational”. The petition was accepted, and the Reverend J. H. Warren was invited to come to Reno, act as moderator and direct the organizing of a Congregational Church. Reverend James Henry Morgan, D.D. graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and, with his new bride, sailed to Panama, crossed the Isthmus by mule and arrived in San Francisco in 1850.

After seven years as a pastor and seven more as an administrator in the Congregational Association of California, he became Superintendent of Missions for California and Nevada. His mission was to establish new churches wherever he could. He arrived in Reno on February 18, 1871, and met with the petitioners that evening to make plans for the formal organization of the church on the next day. Reverend A. F. Hitchcock who had resigned from the First Methodist Church, which had been organized a few months before, was called to be the first pastor and the first service was held the next day in the Northside Elementary School. This was the second church organized in Reno.

They met in the school for two years and, even though they were few in number, they, along with the Odd Fellows Lodge, raised enough money to build a two story building. The Church used the bottom floor and the Odd Fellows the top floor. The lot was donated by the Central Pacific Railroad which was interested in developing the towns along its route. The money was largely raised with the sale of baked beans and Boston Brown bread.

The church grew along with the city and it soon became evident that they were outgrowing their facility. In 1884, the pastor, Rev. A. B. Palmer retired. He owned a house and a lot at the corner of 5th and Virginia Streets. He sold it to the Ladies aid Society of the church for $900. The house was used for a parsonage for many years. Once again, fund raising for a new building began in earnest, and, as before, largely consisted of the sale of dinners consisting of baked beans, brown bread, potato salad etc. which were priced at $.25 and $.35.

In addition, the church obtained a grant of $2,984 from the Congregational Building Society in Boston. This money was used to erect a beautiful new brick building on the 5th and Virginia site. It was dedicated on Thanksgiving day, November 24, 1892. In 1904 the old parsonage was demolished and a new one built and a new Moeller pipe organ was installed. This organ came around the Horn and was shipped to Reno by rail from San Francisco. This building served the congregation for 66 years. Several of the stained glass windows and the organ are part of the current edifice.

During this time, the Pilgrim Brotherhood was organized by the men of the church. This group was responsible for the building of the Reno YMCA and the passage of the anti-gambling law, which was repealed in the 1930’s. The ministry of the church, in addition to serving the spiritual needs of the community, has been opposition to gambling in the community while, simultaneously, striving to serve the spiritual needs of the employees of the gambling establishments and the entertainers who appeared there.

The World War I years were difficult for both the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches. The Presbyterian church Had a small membership and the Congregational Church was having difficulty supporting their pastor. It was suggested that the two churches federate on a trial basis for a year. This type of arrangement was popular throughout the nation at that time for similar reasons. The basic principles of this agreement were that each church would retain its identity and that new members would be offered the choice as to which particular church roll their name would appear. Also the division of the benevolent funds would be 50-50 to each denomination and the pastors were to be called from the two denominations on an alternating basis. The trial was so successful that it was made “permanent” in 1921. Despite several administrative problems which existed with this arrangement, it persevered until 1971 when the congregation voted to defederate and resume the name of The First Congregational Church of Reno.

After 66 years at the 5th and Virginia location, the neighborhood had become mostly commercial and the church building had developed many problems associated with its age, so it became necessary to relocate. The church had received many offers for the property and finally, in 1958, The Sewall Corporation offered $150,000 for it (as opposed to the $900 purchase price) to be used as a parking lot for their supermarket which was located next door. The church had located property in the northwest in a residential neighborhood. They accepted the offer and prepared to move. They built the Christian Education building which was designed to serve all activities of the church until a sanctuary could be built. The current sanctuary was completed in 1963. A third building was constructed in 1995 to house the nursery and additional meeting rooms.

This church, like most, has had periods of conflict concerning its religious philosophy and has experienced several periods of financial difficulty, however it has served its community and congregation well for its 137 years.