Sussex church celebrates 175 years

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  • Photo by Viktoria-Leigh Wagner The First Presbyterian Church of Sussex is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year.

  • Photo by Viktoria-Leigh Wagner Madelyn Coykendall, 94, of Sussex has been a membere of the First Presbyterian Church of Sussex for 75 years.

  • Photo by Viktoria-Leigh Wagner Arthur Van Houten, amember of the church for eight years, is seen reciting his original poem, "The Big White Church Up on the Hill."

The month of May ‘may or may not’ mean something special, but for the 1st Presbyterian Church of Sussex, it’s the month their church was born.

The 175th celebration was a two-year process. The church’s Anniversary Committee most recently scheduled an old-fashioned service last October to precede the May festivities.

On Thursday, May 1, the church held a Vespers Worship Service and honored the first 28 members that started the Third Presbyterian Church of Wantage in 1839.

The day after, a dessert smorgasbord was coupled with a talent show of 17 acts featuring members of the congregation demonstrating their musical and literary abilities. One of the highlights was eight-year church member Arthur Van Houten’s reciting of his original poem, ‘The Big White Church Up on the Hill.’

An Anniversary Dinner was held Saturday, May 3, at Hope Presbyterian Church (1441 County Road 565 in Wantage). The Rev. Charles F. Holm, who served the 1st Presbyterian Church of Sussex from 1977-80, made an appearance. Madelyn Coykendall, 94, a church member 75 years, was recognized with a framed picture of the church.

The weekend concluded with the 175th Anniversary Worship Service Sunday, May 4, back at the 1st Presbyterian Church of Sussex, led by church formers the Rev. Matthew Schramm, who served from 2004-2009, and Rev. Bruce Gillette, served 1985-1994. Dr. Charles Jenkins, who completed his interim ministry 2002-04, also was present at Sunday’s service. The church’s children’s choir sang for the occasion.

Amy Lawrence has served as minister of the church for about a year.

“There’s an old Greek proverb that says, ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in,’" she said. "The original 28 members planted the seeds of a church they never saw the full fruit of, but our generation has.”

“I think the anniversary is a wonderful tribute to the church that served the communities of Sussex and Wantage for 175 years,” said Committee Elder Everett Burns. “Our committee worked together collaboratively so well to make those first four days a wonderful celebration of church history.”

On April 16, 1788, the Rev. Elias VanBunschooten organized the Dutch Reformed Church in Wantage in response to a petition signed by 55 residents of the upper Clove neighborhood.

That year, VanBunschooten became the church’s pastor with 50 congregational members.

After VanBunschooten’s death in 1815, the Clove Church dissolved and merged with the First Presbyterian Church of Wantage on Nov. 24, 1817, organized under the N.J. Presbytery on Aug. 11, 1818, with 25 members. The Rev. Gershom Williams became the first pastor.

Incidentally, the Old Clove Church celebrated 225 years in 2013.

Trustees of the First Presbyterian Church of Wantage were authorized to employ a minister to preach one-third of the time at the Clove Church, one-third of the time in Deckertown (the name of Sussex Borough until 1892) and the remainder of time between two Beemerville meeting houses.

The first congregation to leave the Clove Church established the Second Church of Beemerville July 13, 1834, and erected a stone church to worship in shortly afterwards. The Rev. Enos Osborn became the first pastor.

The Old Clove Church that stands today on Rt. 23 in Wantage was built in 1829 for $3,300. May 1, a decade later, the pastor of the Clove Church — the Rev. George Pierson — organized the Third Presbyterian Church of Wantage with 28 members at the request of several members of his congregation living in Deckertown. Pierson served as a moderator until Rev. James W. Wood took over as the church’s first pastor in October 1839.

This congregation met in a meeting house before a church could be built in 1844 on 21 Unionville Ave., the current location of the 1st Presbyterian Church in Sussex. The church stands on land that was once owned by Lewis Whitaker, who became the first ruling church Elder in 1873.

The name was changed from the Third Presbyterian Church of Wantage on Feb. 27, 1892 to the First Presbyterian Church of Deckertown, during which year the church was rebuilt and enlarged at the expense of $6,000.

On March 2, 1902, ‘Deckertown’ became ‘Sussex,’ but it wasn’t until Jan. 14, 1955 that the church’s name changed from the First Presbyterian Church of Deckertown to the First Presbyterian Church of Sussex.

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