A brief history of The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill
In the fall of 1850, Rev. Roger Owen, then the head of a boys’ boarding school in Chestnut Hill, began holding Sunday afternoon religious services. The area’s small but mighty Presbyterian community asked him to hold Sunday morning services at his school, and the first was held a year later, on November 16, 1851. The First Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill was chartered in May 1852 with the names of Roger Owens (the minister), his brother Joshua and 17 others. A total of $3,492.50 was collected for supplies to erect a building at the corner of Rex and Germantown Avenues. The cornerstone was laid on July 1, 1852, but the building had to be suspended when funds ran out. At last the church was dedicated on June 16, 1853 with a membership of 40. When completed, the building was considered one of the finest specimens of church architecture around Philadelphia.
In 1889 a schism among members resulted in the formation of Trinity Presbyterian Church. Trinity Church was built on the northwest corner of Gravers Lane and Germantown Avenue. In a very short time, however, it was felt by many that it was a mistake to have two churches of the same denomination serving in such close proximity. Talks of a merger began.
Never to be accused of acting in haste, the Presbyterians continued to discuss merger for the next three decades. Finally in December 1929, Trinity Presbyterian Church and the First Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill joined to become The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The congregation occupied a building on Rex Avenue. Corydon Curtis Tyler of Trinity and William Colin Lee of First Church served as co-pastors. After a few years, Trinity Church was demolished and the land sold.
The new united church grew and facilities became strained to the limit. Plans had to be made for the future. Dr. Burleigh Cruikshank was called to the pulpit in 1941. When asked by the members how big a new building should be, he replied, “Make it as big as you want. I’ll fill it.” World War II put everything on hold. Nevertheless, a gift of land for the new building from Annie Laughlin, as well as several unexpected and substantial gifts from individuals outside the congregation, and the monies from the sale of the old building led to a ground-breaking. When the foundation for the new church was dug, enough Chestnut Hill stone was removed to construct the new building. On November 14, 1948, the cornerstone was laid and on March 12, 1950 the first service of worship was held in the present sanctuary.
During the next ten years, the growth of the congregation was remarkable. Membership reached 1300. Two Sunday morning services were necessary and the Sunday School had 75 teachers serving 500 children. It was the 1950s and the baby boom was on! Soon it was time to build again. A long range planning committee was formed and recommended that the church add a Sunday School wing, offices, a choir room, a reception room, a new kitchen, an organ, a chapel and an expanded parking space. Within a year of these additions, the church decided to begin a pre-kindergarten school that continues to this day. During these years the church was led by a beloved minister and teacher, Dr. Joseph E. McCabe whose book, The Power of God in a Parish Program, recounted his ministry in Chestnut Hill.
Since Dr. McCabe’s time the church continued under the leadership of John Felmeth, Paul Stauning, Lincoln Griswold, and C. Vincent Wilson. In 1996, the congregation called its first female head of staff, Cynthia Jarvis. The last two decades have seen the renovation of the sanctuary, Widener Hall and staff offices as well as the installation of a Mander Pipe Organ. Young families once again fill the pews while a ministry to older adults has been made possible by the gift of $2 million endowment.
Adapted from a history written by C. Vincent Wilson and Bette O’Brien