History of First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha
First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha, older than the state of Wisconsin itself, has a long history of service to the local community and beyond.
First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha dates back to September 8, 1846, when the town was still known as Prairieville. Reverend Aaron L. Lindsley, recently arrived from New York, and Reverend Silas Pratt petitioned the Presbytery of Wisconsin on that date, thus formally founding what was then the “First Presbyterian Church of Prairieville.” There were 10 charter members.
The young congregation, with no building of its own, used the First Baptist Church for its worship service until February 14, 1847, when it moved to the Prairieville Academy, a predecessor of Carroll College. There a Sunday School with 70 members was organized by founding church member Prof. Eleazar Root, who later became the first Wisconsin Superintendent of Education. Root, along with Prof. John W. Sterling, were the two first faculty at Carroll College, which had also been founded in 1846. This was the beginning of a long history of close ties between First Presbyterian and Carroll College. In fact, Sterling served as pulpit supply while Lindsley went East to secure funds to purchase a building. Sterling went on to become one of the two first professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Root and Sterling were not the only church members of historical significance. Another early member was Alexander Randall, who became governor of Wisconsin in 1857 and, later, Postmaster General under President Lincoln.
The current site of First Presbyterian Church was purchased from Horace and Hariett Ward for $100. In 1848 an additional lot was purchased from Thomas H. Olin for $150. By September 1849 construction was progressing. The basement was used for the Sunday School before the rest of the church was constructed. Additionally, in 1849 Prof. Lucius Root began holding preparatory Carroll College classes in the basement of the church. Classes continued there until 1853, when Carroll's first building was completed.
The original church, a structure measuring 40' x 60' and seating 300, was soon finished, although the tower was not completed until 1869. The Sanctuary was officially dedicated on June 24, 1855. Interestingly, during this time, pews were sold or rented for a term of one year.
Despite expansions, remodeling, and the removal of the tower in 1912, the sanctuary is still today enclosed by the original walls, and the original roof rafters are still in place. First Presbyterian is “the oldest Old School Presbyterian Church edifice in Wisconsin in continuous service since its erection in 1849,” according to the Synod of Wisconsin's 1951 publication “Early Presbyterianism in Wisconsin.”
A Century of Change
The first Carroll College graduation exercises were held in the church's sanctuary in 1857. This tradition continued for years. Because of a fire that devastated Carroll College's one building in 1885, college classes returned to the church basement for two years, until Carroll could raise money for a new building.
Already around 1867 more space was needed and the church was enlarged at a cost of $2,000. Also in the 1860s, sheds were erected on the east and north sides of the church for churchgoers' teams of horses. They remained until the early 1920s. A manse (house for the minister) was purchased on Arcadian Avenue in 1902. In 1941, it was replaced by a manse at 727 Beechwood Ave.
In 1922 the church was enlarged on the lot purchased from the A.E. Alpin family. A new pipe organ was installed. The entrance was relocated, and the location of the chancel was moved from the north end to the south. New Sunday school classrooms and a gymnasium were added. Membership at this time was 700. This major remodeling gave the church the basic footprint that it has today.
Starting in 1927, the church sponsored the first Boy Scout troop in the city of Waukesha. Troop 5 still meets at First Presbyterian today.
By 1946, when First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha celebrated its centennial, membership had reached 1,050. The centennial motto was “Press forward into a new century,” and one of the members even wrote a hymn to mark the occasion. It was sung at the expansive centennial service that took place at the church.
Changes and additions happened at a furious rate in the next decades. In 1954 an Annex was purchased at corner of East and South Streets. It housed the Gray Mare Nursery School and later the Waukesha Women's Center.
In 1956 the church elected its first female elders. One of the early female elders was Lois Stair, who in 1971 was elected moderator of the 183rd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. She was the first woman in history to hold that position, the highest elected post in the Presbyterian Church.
In 1962, 24 members of First Presbyterian become charter members of Zion Presbyterian Church, and $5000 was contributed to the new church.
Just a few years later, in 1964-65, 63 members were commissioned to organize Southminster Presbyterian Church on the south side of Waukesha. More than $26,500 was pledged toward this effort. Southminster continues to be a vibrant congregation today.
Just a block away from First Presbyterian today is Avalon Square, a beautiful non-profit senior living facility. In 1969 First Presbyterian pledged $16,500 for creation of the Avalon Manor Fund, thus helping Presbyterian Homes , Inc., to convert the old Avalon Hotel into this new facility.
In September 1971 church deacons started a Meals on Wheels program, the first home-delivered meal service in Waukesha county. Meals were prepared at the nearby Avalon. The program continued without interruption until 1992. Some members still deliver meals, now prepared by Waukesha Memorial Hospital.
In 1977 a new Austin pipe organ was installed and placed in balcony. The balcony was redone and a railing installed for safety. The choir moved from the front of the sanctuary to the balcony at this time.
First Presbyterian was one of the first two Waukesha buildings designated historic landmarks by the Waukesha Landmarks Commission in 1978. A plaque with the number two adorns the church near the front entrance. The following year, the church was listed in the American Presbyterian/Reformed Historical Sites Registry.
Renovations were finished in 1981 that changed the layout of the chancel area. Changes “emphasized the fellowship of God's people around the communion table,” leaving less distance and fewer obstacles between the congregation and the chancel area. Dedication of the refurbished sanctuary took place on May 23, 1982.
In a renewed effort to use the church building itself as a resource for mission, in 1984 First Presbyterian pledged $125,000 to convert the church gymnasium into an adult daycare. The Caring Place was opened in 1988, the first non-profit adult daycare in Waukesha County. It served as a model for adult daycare centers in southeast Wisconsin. The Caring Place continues to the present, still housed in the church.
The year 1996 marked the church's 150th anniversary. It was accompanied, as so many other occasions in its history, with a special ceremony.
In 2007 the church registered the domain name www.FirstPresWaukesha.org. Starting in in 2011, it expanded the web site greatly, adding written and recorded versions of the weekly sermons. First Presbyterian began developing a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. By 2015, sermons were being offered as podcasts, as well. A new sound system and a new projection system were installed in 2015, too.
First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha, with its roots firmly in the 19th century, boldly stretches its branches deep into the 21st century.
Beyond These Walls
This brief history highlights some of the most significant events in the church's history but thereby perhaps ignores First Presbyterian's less noticeable but more significant contribution. Like so many churches, its members have contributed time, money, and prayers to those in need. For a century and three-quarters, First Presbyterian and its members have held benefit concerts, rung Salvation Army bells, hosted AlAnon meetings, cooked and served meals for the hungry, done laundry, sent care packages to military members, collected mittens, coats, and toys, built stoves in Guatemala, walked to fight cancer, walked to fight hunger, helped renovate houses, held food drives, and much more.