A Brief History of
First Presbyterian Church of Lancaster
In Lancaster, in the early 1700's, Presbyterians and some other congregations were making use of the county courthouse for worship whenever preachers could be had. Most of them lacked adequate meeting places, and few had their own full time pastors. Most preachers had to divide their time among several churches
The earliest documentation we have of our existence as a congregation appears in the minutes of the Donegal Presbytery, meeting at Chestnut Level on June 16, 1742.
In 1763, Governor James Hamilton granted Lot No. 19 on Orange Street to the Presbyterian congregation as an English Presbyterian burial ground. This lot is the center lot of three on which our present sanctuary and chapel now stand. It was also the site of our original house of worship. That building was soon surrounded by the old cemetery, which now lies beneath the present chapel and some adjacent rooms. The appearance of that first building in 1844 can be seen in a painting by itinerant artist E. R. Hammond. Now on permanent loan from the Presbyterian Historical Society, it hangs in our foyer.
In 1968, Senior Pastor Donald Wilson and a group of young people undertook the task of exploring the old cemetery and moving tons of tombstones out to spaces where they could be read and cataloged. Several of the most interesting stones were later incorporated into walls of our remodeled foyer and into a nearby basement youth area known as the “Tomb Room.”
The new building on a lot deeded to the church by Robert Fulton Sr. (father of the inventor/artist) dedicated on May 11, 1851 is the one we worship in today. It is on Lot No. 25, at the corner of Orange and Cherry Streets. The building contained a central tower topped by what appears to be the same octagonal belfry we have today. And above all this was a roof-like structure that looked somewhat like a lid. It was also octagonal and curved upward only a few feet from its top. Everything above the belfry was replaced in 1877 with a well-proportioned spire.
Unfortunately, the total effect was not all that had been hoped for until 1913, when Lancaster’s noted architect, C. Emlen Urban, entered the picture. With relatively small changes, he created the attractive façade we now have. These changes included the three marble doorways and the windows above them, as well as a round window on the next higher level. He also added white painted cornices which emphasize the architectural lines of the façade.
TIFFANY STAINED GLASS WINDOWS
The stained glass windows - twelve in all - are true treasures that define the beauty of our sanctuary. The windows were given over a period of years from 1909 to 1923. Nine of the twelve windows were made by the Tiffany Studios of New York City, three, including two outside the sanctuary, were done in the Nicola Goodwin D'Ascenzo Studios of Philadelphia after the Tiffany Company went out of business. To see photos and learn more about our Tiffany windows click here.
Built by the Aeolian-Skinner firm, master builders from Boston, Massachusetts, and designed and finished by G. Donald Harrison. It is representative of the highest grade of tonal design and superb workmanship for which the Aeolian-Skinner firm is known. Installed in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian in 1947, and contains nearly 5,000 pipes with 75 sets of pipes covering a wide tonal range. One of the finest organs in America, it has served both as an accompaniment to our worship services and as a solo instrument in concert. Many of the world’s most renowned organists have given concerts. The late Virgil Fox described its ensemble as “white hot heat.” Additional stops have been added over the years, and in 2013/2014, the instrument underwent substantial renovation. To learn more about the organ click here.
THE CELTIC CROSS
The large Celtic cross which hangs on the front wall of the sanctuary was given to the church in 1967. It was cast on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. It’s a reminder of our Scottish Presbyterian background, for on Iona, about A.D. 563, St. Columba, with 12 disciples, erected a church and a monastery and from there evangelized all of northern Scotland. These Christians, after the Reformation, became the Presbyterians who fled to Ireland, and later to the New World, to escape political and religious persecution.