When you meander along the south branch of the Raritan River, you stumble upon the charming town of Clinton, NJ. Incorporated in 1865, Clinton boasts a quaint Main Street with boutiques, shops, restaurants and the Red Mill, one of the most painted and photographed grist mills in the world. In 1995, the town was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its notable architecture, commerce, and engineering. Take a walking tour uphill of the downtown along Center Street and you’ll notice inviting arched red doors beckoning to a majestic white Victorian-style structure undergoing significant renovations: Clinton Presbyterian Church.
Founded in 1831, Clinton Presbyterian Church (CPC) has a storied history housing an active and faithful congregational community of 250+ since 1890. The original one story rectangular stone building was destroyed by fire shortly after its construction. Rebuilt in 1845, the young church was deemed “a thoroughly unattractive box-like structure with no spire or tower…within a narrow pulpit with long windows of plain glass and entire absence of anything upon which the eye could rest with pleasure” by Reverend I. Alystine Blauvelt (term 1864-1868). The Sanctuary and subsequent classroom expansion were reconstructed in 1865, including a balcony and center steeple housing a brass bell manufactured that same year by Meneelys Bell Co, of West Troy, NY. In March 1888, a historic blizzard knocked the steeple off where it rolled onto the Mulligan property across the street, which is now owned by members of CPC. Miraculously, the bell remained intact and is joyfully ringing to this day.
Following this damage, in 1890 the church led a major Capital Campaign to radically improve the architecture to accommodate its growing congregation; the building was widened from one center aisle by adding additional side isles and upgrading from boxed to curved pews, two square towered entrances (one housing the lucky, undamaged bell) and horse and carriage sheds erected at the rear of the property. The Christian Education building abutting the sanctuary was also added during this remodeling. Although much of the current construction dates back to 1890, in 1963 CPC added basement classroom space, a Fellowship Hall and kitchen. Showcased at the head of the “Basilica-style” Sanctuary, beneath elegant frescoes and a Latin cross, is an elevated platform or “bema” and ornate chancel. The decorative pipe organ, still in use, was generously donated by Ralph Voorhees’ family. In its modern glory, CPC houses a four aisle pew configuration made with ash and walnut trimmings and a central Pre-Raphaelite angel stained glass window flanked by 8 more depicting colorful biblical flora. Viewed from the air, CPC’s floor plan was intentionally constructed to mirror a cross with wide “arms” housing its vestibules and organ chambers.
Before the pandemic, CPC recognized that if they were going to continue to attract and promote members, as well as accommodate their mission of outreach within the community and their congregation, they needed to raise money for deferred maintenance and capital renovations. It was unfortunate timing because within 2 months of identifying their needs the world shut down due to COVID 19. What could have resulted in an immediate loss of momentum for the Capital Campaign ended up working to the church’s benefit. The congregation rallied, quickly pivoting to an online Zoom format continuing their sermons, chancel choir and community outreach.
Inspections progressed, and found that the bell tower had suffered significant wood rot, endangering the sanctuary’s ornamental ceiling. The plaster and lathe ceiling and plaster moldings started exhibiting cracks due to age and settlement. Typical of the plaster used in the 1890’s, it was found to contain horsehair. This repair was integral to maintain the safety of the congregation. After much research, a proprietary method to stabilize the existing ceiling and moldings was chosen over removal and mechanical fastening so as to save the original moldings and chandelier medallion.
Several of the sanctuary’s stained glass windows required repair. The roof over the main structure was nearing the end of its useful life. The restrooms, original to the 1963 addition, were in sore need of an upgrade. One bathroom was to be enlarged to comply with ADA obligations, adding features to welcome all visitors to the church. In furtherance of CPC’s commitment to be a welcoming place of worship, the handicap ramp and entrance needed to be upgraded. The deteriorating ornamental trim on the exterior roof edge and bell towers and rotting tin flashings were also beyond their useful life. And the distinct red arched doors leading into the sanctuary, along with the electrified gas lights flanking the front doors, also needed to be refurbished.
As its membership settled into their “new normal” of Covid,” Session organized a Building Subcommittee to solidify immediate needs, and to solicit proposals and advice from experts in their specific craft to understand the scope and set realistic costs. Horizons Stewardship was engaged to assist in designing the Capital Campaign. With great hope and trust in the future of our church, Session initiated their financial plea to the congregation in February 2022 by way of a vision brochure titled “Generation to Generation” summarizing the restoration project estimated at $700,000.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. Pastor Tracey Henry, who was installed to serve the congregation in 2013 was joyful about the outcome. “The people of CPC responded to our capital campaign with their characteristically deep and faith-filled generosity. Pledged giving exceeded campaign goals by over 25%, with members committing to fulfill these pledges over a three year time period. What a blessing!”
Out of necessity, stabilization of the sanctuary plaster ceiling began in June of 2021 while services, due to Covid, were being held outside and CPC trusted God would bless the planned Capital Campaign. The church was proud to ultimately select craftsmen, all from New Jersey, to accomplish the work. Repairs to the exterior began summer of 2022. With God’s grace and good weather, all of the planned projects are anticipated to be accomplished by the end of 2025.
"CPC is a truly special place.” Reverend Henry professed. “Our church continues to grow and we are so very hopeful about the future. If you walk into the Sanctuary on any given Sunday, you will find a vibrant congregation, where the chancel steps are overflowing with children, a family of faith where a warm welcome awaits everyone. We have the privilege of hosting many different community groups throughout the year and our preschool established in 2018 is growing from strength to strength. With all the investments we have made in and around the building it is our prayer that this church will continue to be a place of sacred encounter and faithful service for years to come.”
Written by Christina Honthy-Little, Elder (2023-2025)
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