The history of First Presbyterian Church of Willoughby began in 1833, when it was created through the Christian vision of nine members and the Reverends Chester Chapin and Truman Coe who organized the Presbyterian Society of Willoughby.
In those days, this area was part of the relatively new Western Reserve of Connecticut. Moses Cleveland had come to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River in 1796 to survey some two and a half million acres of land that he and others had purchased from Connecticut for about 40 cents an acre. This area shares the same latitude lines as the state of Connecticut and was part of the original royal colonial charter from the 1600s. The Western Reserve was to be an overflow area for excess population in the East and for many served as payment for military service.
By the early 1800s, this was a growing area stimulated by the completion of the Ohio Canal linking Lake Erie with the Ohio River. The Western Reserve was a hotbed of abolitionist and temperance sentiments. There were many stations on the Underground Railroad slave escape system in this part of Ohio. It was against this backdrop that the fledgling Presbyterian Church in Willoughby was formed.
Two years after the purchase of the land, a building fund was launched to build a new church. Membership at that time was 572 (232 families). In 1835, the first church building was built across from the end of Sharpe on Euclid Avenue. The land for the church was donated by the Wilson family. The first church building was red brick and had a beautiful golden oak sanctuary with rented pews. The workbench Communion table, still used today, was built by Isaac Page in 1830 and is symbolic of Joseph’s carpenter bench. The pews had doors to keep children with their parents. A twelve room parsonage was built in 1873 on a double lot on Center Street directly behind the church.
By 1880 there was need for more space, so the original church was demolished causing much sadness. A new building was constructed debt free, a testament to the financial health of the Church at that time. The new church building was dedicated in January of 1886. The Women’s Society had raised money for the purchase of a pipe organ. The air to the organ was supplied by bellows manned by young boys hidden from view. It was considered an honor to serve as one of these bellows boys and this practice continued until about 1920.
By 1896, the Church had been in existence for 63 years and had had 23 ministers. There had been a total of 549 members since the founding and there were about 100 current members. By 1900 membership had grown to 144 members. In 1918, children’s time during worship was instituted by Dr. W.L. Swan, pastor.
The year 1936 saw the combination of Ladies Aid, the Missionary Society, and the Daughters’ Circle into the Women’s Association. The 1930s saw much controversy and division in the Church due to the Great Depression and a controversial pastor. The congregation split and membership plummeted to around twenty people. Into this dismal situation came a young man recently graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. His name was William P. Gross, and he first preached as a supply preacher to thirteen worshipers in September, 1940. Bill Gross was ordained a minister in December, 1941, and was installed as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Willoughby in October, 1941. In August of 1941, Bill Gross married Elizabeth Anderson of Missouri. The Church welcomed them with an elaborate wedding reception in September, 1941. In 1942, Bill Gross was instrumental in forming the first Alcoholics Anonymous chapter in Willoughby. The group held its first meeting at the First Church in 1945.
The Church was again debt-free in 1944 after a bequest by Delia Reynolds of the Mentor farm family (Reynolds Road). World War II was over and in 1946 First Church donated $2693 to help rebuild Europe. The Church members had to forgo new carpet to accomplish this mission work to the suffering people of Europe. In 1947 the “Mr. and Mrs. Club” and the Board of Deacons were established as Bill Gross continued to enhance the vitality of the Church. The “Mr. and Mrs. Club” provided a much needed social outlet and the Board of Deacons provided opportunities for service to more members of the congregation.
Jim Savage, talented organist, and his wife, Louise Savage, gifted soprano and choir director, joined the church in 1949. They become the backbone of the Church’s music program, a relationship that continues to the present. Jim and Louise become the founders of the Willoughby School of Fine Arts.
In 1950, funds were authorized to provide improvements to the old building, including excavation of a new room under the Church called “the Anchor Room”. This room featured a painting of a large anchor on one wall. The dedication of the Anchor Room doubled as a celebration of Rev. Bill Gross’ tenth year at First Church. With 359 members to accommodate in Sunday worship, it was decided in 1954 to initiate two morning worship services. Money was set aside to establish the first Church library in that year. Also, the Women’s Society became the United Presbyterian Women.
In 1956, the Church approved the purchase of six acres of property at the corner of Euclid and Chandler (now Shankland). On Easter Sunday, April 2, 1961, a major fire started in the Rose Room extensively damaging the old church. The congregation voted to borrow monies to build a new building on Shankland with the ground breaking on June 2, 1961. During the construction period, two services were held each Sunday at South High School property.
Dr. William P. Gross retired in 1981 after serving as minister for 41 years. The congregation named him Pastor Emeritus. A search committee began the search for Dr. Gross’ replacement. In March, 1983, the Rev. Dr. Peter M. Bach was called as pastor of First Church. Peter Bach served as our pastor for 14 years, which was twice the average tenure for a Presbyterian Pastor. Between 1997 and 2013, FPCW has had only two other pastors.
After intensive study and consultation with the Congregation, it was decided to build a new sanctuary and parlor wing. Ground was broken in May, 1992, and a beautiful sanctuary in the Western Reserve architectural style was completed by Easter, 1993. There was also the addition of a lovely circular driveway at the front of the Church and extensive landscaping. The addition has been a stimulus to the growth of the Church. The old sanctuary was dedicated as the William P. Gross Community Room. At the end of the parlor wing is the Mantey Family Parlor which contains the Isabel Sutch Library.
A columbarium and memorial garden was added, which contains engraved wall niches dedicated for the committal of cremated ashes or our members and immediate families. In earlier times, burial in the hallowed grounds of a church cemetery recognized the intimate association between the deceased and their church. The memorial garden within church boundaries preserves this tradition of reverence. The church will permanently maintain the columbarium as a consecrated and sacred area for meditation and contemplation.
(Credit: First Presbyterian Church of Willoughby)