Religious disputes have given rise to some of the most horrible wars in human history and also, as it turns out, many of the Amsterdam churches we Rug City residents were baptized in. For example, the very first church building constructed in what is now the city of Amsterdam, the Dutch Reformed Church of Veddersburg was erected on the iconic corner of Market and Main Streets in 1800 by a group of disgruntled Reformists after they lost a battle with the rest of their congregation, who voted to build their new house of worship up by Manny’s Corners. Three decades later, after that first church had aligned itself with the Presbyterian denomination, about 100 disgruntled members broke away from it to form the Second Presbyterian Church of Amsterdam, which has occupied the same location on Church Street (across from the Amsterdam Free Library) since 1832. The Lutherans of Amsterdam split when the non-German portion of their congregation wanted services in English and not German. Protestants were not the only folks of faith seeking separation from their brethren. The Irish and German Catholics of St. Mary’s parish went their separate ways when the German portion of the congregation consisting of about 100 families, built St. Joseph’s Church on Guy Park Avenue (then called Spring Street) in 1884. Ditto for the city’s Polish Catholics who lived on Park Hill. They broke off from their St. Stanislaus parish on Reid Hill to build their own neighborhood church which they christened St. John the Baptist. The Mohawk River eventually became the dividing line between Amsterdam’s Italian Catholics, most of whom had arrived here to work on the construction of the Barge Canal. The north side portion formed St. Michaels while the South Siders chose Our Lady of Mt Carmel.
This is why I believe strongly that buildings don’t define a church, it’s the people who worship there that do, which is where the pastor comes in. As the leader of the flock, he or she is the one who sets the tone of the congregation. Will they be aggressive or passive, active or disengaged, tolerant or strict, forgiving or damning, unified or divided? Will the church grow or decline faster or slower than others in the community. It is of course impossible for me or anyone to objectively decide who the top ten church leaders are in Amsterdam’s history. So instead, the following list profiles ten of the many great ones who’ve ministered here in this old mill town.
Reverend Frank T. Rhode: Second Presbyterian Church – When a carload of Second Presbyterians left Amsterdam one morning in 1921 for a two-day trip to Majestic, Connecticut, they were on a mission to find the fifth pastor in that Church’s 80-year history. They were headed to meet and observe a young graduate of the Chicago Theological Seminary named Frank T. Rhodes, who was then serving as a student pastor for a congregation in the seaside New England town. They liked what they saw and the decision to hire Rhodes was made. Fast forward to March 18, 1957. Three hundred and fifty members of the Second Pres. congregation have gathered in the Church hall to celebrate Rhode’s retirement. The consensus that evening was that the “Rhode” Trip taken 36 years earlier had been a success. Rev. Rhode had become one of Amsterdam’s most respected spiritual and community leaders during his tenure at Second Pres. and would remain so as Pastor Emeritus throughout his retirement years.
Rabbi Samuel Bloom: Congregation Sons of Israel – He became the spiritual leader for the Congregation Sons of Israel in 1949, replacing Rabbi Jack Weitman, He continued in that role for the next four decades. Born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, Bloom earned bachelors and doctorate degrees from NYU, and a masters from Union College. He was ordained at Beth Joseph Rabbinical Seminary in Brooklyn. The Congregation’s original Amsterdam Synagogue was located on the corner of Liberty and Grove Street when Bloom first arrived in town and it thrived under his leadership. He was a gifted orator, just as well versed on most secular issues as he was the Torah. His schedule was filled with speaking engagements all over the city and every Sunday morning he hosted his own talk show on WCSS radio for thirty years. A true servant of the community, Bloom was a very active volunteer in Amsterdam’s United Way campaigns and was a champion of this town’s efforts at interfaith dialog and understanding, also serving as President of the Greater Amsterdam Clergy Association. The highlight of Rabbi Bloom’s wonderful stewardship of Congregation Sons of Israel was its move to a beautiful brand new home at 355 Guy Park Avenue in 1976.
Father Anton Gorski: St. Stanislaus Church – Like all immigrant Catholics who came to Amsterdam, NY in the mid-to-late 1800’s, the first Polish people who settled here (circa 1880) worshiped at St. Mary’s Parish. By 1888, they had formed their own sub-group called the Saint Stanislaus Society and were ready to form a church of their own. In September of 1895, the Bishop in Albany sent them their first official pastor. His name was Anton Gorski. Within two years their new Cornell Street house of worship was open and by 1906, so was their parish school. Gorski headed the church for a total of 35 years and the strength of the foundation he established is still evident today to anyone who attends the still-going-strong St. Stanislaus Summer Festival.
Reverend William D. Orr: St. Ann’s Episcopal Church – All of Amsterdam was shocked when the 56-year-old Rev. Orr suffered a stroke while teaching a confirmation class of young St. Ann parishioners in February of 1961. Tragically, he died one week later. Orr had to be one of the most devoted, enthusiastic and involved citizens in Amsterdam history. In addition to being the spiritual leader of the St. Ann’s congregation, he served on the Board of Education, the Amsterdam Housing Authority and was credited with rejuvenating the Amsterdam Concerts Association at a time when local support had all but disappeared. He rarely missed an Amsterdam High School home sporting event, was a talented pianist and very active in both the Rotary Club and the Masons. He had come to St. Ann’s in 1935 after graduating from Harvard University and serving parishes in Albany, NY and Ann Arbor, Michigan. At the time, the St Ann’s congregation was burdened by a huge mortgage on their church in the middle of the Great depression. Not only did Orr get that mortgage paid off, he also purchased a home next to it and got it converted into the church’s first rectory. He was a native of Newton Center, Massachusetts.
Father Joseph Girzone: Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church – He was caring, compassionate, friendly, very smart and though he had some difficulty making prepared speeches on the altar he was a genius at making a difference in the community. He understood government as well as he understood God and he was instrumental at getting the Montgomery County Office of the Aging initially funded and up and running. Then he showed us all how to love thy neighbor by doing the same thing in neighboring Fulton County. Girzone was a driving force behind the launch of Amsterdam’s Meals for the Elderly, a wonderful program that continues to serve a vital function for so many of our senior citizens four full decades later. He started a youth community center at Mt. Carmel, which offered all kinds of cultural and recreational programs for teenagers. He brought God’s words into area jails and advocated for better treatment of prisoners. He worked closely with the Red Cross to provide assistance to victims of disasters. He truly tried to live his life the way he thought Jesus would want him to. In fact, he often found himself at odds with church doctrine, which he thought at times focused too much on harshness, telling people what they couldn’t do and driving them away from God. In 1983, shortly after a heart ailment had forced him to retire from the priesthood, he wrote and self-published his interpretation of what God would be like if he was here today. He called the book “Joshua” and sold copies from the trunk of his car. Everyone who read it loved it including professional reviewers and new talent editors at Doubleday. When he passed away in 2015 at the age of 85, over 3 million copies of his books had been sold spreading his story of Joshua around the world. This wonderful priest who sometimes had a tough time explaining the will of God from a pulpit, had absolutely no problem doing so with a pen and paper.
I will reveal my choices for the other five top Amsterdam church leaders in my new book; 50 Top Ten All-Time Amsterdam Lists, which will be released later this year. If you subscribe to my free monthly Amsterdam Top Ten Newsletter, you will receive a special offer that will permit you to order my new book at a special discounted price. You can subscribe to the free newsletter here.