By Karen Zautyk
A treasured part of Kearny’s living history came to an end on Sunday, when Knox Presbyterian Church, founded in the mid-1800s, held its final service.
The church building itself, an imposing red-brick structure, has stood on Kearny Ave. just south of Woodland Ave. since 1881. Today it is covered in scaffolding due to structural damage, and it has not been used for four years.
The MacMillan Chapel next door has been filling in as the site for worship, and it was there that the last service took place on a “bittersweet” afternoon.
That word was used by Rev. Dr. Kevin Yoho of the Newark Presbytery, who opened the service with a prayer “remembering with gratitude all who have worshiped here.”
Attending Sunday’s Closing Worship Celebration were nearly 100 people, including clergy and members of other congregations and other faiths — all come to pay their respects.
As the Rev. Frank Benson, Knox’ former — and final — full-time pastor said in his remarks to the attendees, “This, in a way, is a funeral service.” There was, however, not a hint of gloom; rather it was an acknowledgment that, while some things change, others go on.
Benson, who retains a hint of a delightful Scottish accent, noted that “while the foundation of the old Knox Church is crumbling a bit, the foundation of its faith is secure, for you, in Christ, are its foundation.”
Benson provided some humor, too, recalling the time when the church’s bell had broken and a trustee offered to climb the tower, tie a rope around his waist, lower himself from a window and swing from side to side to keep the bell ringing. The offer, needless to say, was declined.
What led to Knox Presbyterian’s demise? The same factors that have played a role in the closing of so many churches of various denominations: declining membership and resultant financial problems.
“It has been a long time coming,” David Boyes, a member of Knox’ Presbytery Committee, told The Observer. “This was once a very vibrant congregation, but there has been a steady decline. People got older; people moved away. If you don’t have the people, you don’t have the funds.”
But, Boyes noted, “even the people who moved away still hold it [Knox Church] with great affection.”
Knox Presbyterian had deep Scottish roots, and it was thriving back in the day, when Kearny was America’s Caledonia. Trustee Bill Mullins, giving a history of the church, noted that in 1960 Kearny had a population of about 37,000, of whom 21,000 were Scottish-born or of Scots descent.
Among the founders of the Knox congregation was Nancy Ward Marsh Halsted (1817-1891), a descendant of John Marsh, who emigrated from Scotland in 1635.
Nancy and her husband, Gen. Nathaniel Norris Halsted — a Civil War commander and personal friend of Gen. Philip Kearny — lived on a 33-acre estate called “Hillside,” which stretched down to where Passaic Ave. is now. (On the east side of Passaic, a bit south of S. Midland Ave., you can see a row of brown boulders along the curb; they are all that remain of “Hillside.”)
According to the N.J. Historical Society, “The Knox Presbyterian Church started in the Kearny homes of several families, including ‘Hillside.’ In 1870, Mrs. Halsted donated property for a church site.”
In 1877, she “was instrumental in establishing a fund-raising program for the church.” The cornerstone eventually was laid, and “on Jan. 25, 1882, the Knox Presbyterian Church was dedicated ….”
(Editor’s note: There is a Halstead St. in Kearny, which one might presume was named for the Halsteds, but for the discrepancy in spelling. Does it honor another family, or is it a misspelling? In any case, the tombstone of Nancy and Gen. Halsted in the First Presbyterian Church cemetery in Elizabeth spells their names without the second ‘a’.)
So what becomes of the church’s buildings now that Knox Presbyterian is officially closed? That decision will be made by the Newark Presbytery, Boyes said.
Near the end of Sunday’s service, there were “Closing the Church Statements.”
From the Rev. Benson: “Today we have celebrated with thanksgiving the life and work of the faith community of Knox Presbyterian Church. It has served as a witness to God’s presence for 132 years. It has provided refuge, comfort and challenges for God’s people. It has served for generations the faithful people of this community.”
From Moderator Laura Phillips: “Now, we send the members of Knox Presbyterian Church out into the world with our blessing to worship and serve God in other places. These buildings, dedicated and named Knox Presbyterian Church, together with the land on which it stands and all objects within them, we commend to Newark Presbytery for other purposes.”
Following were a hymn, a blessing and a sung response: “Go in peace, go in joy, go in love.” And then the congregants filed out, to the plaintive sound of a lone piper — a reflection of the church’s heritage.
Early in the service, there was another, but it was easy to miss for those not familiar with the words. During his reminiscences, the Rev. Benson noted, “I lament those days are gone now, and in the past they must remain.”
This was exceptionally touching, particularly since it was said as a matter of fact, not for dramatic effect, and its source was not noted. Either you got the reference, or you did not.
Any readers who are puzzled should do a search for “Flower of Scotland.”