Early History – 1784 – 1876
The first settler, James Buchanan, arrived around 1794. He built a tavern of rough-hewn logs along the Williamsport-Genesee Turnpike for the convenience of stage coach travelers who wished to obtain food & lodging. First called Eight Mile Tree, because it was eight miles from Bath, the settlement was later named Buchanan’s, then Podunk and finally Avoca. The town was formed from parts of four other towns in 1843. Those towns contributing to the new town were: Bath, Cohocton, Howard, and Wheeler. The tavern served as the first meeting place of the Methodists in the area. Probably the first minister of the Avoca Methodist Church was Abner Chase who came as a presiding elder in 1820 to the Ontario District to organize churches in this area. Going from settlement to settlement, Mr. Chase told of staying in the Canisteo Valley at a home near the river, where he was given a bed in the loft. Rattlesnakes crawled through cracks in the floor at night to bask near the open fire. During the night, he was entertained by the howls of wolves and cries of panthers.
The church was in the Newtown Circuit with Gideon Lanning, a circuit rider, one of the early preachers. One account states that in 1823 a class was formed which met with a family called Sabins. These people must have had religious enthusiasm as some of the more formal clergy called them heretics and fanatics as well as plain nosy. In 1827 Elder Bronson followed a blazed trail from Loon Lake to preach in a log cabin located on the farm where Mrs. Merlyn Bunting lives. Elder Buzzel also preached at times on this circuit after it had been included in the newly formed Bath Circuit. In 1834 a Methodist Church was built in the village largely through the efforts of J. B. Calkins. The subscription book, kept by Mr. Calkins, was homemade with papers sewed together. The following is taken from this account book and is entitled, “How the First Methodist Church was built in Avoca, NY March 6, 1834, Steuben, NY.”
“For the purpose of erecting a house of worship in this place, we the subscribers obligate ourselves to pay the sums set opposite our respective names, in the manner hereafter stated, that is, materials or labor to be paid when called for and other subscriptions to be paid one half when the house is enclosed and the other half when it is finished. Said subscription to be paid to the trustees of the First Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Avoca, said house to be in dimensions 34 X 44 feet with a tower for a bell and with a gallery. Said house to be commenced by the first of May next.” The total amount of funds donated was $795.00.
In 1840 the Avoca Circuit, which included Avoca, Beagles, Bordens, and Wheeler Hill was growing steadily in membership and was included in the Dansville District. At this time a parsonage was built on Mill Street, again largely through the efforts of J. B. Calkins. There were several ministers from 1842 to 1869 when Stephen Brown became Pastor. He immediately began work for a new or renovated church. A clipping dated 1871 says: “Mr. Brown found upon his arrival a miserable, dirty little church and became determined to work for the renovation of it as well as of its souls. He spoke of it season in and season out. He lectured upon it, preached upon it and prayed about it, called meetings about it and finally succeeded in getting the thing started.” The old house was used as a nucleus, additions being put on both ends, a graceful spire built up and all finished in fine style. The inside walls were neatly and tastefully frescoed by the parties who did painting in the new Episcopal Church in Bath.
Reverend Mr. Ives of Auburn was engaged to dedicate it and solicit the wherewithal to liquidate the debt, which was nearly $4000.00. The clipping adds: “When we look upon the really beautiful church we should thank the Lord and Mr. Brown.” With its solid oak woodwork and doors and newly decorated walls the church was undoubtedly beautiful. On August 18, 1876, twelve ladies met with their hostess, Mrs. N. B. Congdon, the minister’s wife, to form a Ladies Aid Society. The object was to raise funds for the liquidation of a debt on the church. Dues were ten cents each meeting. The Congdons lived in the old parsonage on Mill Street. Restrictions listed were: Great plainness of dress at the society meetings must be observed. Also, simplicity and economy must be observed in table refreshments. The members decided to make the fee for gentlemen fifteen cents per meeting. In the reports of meetings, dinners and festivals, the names of men figured prominently, so they must have agreed to the higher fee.
Late 19th Century and most of the 20th Century:
The year 1880 saw a new parsonage built largely through the efforts of Rev. S. M. Dayton. Built just south of the church, this parsonage is the one still existing today. In 1893 Rev. W. E. Searles came as the new pastor. He was a native of this area, some of his relatives were members of the church. A man of a keen sense of humor, he used to say that the problem was not of his getting along with his relatives, but of their being able to get along with him. During his stay, he was assisted by Evangelist Harry Wilkins in revival meetings in both the Avoca and Wallace churches.
During the 1880’s the balcony, where the choir and organist were, was removed, as was the high pulpit which was reached by a flight of spiral stairs. A platform was built across the front of the church. The pulpit was placed in the center at the front of the church. The choir sat at the north end and the south end was used by a Sunday School class. The altar was built in front of the pulpit on a low platform. The altar rail was supported by beautiful, hand-turned spindles, as were the rails in front of the choir and the south corner. The rails, spindles, and base upon which the spindles were placed, were made of solid walnut. Recessed steps in the platform were opposite the south door with a railing along them.
In the mid-1880’s, Rev. C. R. Buck helped the young women of the church form the Hymenopter Society. Members presented musicals, held ice cream socials and teas to raise money for a silver baptismal font, a communion service and pulpit furniture. The walnut pulpit chairs are still used, as is the baptismal font. In 1890 money was raised for cushions for the pews and by 1903, the women had earned enough money for new stained glass windows. These were purchased from a Rochester firm and installed in 1904.
About 1911, the kitchen and back dining room were added. Material for these rooms was obtained from the Hemlock Church which was razed when the congregation of that church joined this church. The years 1914 & 1915 saw electric lights replacing the oil lamps and in 1915 the Sunday School room was carpeted. About this time embossed sheet metal was placed on the side walls and ceiling of the sanctuary. During the years other groups were organized and contributed to the total life of the church. The Sunday School was a thriving organization with classes from preschool-aged children up to and including adults.
The Epworth League had a large membership of young people and at one time supported a Chinese boy while he was attending Peking University. During World War I, he was employed in Washington, DC as an interpreter for the United States War Department. En route home, after Armistice, he visited Avoca and spoke at both the Sunday morning and evening services.
Many changes have been made in the church building in more recent years. During the 1950’s the front of the church was renovated. A more conventional type of architecture was used. Steps leading to the platform were placed in front of the center of it. Solid wooden panels extended along the edge of the platform from the lectern to the north side wall and from the pulpit to the south side wall of the church. These were all painted white with brown bases and tops. The same type of solid panels were placed on the lower platform for the altar. A red velveteen curtain was hung at the outer edge of the recessed arch which was built in the center of the wall back of the platform. An altar was placed in front of the red curtain, which provided space for a Bible, a Cross, two candelabra, and the collection plates. A Hammond organ was installed and the woodwork as well as the walls were painted. A new carpet was purchased for the rostrum and lower platform as well as a runner to the rear of the church.
During the 1960’s a basement was excavated under the Sunday School rooms. This space was used primarily for Sunday School classes and a study for the pastor. Later the front porch was enlarged and a roof was built over the steps and porch. The Bicentennial Year has seen storm windows placed over the stained glass windows which would not only help preserve them, but make the church warmer.
After the merger with the United Brethren Church, the church is now called The United Methodist Church. The Wallace and Avoca churches shared a minister at that time. Both had an active United Methodist Women’s Society. Sunday School meets before the church services in Avoca. The church is striving to better the lives of its members and be of service in the community.
1996 – Present
Like a Phoenix, returning from the Ashes. The United Methodist Church of Avoca burned to the ground on August 30, 1996. It was a shock and a sad experience to stand by helplessly and see our 152 year old church go up in flames. The fire spread fast and furious but with the good work of our local firemen and the help of fire companies from the surrounding areas, the parsonage, garage and the Laundromat next door were all saved. Many of the congregation gathered at the home of Bruce & Joni Fish Gertz to console one another and to discuss the situation facing the Pastor and congregation as to the continuing of church services and other activities that had been ongoing in the church.
Pastor Noni was on vacation in Oswego at her daughter’s home. Once she was notified, she left immediately for the two and one-half hour drive back to Avoca. The first church service after the fire was held at the Gazebo in the park. Following that service the Avoca American Legion, Avoca Masonic Lodge and others offered their buildings for use for church service. The general feeling was that our sister church in Wallace could not accommodate both congregations at one time. The majority of the members of the congregation felt the service should remain in Avoca. Since the Masonic Temple had areas downstairs to house Sunday School classes and Preschool, and the upstairs had ample space for worship, a vote was taken to accept their offer to use the Temple building. The congregation voted to try this arrangement for three months, then take another look at the situation. After the three month’s span, the majority of the congregation voted again to remain at the Masonic Temple.
The church building and the entire contents were lost during the fire, including an organ recently purchased from a church in Painted Post for $7000.00. The new choir robes, new hymnals and all church records were destroyed. A newly organized Preschool had just started and they lost all of their supplies as well. There had been many recent improvements made to the church before the fire, including new carpet & paint for the pastor’s office, remodeled bathrooms with all new fixtures, remodeling and paneling of the Sunday School rooms, a new furnace, new carpeting in the fellowship hall, painting of the walls and new curtains. The men of the church were still working on the entrance area of the church when the fire took place. During 1995 the outside of the church had been scraped and painted. Many, many, many hours of hard work had been done in all these areas by volunteer help and it all went up in smoke.
Then the community came together. Many, many members of the community and surrounding area came to our aid. Some other Methodist churches in the area gave us hymnals; an individual from Rochester, Mr. Alvin Bills who had seen the fire from Interstate 390 while driving past, donated brass cross and matching candlesticks, an altar cloth and a portrait of Christ. The old wooden cross that stood in front of the church was taken down and stood before the Gazebo for our first service after the fire. The American Legion Post held a fund-raising dinner with all proceeds donated to rebuilding the church. Little was saved from the fire. One of the beautiful stained glass windows, that had been stored in the basement and was to be placed in the steeple area, was saved. The ten beautiful stained glass windows in the sanctuary were all destroyed. These windows had been in the church since 1904. The church bell which had sounded out for so many years was completely ruined. The remains of the bell are now near our front door as a vivid reminder of that devastating fire.
The cause of the fire was under investigation for some time. Finally the investigating team could not determine an exact cause for the fire. The Insurance Company released funds to begin the cleaning process. After seeing the ruins since August 30th, November 7th was the first day of cleaning up the debris. In three days the job was completed. it reminded several in the community of Jesus’ three days.
A committee was formed to do a study looking forward to what the needs might be of a new church as to size and location. Avoca, Wallace and Kanona congregations all worked together on this survey, hoping a merger would come out of the study. A special meeting was held, based upon the facts of what was found in the survey, and the results were presented to the three congregations and the Conference. A vote by private ballot turned down the merger plan, this left Avoca to proceed on their own.
Many new committees were formed, the first necessity was a building site. The Conference required at least a three acre lot, the old site had less than one acre thus a move had to be made for find a new site. Not a single location was available within the Village thus we had to reach out for a more desirable and reasonably priced lot. A lot located off Route 415 was offered at a reasonable price and it was on a road called “Jacob’s Ladder” a fitting name for a church site.
On May 8, 1997, Pastor Noni and members of the congregation gathered at the old church site where a service was held for “Leave Taking” of the church building and deconsecrating of the land. From the old site, the group moved to the new site on Jacob’s Ladder to consecrate the land to be used for the new church building. The “new church” was built in 1997 with the first service held Christmas Eve of that year!
It has been a long and sometimes rocky road to travel since the church burned on August 30, 1996. Time goes on, a landmark passes, where history was made for generations, but the treasured memories remain of the Avoca Methodist Church which has faithfully served the community for over two hundred years. The new church building will, in time, make history and memories as it continues to serve in the years to come. Please remember, a church is not its building – but its people, and with the dedication of these people to serve the Lord and this community; this “church” will truly survive!