I grew up in the town of Penfield and passed through the village countless times as a child. At that time I hadn’t honed my affinity for preservation or even sacred spaces, or even history itself really. Thinking back now, it’s interesting to remember being in Starbucks when it was a Friendly’s or to have been in the former library that was on Five Mile Line Road for story hour before they built the big, new ‘beautiful’ one on Baird Road. I remember when the vacant lot next to Dunkin Donuts was actually a building, and remember eating in the Ponderosa on Penfield Road that is now a pile of bricks, which was across from the movie theatre that is now a Dollar Store and Panera Bread. What I don’t remember though, is when the mixed-use office spaces located at 1808 Penfield Road was the Advent Christian Church–that all came to a close before I was born in 1979. After doing some digging into the history of the church, I found that the spot actually has a much greater influence to the area than its spiritual reach.
Daniel Penfield moved to the area after purchasing a parcel of land on February 4, 1795. He built his house at 1784 Penfield Road and a number of mills up and down the Irondequoit Creek and the town was quickly established. His original home is actually still in place, and today is home to Salon Enza, the other ‘wing’ of his house was actually broken off and moved across to the South Side of the street and is now home to the longstanding restaurant The Humphrey House. On the parcel of land just to the East of his home, Penfield built a general store which he operated for decades until his death in 1840.
Later on in 1890’s the small town of Penfield began to see a number of tent meetings, some what of a throwback to the Revival style of worship that only decades before had swept the entire Upstate NY region and inspired the moniker ‘Burned Over District’. The Advent Christian Church was born of those very tent meetings, and of one in particular that took place in Watson’s Grove on Watson Road. The official church was organized on Thursday, December 13, 1894 in the home of Penfield resident, Mrs. Marilla Weeks and prayer and hymns were offered by the first pastor of the church, Elder Wright. Only a year later, in July 1895, would the group purchase the home for their congregation, and “The Brick Furnace Building” (Penfield’s General Store) right in the village of Penfield would become the home of the Advent Christian Church. The building was purchased from one of the charter members of the congregation, Ms. Allison Weeks.
The group struggled immensely with finances, and we were even able to find that one Sunday in March 1902, they recorded their lowest collection on record, which was $.13! With some gifts willed to the congregation, things eased here and there, allowing them to convert the original ‘Brick Furnace’ building into an architectural style more recognizable as a place of worship. The building you can see today took its shape in 1915 and cost about $3,500 to build and was dedicated on December 12 of that year.
Baptisms were held regularly, but not at the church itself. Congregation members used nearby waterways like the Irondequoit Creek, Canandaigua Lake and Lake Ontario for immersion style baptisms. It seems like the church had a few waves of enthusiasm, and one of those waves was after a sermon given by a notable speaker from Auburn, Reverend Vernon Burtt. After he gave a visiting sermon in 1935, it’s said that the first prayer meeting to follow saw 56 people attend, which was a record breaker for the congregation.
Penfield Town Historian and leader of the historical society room at the Penfield Public Library, Kathy Kanauer, was kind enough to give me full access to all the files the town has on hand about the church. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many files to go through, and somewhere around 1960 the documented history trails off to a nearly nonexistent history. We do know that the church was decommissioned in 1977, but can’t find records of where the congregation went. It didn’t take long for the property to be purchased and renovated back in to a place of business like Daniel Penfield had originally used the parcel. Today it remains broken up in to smaller business like a personal training services, and random little professional offices.
What is particularly curious was the stained glass windows that were in the facade of the building. The only information available is that there is a guy in Naples who owns the windows and is selling them as Tiffany windows. Since the church underwent its most costly construction in 1915, and cost the congregation $3,500, I would find it hard to believe that they would be able to afford two Tiffany stained glass windows at a time when Tiffany was was at the height of his career. The windows in the above photograph of the original church would have cost at least $10,000 in 1915 had Tiffany himself created them, which is nearly three times the cost of the church itself. Nevertheless, it’d be super cool to have those windows back in their original home and gracing the the Four Corners of Penfield once again, but much to the dismay of amatuer preservationists, that’s probably just a pipe dream.
Though there is no historical marker and nearly no information available without doing some serious digging on this church, it should be noted that a great deal of pertinent history for the town of Penfield occurred at the exact location of this office building. Though it looks today like a simple, whitewashed former church, the greater effects of the town’s founder choosing that very location would ensure that the Four Corners would later become one of the busiest intersections on the East Side of the City of Rochester.
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com