As a child, Douglas G. Russell often walked with his large family to Westminster PresbyterianChurch on Syracuse’s Northside for Sunday services. He remembers seeing packed pews and partaking in youth fellowship programs, dances, church outings and afterschool programs over the 65 years he was a member.
“Our social circle was connected to the church,” said Russell, a former church trustee, financial secretary and treasurer who was baptized at the church when he was 5. “It was always a safe place for anyone in the neighborhood to go.”
In August 2010, the church — thought to be among the oldest in Syracuse — marked its 200th anniversary with a community celebration for the neighborhood, which includes the historic Washington Square Park. By then, church membership was declining dramatically, following demographic shifts that have closed urban churches in Central New York and across the country.
Within 10 years of the bicentennial commemoration, church membership had dwindled to 63. Sunday services drew an average of nine people, compared to a congregation that once filled the church’s estimated 400 seats. About two and a half years ago, church leaders acknowledged the small, aging congregation could not pay the bills and continue its ministry for long. Reluctantly, they voted to dissolve the congregation and close the church.
But warm memories of Westminster Presbyterian Church and its decadeslong role as a neighborhood anchor spurred longtime members to use its remaining resources to create a field-of-interest fund at the Community Foundation to support the greatest needs on Syracuse’s Northside. The Westminster Presbyterian Northside Concerns Fund will begin grantmaking in spring 2023.
In a nod to Westminster’s former neighborhood activities, the fund will focus on immediate community needs like food pantries, reading programs and support for neighborhood youth, allowing the former church to leave a permanent lasting legacy of impact on the community.
“We’ve been blessed with angels who left us money,” Russell said. “That money was left to the church from wonderful families and we can keep that working in the community.”
Church members hope their assets will be used wisely to continue supporting the needs of a changing neighborhood where they spent decades worshipping, socializing and serving others. “The fund will do everything we were doing as Christians before,” Russell said. “Everyone who came to us for help, we would help them. We want to be able to keep providing help on the Northside.”
Through the church’s fund, “we can know our money is working in the neighborhood where we put in so much time,” Russell said.