The congregation of First Methodist Church had long prided themselves on their welcoming atmosphere. Its letterhead proudly proclaimed that it was “famed for friendliness”, and its church bulletin urged visitors to feel “welcome to worship with us” and to “spend a few moments at the close of the service in greeting. At this time the Pastor and Members of the Church will be glad to know any strangers who are here.”
Church leaders and congregants were also proud of its deep historical roots. The church’s origins reach back to just after the French and Indian War. In 1766 British army captain Thomas Webb, an enthusiastic convert, began to hold informal Methodist services in his home. By 1791, Albany Methodists had a church of their own at the corner of Orange and N. Pearl streets. In 1883, the congregation purchased the former First Presbyterian Church on the corner of Hudson and Philip streets and would worship at that location until the State demolished it for the South Mall in 1963.
By 1950, the congregation’s welcoming attitude was increasingly tested as the population around the church changed. At the turn of the twentieth century, Albany’s Protestant elite had started moving out of their elegant downtown rowhouses. First Methodist’s congregation shrank. By mid-century, the area had become predominantly working-class Catholic and was home to an increasing number of African Americans from the south.
In response to these demographic changes, the Methodist Church asked Frederick A. Shippey of the Board of Missions to conduct a “Religious Census of Downtown Albany.” The goal was to assess First Methodist’s continued viability in its current location. Shippey found that the church’s immediate neighborhood offered limited opportunities for growth. Catholics outnumbered Protestants four to one, making the area “overchurched” with Catholic parishes. But many of the Protestants were recently arrived African Americans. Outreach to them might be an “opportunity” for the rejuvenation of First Methodist.
After Shippey’s 1949 survey, the church’s finances and attendance worsened. In early 1953, the board asked for help to meet a $1,600 shortfall. They warned that “sacrificial giving may be necessary” to meet the church’s financial needs. Attendance at services and Sunday School also dropped. By 1957, the director of the Sunday School pronounced himself “very much concerned” about low attendance.
Trustees called a meeting of all 320 congregants for the evening of June 16, 1958 to determine the church’s future. Although only 49 showed up, a spirited discussion took place. Trustee Nathan Kullman said that church members had thoroughly canvassed the neighborhood to no avail, because the area was “predominantly Catholic.” Walter Lane agreed that “the location of the church” was the reason for its declining numbers. His wife added that church leaders “have worked and worked… What we need is a large group of young people with a lot of enthusiasm, but where will we get them?” An unnamed congregant asked, “Don’t you feel sorry for any minister coming in here?”
One possibility discussed at that meeting was to transform the very nature of the church—to become a missionary institution that would minister to the everyday needs of the area’s residents. Implementing this plan would depend on the congregation’s willingness to welcome African Americans as well as, in the words of an unidentified congregant, hiring a “good live-wire” for a minister, along with a social worker.
Two years later, this is exactly what happened. In the summer of 1960, the Troy Conference, composed of all of the area’s Methodist churches, agreed to fund an Inner City Mission affiliated with First Methodist. The Conference tapped Rev. Angelo J. Mongiore, recently ordained in 1959 at the age of 42. Before his ordination, he had been a social worker in New York and a lawyer who exclusively served the poor.
Mongiore was indeed a live wire. Knickerbocker News reporter William E. Rowley described him as “a small, stocky man with the bounce of a new rubber ball,” who “moves and talks with constant enthusiasm.” Similarly, Times Union reporter John Douglas characterized Mongiore as “an iconoclast, an attorney, and a force of nature that has both invigorated and puzzled Albany’s First Methodist Church.”
Upon taking over the Inner City Mission on Sept. 1, 1960, Mongiore opened a storefront ministry in an old barber shop at 136 Hamilton Street, about a block away from First Methodist. An important part of his work was helping area residents with everyday problems. In his first four months on the job, he found work for young men on probation, helped reunite several separated couples, and distributed clothing to needy families. To serve the youth of the area, he set up a Boy Scout troop, youth and high school fellowships, and even a weightlifting club.
While he comforted the afflicted, Mongiore also afflicted the comfortable. In May 1961, at the Troy Area Council of Churches annual dinner, he castigated the “respectable suburbanites who have fled the cities and left behind weak churches, ineffective workers and practically no program of spiritual significance which will reach the underprivileged. It’s all right to make a better life for your family in the suburbs, but it is not all right to close your eyes to the tragedies of slum decay.”
Many First Methodist congregants found Mongiore’s changes worrisome. In January 1961, the trustees debated what to do after some youths broke into a cabinet that stored recreational gear. This followed shortly after some teens had disrupted a Sunday School class. Perhaps his request was ill-timed, but at this same meeting Mongiore asked the trustees to loan his storefront ministry a surplus baptismal font and communion set. When Mongiore could not assure the trustees “of their safety from theft or vandalism,” they refused.
The transformation of First Methodist from a staid and respectable—if declining—congregation into a mission ministering to the South End poor was complete by the summer of 1961. In July, the Inner City Mission hired an African American minister, Rev. Randolph Nugent. Before arriving in Albany, the 26-year-old had been pastor at a church in Long Island City with a similar inner city mission. Although Nugent’s personal style was dramatically different from Mongiore’s, the fact that he was black signaled that First Methodist intended to integrate fully. This was too much for some church leaders. John A. Cromie, president of the board of trustees and officer of the church since at least 1930, resigned a few weeks after Nugent’s hire. (Church records do not give a reason for his resignation, but the timing is suggestive.) Another trustee, Albert H. Savage, resigned at the end of July and explicitly stated that Nugent’s hire had “convinced me that the day is not far off when First Methodist will be predominantly colored. I cannot go along with this.”
A future post will tell the story of the Inner City Mission from Nugent’s arrival in July 1961 through its relocation to Catherine Street after the area around First Methodist was demolished for the South Mall.