Lexington's First Presbyterian marks its 225th year

Pioneers frequently put their lives in jeopardy to attend church in Kentucky's dark and bloody ground. Early worshipers at First Presbyterian arrived at church in large groups — there being safety in numbers — with rifles at their sides for fear of attack by Native Americans.

"Indians stole horses and preyed on stragglers," said Betty Wilkirson, church historian.

First Presbyterian Church, founded in 1784, survived and prospered. On Sunday, members will celebrate the 225th anniversary of the church which is called the "Mother Church of Presbyterianism" for introducing the Presbyterian faith in Lexington, said Wilkirson, 89, a member since 1946.

"We say it is the oldest institution in continuous existence in the city," she added. The church currently occupies its sixth home, the 1872 Gothic-style building designed by architect Cincinnatus Shryock, at 174 N. Mill Street.

The church traces its roots to the first settlers of Lexington, a party of hunters who camped in 1775 at what is now McConnell Springs near Old Frankfort Pike. While there, they received word of the first battle of the Revolutionary War in Lexington, Mass., and named their site "Lexington" in its honor.

"A number of those hunters, perhaps five, came back in 1784 to help form the church in a wilderness cabin at Mt. Zion," Wilkirson said. Mt. Zion is the area where the University of Kentucky's Agricultural Experiment Station is located, off South Limestone.

"That is why we can say with total accuracy that members of First Presbyterian helped select the site of the city," she said.

That same group of men became pillars of the fledgling community, organizing the city's first library, school and lunatic asylum. They served on committees to build the first courthouse and first jail.

There are families in the church today who trace their ancestors to those founding fathers Robert Patterson, John Maxwell, Levi Todd, William McConnell and John Haggin.

Over the years, "members of the church have been among the most prominent individuals in the community," said former Lexington mayor Foster Pettit, whose family started attending First Presbyterian in 1800. In the congregation have been five college presidents, judges, mayors, historians, writers, editors, politicians and farmers. Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson attended services there.

"We've really had diverse and colorful people in the congregation," said Wilkirson, who was a police reporter for the Lexington Herald in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She researched and compiled a history of the church that includes stories of some early members.

The church has always been progressive, Wilkirson said. In the 1970s, then-pastor Rev. Dick Harbison felt that women should be more involved and asked Jean Ezzell to be a church elder.

"I was not really in favor of females serving as elders," said Ezzell, 81. "It seemed something that men should do. There were many other ways women could serve."

But Ezzell accepted the job, breaking the gender barrier. Looking back, she said she is glad of that landmark role she played. Her daughter Jean Ellen Paulson serves on the church's current board of elders.

In the 1980s and 1990s when many downtown churches across America were reeling from suburban flight, First Presbyterian chose to stay downtown on North Mill Street. "We thought we had a role to play in downtown and not go to the suburbs," Pettit said.

First Presbyterian helps the poor through Habitat for Humanity, the Hope Center, God's Pantry and Crop Walk. Members have traveled to Third World countries to install water purification systems as part of Living Waters for the World. The church recently acquired two buildings on Market Street to create 10 affordable housing units.

"On the front of our program it says First Presbyterian Church with our doors open wide. We welcome everybody," said Kelly Abraham, director of youth.

The church has two Sunday morning services, a nine-member staff, in excess of 750 members with an average attendance of more than 350 most Sundays.

"We have probably the best music we've ever had thanks to Everett McCorvey," who is a church member and head of the University of Kentucky's opera program, Pettit said. "We get great voices from the university through him."

In April, the Rev. Lee Bowman left after eight years. The Rev. Tom Farmer is serving as interim.

In looking to the future, First Presbyterian completed a $3.2 million renovation of its sanctuary in 2006. Earlier this year, it purchased land across Mill Street "for a much needed parking lot," said Roberta Carmody, church administrator.

First Presbyterian has remained "vibrant and thriving" for over 200 years, Pettit said, and with many young families in the church, he sees a bright future.