A Brief History
Organized in July 1829
Just six years after Benjamin Woodruff poled his raft up the Huron River and established Woodruff s Grove on the hill overlooking the river, the Reverend William Page of Ann Arbor organized a congregation of twelve members. Under the plan by which both the Congregational and Presbyterian denominations established churches jointly in the frontier towns west of the Appalachian Mountains, this church was organized as the Congregational Society of Ypsilanti on October 4, 1830. In 1832 the congregation voted to adopt the Presbyterian form of government. The Congregational members left this church in 1881, to form the First Congregational Church. The division into two congregations was accomplished with complete harmony.
First Pastor: Ira M. Wead, 1830—1847
Ira Mason Wead came to Ypsilanti in June 1830 with his bride of one month. He was a graduate of the University of Vermont and Andover Seminary and had recently been ordained in Boston. Commissioned by the Board of Home Missions, he was noted for his theological scholarship and missionary zeal. The records indicate that under his leadership the Session exercised both pastoral care and discipline over the church members. Mr. Wead was a strong force for order and Christian values during Ypsilanti’s rapidly growing and sometimes wild frontier days. After his installation as pastor in 1834, he served until 1847 when he went to Chicago as area secretary for the American Board of Foreign Missions. He retired in Ypsilanti and died on November 30, 1871. He and his wife are buried in Highland Cemetery. The second window from the east on the south wall of the sanctuary is dedicated to him and his wife.
First Building: 1836
In 1832, plans were made for a church building on the north side of Pearson Street between Adams and Hamilton Streets. The new frame building, akin to New England meeting house, was dedicated on November 23, 1836, and the congregation prospered.
Present Building: 1857
After a quarter of a century, the congregation had outgrown its frame building, and plans began to construct a new brick church. A present lot was purchased at Washington and Emmet Streets. Two years later the present building was completed at a cost of $12,000, and was dedicated on September 23, 1857. The Reverend Gustavius L. Foster had served as pastor during this period of construction, but he was not installed until the new building was dedicated. On the day of dedication, D. B. Greene, the Clerk of Session, wrote, “The house was filled to overflowing both in the afternoon and in the evening. It was a pleasant, solemn and interesting season.”
During the later part of the nineteenth century, the church experienced vigorous growth. Several organizations were formed and grew, including the Foreign Missionary Society, the Home Missionary Society, the Ladies Aid Society, and the Westminster Guild. Services were held on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. and evenings at 7 p.m., and on Thursday evenings. Also, educational programs called Preparatory Lectures were held. Sunday school, after worship, and a ministry to the students at the Normal College were regular parts of the church’s activities. During the tornado of 1892, the original spire proved to be unsafe and was removed. In 1898 the church began a complete reconstruction program, including the addition of two Beaux-Art towers, new furniture, Tiffany windows, central heat, and a new organ, by Jardine & Sons of NY at a total cost of $38,500. There were 420 members.
Renovations: 1948, 1957, 1980s
During the Twentieth Century the interior was renovated to meet the changing needs of the congregation. By 1940 the congregation declined to under 100 members and the property was in great disrepair. From 1946-1951 the church added 250 members. Under the leadership of Rev. Raymond Bair (1941-1961) the area beneath the sanctuary was excavated, and five classrooms built on the ground floor, and in 1957 the “chapel area” was renovated adding a second floor with six classrooms. With scholarship and deep piety, Pastor Laurence Woodruff provided steady leadership from 1963-1998. In 1963 membership peaked at 600. Barrier-free access was achieved, when an elevator to all three floors was installed in 1985. Three years later the kitchen was remodeled, the Memorial Garden was constructed, and zoned heating and air-conditioning added (1995).
Pastor Keith Geiselman was installed January 2000—only the third pastor since 1940. Under Pastor Geiselman's leadership focusing on ministries of compassion--seeing Christ in each other and the world--personal faith, growth and grace, the congregation has expanded its community outreach and expression of Christian faith.
The exterior was extensively restored, and the sanctuary was completely renovated with a brighter color palette, refinished wood, and most notably an open, curved chancel that is barrier-free and connects the worship leaders and the people. The baptismal font, table, and pulpit, the three symbols of Reformed sacraments, are on equal levels and prominent. Sound and video were included. A new pipe organ, built by Martin Ott around the original Jardine, was dedicated January, 25, 2009.
Today that church maintains an active presence in the community with weekly worship, study, formation, local and global aid, and mission.
In 2008, the church partnered with Open Door Detroit and Westminster Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor to create the Riverside Community Meal, a hot nutritious meal served around common tables every Wednesday to anyone in need, every Wednesday, in every week.
In 2009 with the refurbishment and expansion of the sanctuary pipe organ, the Ypsilanti Organ Festival was created. It sponsors three concerts a season, often partnering with the University of Michigan Organ Department and the Ann Arbor chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Performers are local students, national, and international artists, such as, Ken Cowan, Daniel Roth, and John Weaver.
Other community groups supported by the church include: the Boy Scouts of America; weekly recovery groups since 1948; Friends-In-Deed; the Hope Clinic; Meals-on-Wheels; and SOS Crises Housing.
Local and global Christian Ministries served include: UKirk Campus Ministry at EMU; along the US-Mexican border in Douglas, AZ; Tokyo; and China.
In 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic restricting worship attendance, the church began live streaming worship services live and pre-recorded via a dedicating video installation.