St. John’s German Presbyterian Church in Sayreville
Sayreville’s Presbyterian church has changed names and locations several times in the roughly 155 years since its inception. Known today as First Presbyterian Church and located at 172 Main Street, the congregation occupies a building of 1970s construction. The first evidence of German Presbyterians worshipping in town dates to the 1860s when two pastors from St. John’s German Reformed Church (later known as Livingston Avenue Reformed Church) in New Brunswick began making occasional visits to Wood’s Landing, as Sayreville was then known, to offer services to the people in German, their native tongue. First they were served by Reverend T. Oscar Lohr, then by Reverend Carl Bank. Itinerant ministers were quite common for many religious denominations in eighteenth and nineteenth century America, when there were many small congregations spread out over large areas.
By 1882, the congregation was formally organized by the Presbytery of Monmouth and received its first official name: Erste deutsche, presbyterische Kirche zu Sayreville, N.J. (The First German Presbyterian Church at Sayreville, NJ). Among the 25 charter members were some family names we can still recognize in town today; notable later members included the Arleth family – unsurprisingly, Emma Arleth taught Sunday school. This small group held several services at the Methodist Episcopal Church on Main Street before their first church building was erected. The small, clapboard chapel with Gothic windows and doors, was located in Lower Sayreville at 454-456 Main Street; this lot is currently the site of a private home. Dedicated on December 2, 1883, the construction cost $950 (approximately $24,000 in today’s money). The first pastor was William Baesler. He was succeeded in 1885 by Gottlieb Voss, who sadly died of illness at only 31 years of age. Richard R. Stier thus became the church’s third pastor in 1891; he served the congregation for decades. Early in Stier’s leadership, a parsonage was constructed next to the church on land donated by Sayre & Fisher, “which had never refused aid when called upon.” (Quaid, 13) Reverend Stier himself became somewhat of an itinerant preacher, traveling to South River and Perth Amboy to aid congregations there.
Eventually, the congregation felt they should move and build a new church in Upper Sayreville where most of the German population had settled. According to John J. Quaid, Sayre & Fisher came to the rescue once again and exchanged a plot of land in Upper Sayreville with the church’s original lot in Lower Sayreville (Quaid, 14). In 1896, construction began on the new, larger building at 174 Main Street, at a cost of $5,500 (about $154,000 in today’s dollar). That same year, the congregation voted to rename the church, Die deutsche presbyterische St. Johannes Kirche zu Sayreville, N.J. (St. John German Presbyterian Church at Sayreville, NJ).
Over the course of its early history, several organizations were formed within the church: Sunday school (1882); the Ladies’ Aid Society (1886); the Young People’s Society (1891); and the Brotherhood (1924). The congregation held its services and Sunday school exclusively in German until 1920. Most of this information comes from “A Marvelous Evolution,” (John J. Quaid, et al., 1926), published on the occasion of the Church’s 45th anniversary in 1926. The anniversary was celebrated by a weeklong program of dedicatory services and speeches. Carl H. Gramm’s 1938 The Germans in New Brunswick, New Jersey is another excellent resource.