The Old Academy
John Ferguson Griere, with the help of his uncle, the Rev. Nathan Grier, established a congregation in 1814 in the Presbytery of New Castle and four elders were ordained. With meager resources, the young congregation met in the Old Academy, a school where John Grier, now ordained, served as a teacher five days a week and the pastor on Sunday.
“The Old White Church”
After nine years, the growing congregation built a church on the north side of Penn Street. Painted white, with two wooden pillars in simulated marble, it was known as “The Old White Church,” although officially, the First English Presbyterian Church. It could have fit inside the present church sanctuary.
In 1829, the Rev. Grier helped establish Washington Presbyterian Church by the personal donation of two log cabins as a place of worship for African-Americans. In that same year, at age 45, John Grier died suddenly. The famous firebrand reformer, the Rev. Charles C. Finney, stayed on as supply pastor From January to May 1829. Other supply pastors and two permanent pastors served in the next 16 years as the membership grew to 198.
“A new and more commodious church”
The Rev. Dr. Elias J. Richards, the fourth permanent pastor, led the way to the construction of a grander stone edifice, modeled after churches in New York City. Its bold Gothic design emphasized the pointed arch and a 95-foot crenelated bell tower. Completed in 1848 at a cost of $24,000, this building has remained the home of First Presbyterian Church.
Major renovations and additions have occurred in several main phases. In 1883, during the Rev. Wallace Radcliffe’s tenure, new additions were a Johnson organ which filled the whole rear balcony and an ultra-modern Sunday School wing in place of the old lecture hall. Later changes have coincided with the service of other strong pastors.
Renovations of 1948, 1956, and 1964
During the pastorate of the Rev. Dr. Robert MacLeod Campbell, the sanctuary changed completely with the removal of the balconies on three sides. In their place, six stone pillars and arched trusses supported the raised, vaulted ceiling. A new M. P. Moller organ was installed at the front, along with new pews and hanging lantern lights.
In 1956, the Education Building was added on the south side of the church, where Reading’s City Hall had once stood. The remainder of that site is the small urban park where a corner sign now identifies the church.
The final phase of major upgrading occurred in 1964. A wrap-around one-story addition on the north side of the church provided administrative offices, a library, a hallway from the rear entrance to the expanded narthex, and a small enclosed garden. Demolition of the 1883 Sunday School addition allowed for the addition of classrooms, a parlor and the enlargement of the chancel. The refurbished Moller organ was moved inside the chancel, and the choir loft now faced the congregation. New stone window frames were installed, as well as many amenities.
Other physical improvements
By 1969, brilliant stained glass windows created by Latvian artist Leonids Linauts replaced the deteriorating 1866 ones. In the following years, women of the church stitched needlepoint pew cushions that echo the window colors.
In 1989, the limestone-based fieldstone and cut red sandstone masonry was restored to its original appearance with the removal of the ivy.
In April of 2017, the congregation voted to purchase and renovate the building at 1047 N. Park Road in Wyomissing as our future home.