The complete history of a church cannot be written. The work of the church is made up of the innumerable acts of service and self-sacrifice of its individual members. Only God knows how much time, effort, prayer, and money the men and women of this church, from the day of its organization to this date, have given. Only He knows the result of their work - what its influence has been on human lives, what its impact has been on the community and upon the world.
In 1897 several members of the Dearborn Street Baptist Church felt led to begin a ministry in the Riverside area. A church building was erected at Hunt and Gallatin Avenues at a cost of $5,000. The church was first named Calvary Baptist Church. Records show that Rev. Alfred A. Manwaring was the first pastor.
In September 1901, our second pastor, Rev. George E. Ford, took up residence on Martin Avenue (now known as Progressive Avenue). Also in that year, the church, whose name had been changed to Pilgrim Baptist Church, was again renamed and became known as the Hunt Avenue Mission.
Rev. Newton E. Miller began a nine-year pastorate at the Mission in 1903. A reorganization of the Mission was conducted early in Rev. Miller’s ministry, resulting in, among other things, a name change to Hunt Avenue Baptist Society. Rev. Miller believed strongly in the necessity of reaching out to children and young people. His promotion of this work proved to be but the beginning of a ministry that has characterized the effort of this church since his pastorate.
Following Rev. Miller’s resignation, Dr. Ernest M. Wadsworth accepted the pastorate. His ministry continued from July 1910 until December 1929, when he resigned to become the head of the Great Commission Prayer League. During Rev. Wadsworth’s pastorate the Hunt Avenue Baptist Society was incorporated under the name of the Hunt Avenue Baptist Church, with Ralph Rand, Frank Allworth, John Taylor, Howard E. Bowers, Edward E. Bennett, and George A. Huber elected as trustees. In December 1924, Andrew Kant willed $1,000 to the church, to be paid on the mortgage, reducing it from $3,500 to $2,500. With the mortgage at this amount, the property at the corner of Hunt Avenue and Gallatin Avenue was deeded to the Hunt Avenue Baptist Church. By October 1927, the faithful members of the church reduced the mortgage to $500. We are grateful to Dr. Wadsworth for charting the course which our church has followed down through the years, in remaining a Christ-centered, Bible-preaching church.
In April 1930, Rev. Harvey O. Olney assumed the pastorate. Under his energetic leadership, church membership increased to the point that chairs were being used in the aisles to take care of the crowds for Sunday evening services. It became evident that a larger sanctuary would have to be provided to accommodate the increasing attendance. Although consideration had been given to the thought of a new church building for a number of years, no definite action had been taken, except for the construction of an annex for Sunday School use in December 1930. Building plans seemed to be at a standstill until the catastrophic fire of October 4, 1933 destroyed the church. Damages were estimated at $10,000. Because of Rev. Olney’s immediate action, services continued without interruption at the Maccabee Hall located at Hunt Avenue and Tonawanda Street. Pastor Olney conducted midweek services in the living room and dining room of the parsonage, then located at 112 Gallatin. A committee headed by John Gervan was immediately appointed to consider whether repairs should be made or a new building erected on a new site. The committee’s recommendation resulted in the purchase of the present property on Ontario Street near Ross Avenue. A new building, named the Riverside Baptist Church, was erected at a total cost, including both property and building, of $40,000. Construction proceeded rapidly. Ground was broken on January 22, 1934, and the cornerstone was laid on April 1, 1934. The sanctuary was dedicated on June 24. The first public wedding in the new church was that of Daniel T. Meloon and Ruth Rand on July 28, 1934.
A highlight of Rev. Olney’s ministry was our first Vacation Bible School, led by Mrs. Ruth McClelland. Rev. Olney also established the Fishermen’s Club, an evangelistic outreach of twice-born men and women. Through their work many in the hospitals were visited and given tracts, and many of the sick personally came to know the saving power and comfort of a loving Savior. The Fishermen’s Club took the Gospel in message and song to many in other churches and groups, not only in our own city, but in other towns and cities as well. In April 1942, Rev. Olney resigned to take up the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Butler, Pennsylvania. One of our church members, Rev. John Burgar, ably served as interim pastor, following Pastor Olney’s departure.
In October of 1942 the Rev. Enoch Stillman Moore was installed as our new pastor. He served in this capacity for just over three years, those being the war years. Having served and been wounded in World War I, Rev. Moore’s understanding of war-time conditions and heartaches, together with his thoughtful inspiring messages, proved of great comfort and help. Many of our young people were called into military service during that time, as all hearts and minds were turned toward the scene of conflict. It is with sadness that we list the names of those young men who gave their lives in service to their country.
Franklin E. Bowers
Godfrey B. Limburg
A memorable day was that of May 27, 1945, when Rev. Olney and Rev. Moore conducted a service for a ceremonial “burning of the mortgage”. The construction of Riverside Baptist Church and the subsequent liquidation of the debt reflected remarkable faith in God’s promise to provide, considering that the venture was begun during the dark days of the Great Depression.
A church softball team was formed soon after the war, competing in what was to become the Baptist Athletic League. This name was later changed to the Christian Athletic League. Daniel Meloon, Jr. faithfully served as league softball secretary for many years. Members of our church continue to play in this league today.
Following Pastor Moore’s resignation in December 1945, the Rev. George MacKay accepted the position of interim pastor. Our church was blessed by his faithful service during his time with us. In October 1946, Rev. Howard H. Chipchase began his ministry at Riverside. He is well-remembered for his vigorous personality and his outstanding leadership. Of great interest to Rev. Chipchase was the Bible School. During the days of the Hunt Avenue Church, attendance goals of 200 and 250 had been set. During June 1947, a new goal of 600 was set and attained. The reward for this effort, fondly remembered by many, was a Bible School picnic by a chartered New York Central 9-coach train to Outwater Park in Lockport, via Niagara Falls. Rev. Chipchase’s service with us was marked by his earnest, conscientious, hard work.
Following Rev. Chipchase’s resignation in 1951, Rev. William Barkalow became our interim pastor until the arrival of Rev. Edward H. Stady in 1952. An outstanding event during Rev. Stady’s ministry was the construction of the new Educational Building, which added onto the existing church building. This project was carried out during 1954 at a cost of $98,000. Assisting Rev. Stady during some of his years with us were Warren Whitney as Music and Youth Director and Laura Riddle as Christian Education Director. The present parsonage at 80 Meadow Lane in the Town of Tonawanda was purchased during Rev. Stady’s ministry. Other highlights included the beginning of the Boy Scouts and Pioneer Girls programs.
In 1958 Rev. Stady resigned and Rev. Michael J. Sheldon became our minister. There were many notable events during Rev. Sheldon’s ministry. A 50-acre tract of land outside Bliss, New York, was donated to the church by Jack Carlton’s mother. This site has been developed into a church camp called Hillside Acres. The Christian Service Brigade was started for our boys. Annual Sunday School parades were held along Main Street in downtown Buffalo. Our young people’s fellowship was expanded to include a Wednesday night Bible study, Easter vacation trips, a second church softball team, and fall retreats at Camp Forty Acres, Niagara Bible Conference Grounds, and Good News Camp. One of our morning worship services was telecast on local television. The Nelson Fund, a trust fund set up to assist college students who are anticipating full-time Christian service, was established in 1960, and is still being used today. Rev. Sheldon was capably assisted by Ronald Klein and Rev. W. Arthur Blakely.
Following Rev. Sheldon’s departure in May 1970, Rev. William R. Pack began a seven-year pastorate at Riverside. Under Rev. Pack’s leadership, two school buses and a van were purchased. A visitation ministry, conducted by a group of dedicated members, resulted in the need for those vehicles. Our parking area was expanded after the purchase of the property on the corner of Ross Avenue and Ontario Street. A new Allen organ was purchased in 1973. Our congregation enjoyed listening to Richard Meloon, our long-time Music Director, exercise his God-given gift on this instrument. In 1975 our young people’s Handbell Choir took first place in national competition held at Word of Life Camp. Riverside actively participated in Campus Crusade’s “Here’s Life, Buffalo!” campaign in 1976. Assistants to Rev. Pack during his ministry here included Baughn Lassiter, Dr. George Ree, and Rev. H. Edward Sanders. After Rev. Pack resigned in June 1977, Rev. Alan Forbes, director of the Buffalo Christian Center, devoted much of his time to shepherding us until a new pastor was called.
Rev. Gary W. Bonebrake came to us in March 1978. Our congregation was richly blessed during Rev. Bonebrake’s ministry by his clear and strong exposition of the Word of God. Pastor Bonebrake’s concern for the needs of his congregation was shown by such innovations as a Deacons’ Pantry, which supplies food to our members who have been faced with financial hardships, a very active Senior Citizens’ Fellowship, and small-group home Bible studies. Also, beginning in 1979, special “Sunday Night Live” programs were held on a once-a-month basis. In 1980 a new tradition of a fall Harvest Supper began. We still look forward to and enjoy this time of partaking of God’s bountiful provisions. During Rev. Bonebrake’s ministry, our church acquired the house at 68 Ross, converting it into a youth meeting center and educational facility. A resource center of teaching aids and supplies was established in 1982 from funds bequeathed the church by Thelma Frolick. In 1983, our congregation showed its compassion for the poor and needy of our city by generously giving over $26,000 to the Buffalo City Mission to help pay for its new facility on Oak Street. Many present and former members of our church family participated in the Fiftieth Anniversary celebration of our church building in October 1984. Starting in 1985, and for a number of years after that, our church joined with Cazenovia Park Baptist Church for a week of fellowship at LeTourneau Christian Camp. Youth pastors assisting Rev. Bonebrake included Jeffrey Dunn and Thomas Anderson. In 1986, new members, Rick and Cathy English, assumed leadership of the Youth Ministry. Responding to the call of the Holy Spirit, Rev. Bonebrake left Riverside in September of 1987, in order to prepare for service on the mission field. Following a Commissioning Service in September 1988, the Bonebrakes began their new ministry overseas at the German Bible Institute.
In November of 1987, Rev. Robert O. Wheeler became the twelfth pastor of our church. Soon thereafter, the Western New York area was privileged to host a Billy Graham crusade at Pilot Field in July of 1988. Many of our members helped in a variety of ways at this series of meetings. In the same year, we said farewell to Rick and Cathy English, who left Riverside to assume a full-time position at West Somerset (NY) Baptist Church. Rev. Wheeler and several of the church leaders wrote a new, stream-lined church constitution, which was adopted in April, 1991. A newly-created Board of Elders assumed most of the duties formerly performed by the Deacon Board. Another innovation under Rev. Wheeler’s direction was an audio tape ministry which allowed our shut-ins to listen to the Sunday morning services. Riverside’s continued emphasis on missions was shown by a monthly bulletin insert, giving an update on our missionaries’ activities and needs. In addition, a “Missionary of the Month” display was set up in the front of the sanctuary. Rev. Wheeler’s belief in the importance of prayer led to our decision to convert a coat room in the rear of the sanctuary into a Prayer Room. The Prayer Room continues to be available for use daily. During part of Rev. Wheeler’s pastorate, Steve Lamarco ably assisted as Youth Pastor. In June of 1994, our long-time organist and music director, Richard C. Meloon, was promoted to Glory. His extraordinary musical gifts, quick wit, and ever-popular annual church dinners are missed by all who knew him.
After Rev. Wheeler resigned in July of 1994 to accept a pastorate in the Chicago area, former Youth Pastor, Richard J. English returned in August of that year to become our current pastor. Rev. English’s burden for the lost has resulted in a strong evangelistic emphasis. Outreach programs, such as tract distribution and concerts held in the church parking lot, helped to increase our weekly attendance significantly. More importantly, we have seen the salvation of many souls. He has baptized hundreds of people during his ministry here. Knowing that a praying church is a spiritually alive church, Pastor English has made prayer a major focus in everything we do. In 1996, our Pioneer Club, formerly Pioneer Girls, celebrated its fortieth year at Riverside. On October 10-12, 1997, many former church members returned to join us in celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the founding of our church. Many memories were shared and friendships renewed during this eventful weekend. Former pastors William Pack, Gary Bonebrake, and Robert Wheeler, and missionary Dr. Randy Speirs also participated in the Centennial Celebration.
As Riverside Baptist began its second century, several changes occurred in relation to church properties. The camp known as Hillside Acres in Bliss, NY, was sold. The house at 70 Ross Avenue was purchased. With the demolition of that house, as well as the church-owned house at 68 Ross Avenue several years earlier, the parking lot was further expanded and a storage garage was built. To make our church more accessible, a chair lift was installed. A food pantry and clothes closest were established to assist members of our church and community. Under Rev. English’s leadership, Riverside Baptist Church continues to be a Bible-preaching, Christ-centered beacon for the Riverside-Black Rock community, as it has been for over one hundred years.
We have come to the point where it is now our responsibility to carry on the work so faithfully performed throughout these many years by our predecessors. They had a vision of a lost world desperately in need of a Savior. We lovingly remember those who have gone before us, yet we need to be careful to keep looking ahead and above. Let us all pray that we will remain faithful in our service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Foundation on which this church is built. (I Cor. 3:11)
Authors’ note: The content of this record prior to 1947 was excerpted from facts compiled by the late Howard E. Bowers. We are indebted to Mr. Bowers and are grateful for his faithfulness in preserving this information for us. The church history from 1947 to the present was gleaned from Riverside Baptist Church annual reports, other church records, and personal recollections. We trust that our efforts have resulted in an accurate account of the history of Riverside Baptist Church.