Authors: Margarita S. Guillory and Daniel Gorman Jr.

To view this project’s public communications, follow us on Twitter: @DigitizingR.

Project Overview

Digitizing Rochester’s Religions, abbreviated as DRR, began in the fall 2016 semester. Dr. Margarita S. Guillory, a member of the University of Rochester Dept. of Religion & Classics from 2011–18, was the principal investigator. Dr. Guillory currently teaches at Boston University.

DRR grew out of Dr. Guillory’s undergraduate seminar “iReligion: Religion in the Digital Age,” which explored how religious life has changed as the result of digital technology and Internet communities. For their final assignment, students visited a religious site or congregation in the city of Rochester, wrote short papers profiling the site, and identified electronic media about the site. The “iReligion” assignment drew inspiration from Dr. Courtney Bender’s project at Columbia University, Sacred Gotham, which tasked students with mapping religious spaces in New York City.

“iReligion” also built on the example of Monroe Community College professor David H. Day’s 2003 web project, “Encountering Old Faiths in New Places: Mapping Religious Diversity in the Rochester, New York Area.” Affiliated with Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, Dr. Day’s project sent students into the community to profile religious organizations. “Encountering Old Faiths” was structured like an encyclopedia, emphasizing students’ ethnographic observations of current religious sites, and featuring student-generated profiles and photographs. While that site is no longer active, most of its content is preserved on the Internet Archive.

This community-based approach to studying urban religious life — combining urban studies, geography, history, and anthropology — was replicated in DRR. There were several adjustments from the “iReligion” course’s format. Instead of highlighting existing electronic media as the “iReligion” students did, the DRR researchers would follow the example of Sacred Gotham and “Encountering Old Faiths” and produce new digital materials. The DRR website would feature histories of religious sites, interactive maps showing the proliferation of religious groups and spaces in Rochester, and galleries of scanned primary sources that would publicize community-run archives.

The theoretical considerations of virtual religious life that characterized “iReligion” would not be the focus of DRR. Instead, the DRR researchers would use digital tools to study urban religious groups that largely meet in person. Any discussion of electronic religious communication or networks would be connected to religious activity that occurs offline, at specific places. DRR would profile current as well as past religious sites, incorporating archival research as well as ethnography. This meant that DRR had more of a historical orientation than the present-day, ethnographic orientation of Sacred Gotham and “Encountering Old Faiths.”

Finally, DRR would document the evolution of religion in Western New York after the Second Great Awakening (1800–1850) ended. Western New York and the city of Rochester in particular were famous for revivals and new religious movements, which inspired the nickname of the “Burned-over District.”

Working under Dr. Guillory’s supervision, a team of undergraduate and graduate students collaborated with Rochester residents and clergy to document historic places of worship. In 2016–18, the DRR team profiled sites located in southwest Rochester, with the intention of expanding to the other three quadrants of the city, as well as the suburbs. A University of Rochester PumpPrimer II (PPII) grant, which Dr. Guillory received in June 2017, funded DRR for the 2017–18 academic year. This grant provided a salary for the student researchers and covered start-up costs.

Undergraduate researchers Madeline Blackburn, Sophia McRae, Sarah Ogunji, Seyvion Scott, and Courtney Thomas, Jr. wrote essays and produced reference materials about religious sites, the surrounding neighborhoods, and important archival documents.

  • McRae created a photo essay documenting the Megiddo Mission Church’s complex. McRae also scanned excerpts from self-published Megiddo histories that are stored in the University of Rochester’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation.
  • Blackburn and Scott worked with the Rare Books Dept. to produce finding aids and identify relevant collections of documents, images, and maps. They also wrote essays about Rochester’s southwestern neighborhoods and civil rights in the city.
  • McRae, Blackburn, and Sarah Ogunji identified maps that could be included with digital essays or integrated into a georectified ArcGIS map.
  • Ogunji visited the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester Archives and contacted the Corn Hill Neighbors Association to review documents related to the Immaculate Conception Church, a historic African American congregation. She also visited the church.
  • Courtney Thomas, Jr., met with the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Study Group and recorded a 70-minute interview discussing the group’s beliefs and operations.
  • Scott and Thomas interviewed African American civic leaders Constance Mitchell and Dr. Walter Cooper. Ms. Mitchell later passed away, in December 2018.

Daniel Gorman Jr., a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Rochester Dept. of History, served as DRR‘s lead graduate researcher. He wrote profiles of several religious sites, developed the project’s workflow with Dr. Guillory, scanned primary sources from Catholic churches, and collaborated with the University of Rochester Digital Scholarship Lab on the website.

The entire DRR team worked closely with the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, since the department has extensive holdings about Rochester’s religious history. Additionally, trips off campus were essential to the project’s success. We visited religious congregations and interviewed their clergy, members, and volunteer archivists. The process became a partnership — the religious groups could offer feedback on our essays, and we digitized documents or objects that the groups identified as valuable. We recommend this kind of collaborative partnership, as it can improve the often-contentious relationship between universities and surrounding communities.

Dr. Guillory moved to Boston University in 2018. This meant that, without a faculty investigator and additional funding, DRR could not easily expand beyond southwest Rochester. As a result, Gorman oversaw the completion of DRR as a pilot project. By documenting religious history in Rochester’s southwestern quadrant, DRR could provide a jumping-off point for future projects about religion in the former Burned-over District. The DRR website could serve as a template for combining digital and public history methods with experiential education for students. Participation in a community-based history project, with the goal of building a public-facing web exhibit, trains students in stakeholder engagement, data preservation, content management systems, and the use of archival resources.

In 2018–19, Gorman met with the undergraduate researchers, who volunteered their time to finish their essays. Once the essays were edited, Gorman built the WordPress website with the assistance of the Digital Scholarship Lab staff, secured permission from community partners to reproduce archival sources online, and integrated DRR into HIS 191, a summer 2019 course on new religious movements. The HIS 191 students, Adrian Remnant and Cole Summers, wrote about religious sites on Rochester’s Park Avenue and in the southeastern suburb of Palmyra. The Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Fellowship, which Gorman received in summer 2019, provided financial support and digital humanities training sessions. This fellowship enabled the completion of DRR during the 2019–20 school year and the public launch of the website in the spring 2020 semester.

Our Argument

The city of Rochester is located at the center of New York State’s “Burned-Over District.” This nickname refers to the evangelical missionaries and homegrown prophets who crisscrossed Upstate New York during the Second Great Awakening (1800–1850), although the area around Rochester had been known for its religious diversity for centuries. Haudenosaunee and Algonquian traditions have been practiced here since the Renaissance, at least. French Catholic missionaries traveled south from Canada through Western New York in the seventeenth century. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and modern Spiritualism began in Rochester’s outlying towns in the 1820s and 1840s, respectively. Evangelical missionaries, notably Charles Grandison Finney, led major revivals in Rochester during the 1830s. Immigrants and American citizens who moved to the city brought multiple Jewish and Christian traditions with them. Rochester also developed a rich legacy of social activism in the nineteenth century, with residents contributing to abolitionism, feminism, temperance, Progressive social reforms, and interfaith outreach, to name several movements.

Rochester’s contributions to American religious and social history between 1800 and 1850 have been the subject of much scholarship. The literature on the Burned-over District includes well-known history books like Whitney Cross’s The Burned-over District (1950), Anthony F.C. Wallace’s The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (1970), Paul E. Johnson’s A Shopkeeper’s Millennium (1978), Glenn C. Altschuler and Jan M. Saltzgaber’s Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community in the Burned-Over District: The Trial of Rhoda Bement (1983), Michael Barkun’s Crucible of the Millennium (1986), Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits (1989), and John L. Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire (1994). Indeed, the Burned-over District continues to generate historical interest, as reflected by recent books like Matthew Dennis’s Seneca Possessed (2010) and Joscelyn Godwin’s Upstate Cauldron (2015).

What has received less scholarly attention, however, is the religious history that happened after the Second Great Awakening. From 1850 to the present, Western New York and Rochester continued to exhibit remarkable religious diversity. By the twentieth century, New Thought followers, Christian Scientists, Theosophists, and other metaphysical practitioners lived in Rochester. The Nation of Islam developed a major presence in the mid-1900s. After the U.S. immigration reforms of 1965, immigrants, including a sizable refugee population, and New Age practitioners further diversified Rochester’s religious life. This religious growth took place against a backdrop of industrialization, represented by the rise of firms like Kodak and Bausch & Lomb, and later urban decay, as those same firms began to shrink.

Several books address religion in Rochester after 1850. These titles include Ingrid Overacker’s The African American Church Community in Rochester, New York, 1900–1940 (1998), Kathleen Urbanic’s Shoulder to Shoulder: Polish Americans in Rochester, New York, 1890–2000 (2000), and Peter Eisenstadt’s Affirming the Covenant: A History of Temple B’Rith Kodesh Rochester, New York, 1848–1998 (1999). David H. Day’s “Encountering Old Places” was the first major digital initiative to our knowledge about Rochester’s religions. Yet there are more stories to tell about religion in this region!

Digitizing Rochester’s Religions is intended to further our understanding of modern Rochester’s religious history. We draw on the latest digital humanities technology to build on the example set by “Encountering Old Faiths” and other digital religious projects such as Sacred Gotham. Our website spotlights Rochester’s religious diversity after the end of the Burned-over revivals, charting the city’s religious evolution from 1850 to 2020. We provide new historical essays written by University of Rochester students, an archive of digitized sources from multiple Rochester religious sites, and supplementary materials intended for researchers and teachers.

As this is a pilot project, DRR does not tell the story of every religion or religious site present in Rochester. Instead, we focus on religious sites from the Nineteenth Ward, Corn Hill, and Plymouth Exchange (PlEx) neighborhoods, located in the city’s southwest quadrant. These neighborhoods are adjacent to the University of Rochester River Campus. The institutions our team profiled in 2016–18 are:

  • Genesee Baptist Church,
  • The Megiddo Mission Church,
  • The Muhammad Study Group of the Nation of Islam,
  • The Immaculate Conception Church,
  • St. Monica Roman Catholic Church,
  • Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic Church,
  • St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church,
  • The Roman Catholic Church of Ss. Peter and Paul,
  • The Coptic Orthodox Church of Ss. Peter and Paul,
  • Glory to Glory Christian Fellowship,
  • The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) New Progressive Cathedral, and
  • St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Orthodox Monastery (which is located in the southwestern suburb of Henrietta, N.Y.).

When read together, the essays of DRR tell a story of initial prosperity, urban collapse, and tentative revival. Beginning in the 1960s, the loss of Rochester’s industrial base exacerbated the city’s patterns of racial and economic segregation. White flight intensified in southwestern Rochester. Religious organizations in economically distressed neighborhoods like the Nineteenth Ward worked to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of tax dollars and government assistance. By launching nonprofits, job training programs, soup kitchens, clinics, and other social services, religious groups in southwest Rochester tried to meet the physical and material as well as spiritual needs of residents.

The contextual essays by Scott and Blackburn elaborate on this thesis:

The Dr. Walter Cooper papers provided me with historical facts and information about the city of Rochester in the 1960s. As a child, I did not understand why certain parts of Rochester looked different from others; I thought that was just the way things were. It is sad to say sixty-four years after the riot, the neighborhood is still in shambles. There are well over forty vacant lots sprawling along Joseph Avenue. Take a walk down the avenue, walk into any of the corner stores, and you will find a lack of healthy food options, a plethora of tobacco products, and processed junk food. The neighborhood is in dire need of amenities community members need such as fresh produce, more grocery stores, parks, playgrounds, community gardens, bike lanes, and more. For outsiders, the neighborhood appears dangerous, but to me, it needs investment and revitalization. Social issues such as hunger, education, and jobs will be alleviated when the city of Rochester focuses on developing structures and resources in this part of the city.

Seyvion Scott, “A Look into the City of Rochester’s Past.”

Ultimately, the history of Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward is one defined by resilience, ingenuity, and multiculturalism. Despite numerous setbacks that have blighted many regions, the Nineteenth Ward’s residents have continually persevered. The Nineteenth Ward is now home to people from all walks of life who are bound together by the Ward’s unique character and history rich with struggle, survival, and cooperation.

Madeline blackburn, “Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward: A Brief History.”

The essays by Gorman, McRae, Ogunji, and Thomas detail how individual religious groups used their resources to support their neighborhoods. Ogunji details how the Immaculate Conception Church has provided a community for African American Catholics and lobbied for civil rights. The centrality of civil rights activism is clear, too, in Gorman’s essays on Genesee Baptist Church and the New Progressive Cathedral. McRae documents the mutual aid efforts, entrepreneurship, and communal lifestyle of the Megiddo Mission Church. Thomas profiles the Muhammad Study Group of the Nation of Islam, which lobbies for criminal justice reform and improved economic opportunities for Rochester’s Black community. Gorman’s essays on the Roman Catholic Community of the 19th Ward address those churches’ social ministries — food pantries, halfway houses, healthcare, education, urban agriculture, and more. Social ministries also figure largely in Gorman’s essays on Glory to Glory Christian Fellowship and the New Progressive Cathedral. Finally, Gorman’s essay on the Coptic Orthodox Church of Ss. Peter and Paul discusses the role of a present-day urban mission church.

Guiding Terminology

Religion: This project does not attempt to offer a comprehensive definition of the term. Instead, we offer a four-fold description of religion, which we have derived from the work of Bruce Lincoln. According to Lincoln’s framework, a religion is:

1. A “discourse” — a set of meanings, ideas, representations, and/ or images — engaging with transcendent issues.

2. A “set of practices” that aim to articulate a particular understanding of the world and one’s place in it. It is important to here that religious practices are inextricably connected to religious discourse(s).

3. A “community” featuring a religious discourse and a set of religious practices that help to shape the community members’ identities.

4. “An institution that regulates religious discourse, practices, and community, reproducing them over time and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.”

Source: Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 5–7. See page 5 for“discourse,” page 6 for “set of practices” and “community,” and page 7 for the full quote of “an institution…”

Religious Site: A location where religion occurs, particularly in regard to the description offered above. Sites in Rochester had to meet at least two of the four criteria to be included in the DRR Project.


With further funding and a larger team of researchers, DRR could be scaled up to cover religious sites in the entire city of Rochester, the suburbs, and the surrounding countryside. By continuing to document religious communities throughout the city, new themes would emerge to complement and complicate the stories we told about southwest Rochester’s religious sites. The essays written for HIS 191, for instance, address the introduction of new religious movements — specifically the immigrant religions of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism — to Rochester.

Above all, DRR is intended as an example of community-based religion scholarship and public history outreach. We could not have done this project — studying 180 years of urban religious life — without the support, feedback, and expertise of individuals from Rochester’s religious communities. They welcomed us into their houses of worship, opened their archives, and consulted with us as the project came together.

Note: The header photograph used for much of this website, a JPEG file labeled simply as “DSC0049,” depicts the sanctuary of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, circa 2006. Royal Chamberlain took the photo as part of his historic preservation photoshoot before the church closed.