Author: Daniel Gorman Jr.
Author’s Note: This essay was the first entry written for Digitizing Rochester’s Religions, as an example, in fall 2016. It has been updated to reflect recent events.
The history of Genesee Baptist Church spans nearly two centuries of the neighborhood known today as the Nineteenth Ward, but which was originally called Castle Town. Former Seneca Nation lands became the property of two white men, Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham; next, in 1790, the property went to James and William Wadsworth, who built the first Western-style settlement. The Wadsworths’ tavern and general store, maintained by Col. Isaac Castle, became a local hub, but it was Castle, not the Wadsworths, who gave the settlement its name.
Once the Erie Canal was built, river traffic shifted to the north, but Castle Town, also known as the Rapids, endured with a population of seasonal laborers. No organized religious activity occurred in the Rapids until 1845, when the observant Baptist Col. Otis Turner moved to the area with his equally devout daughters Helen & Charlotte. Seeking to reform and revitalize the neighborhood, they opened the Rapids Mission, and a supportive resident, Silas Yerkes, ran the mission’s Sunday School initially out of his house. In 1858, Augustus Henry Strong, future president of the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, became the first minister to preach regularly at the mission. As the Rapids congregation grew, it entered into a partnership with the First Baptist Church of Rochester. The two groups opened a proper Rapids church, not only a mission, at Genesee Street and Terrace Park in 1868, using land that one Edward Frost donated.
On October 29, 1871, twenty-five congregants voted to leave the parent church and form the First Regular Baptist Church of the Rapids. Joseph Gilmore, a minister and professor of English at the University of Rochester, affiliated with this congregation. Even so, First Regular Baptist (or “Rapids Baptist Church,” as it was also known) did not retain a permanent minister until Byron Caldwell in 1918. This facility attempted to merge with Plymouth Avenue Baptist in 1887. It is unclear why precisely the merger did not pan out; one history cites transportation difficulties for congregants. Regardless, eighteen members left Plymouth and opted to preserve the Rapids organization. Under the leadership of deacon and benefactor Philip Kron, the Rapids families built a new facility, South Rochester Baptist Church (1894), later renamed Genesee Street Baptist (1899) and finally Genesee Baptist (1915–present).
In 1922, four years into the tenure of Rev. Caldwell, the City of Rochester sought to acquire the church’s land for a road-building project. Pressured to move, the congregants acquired a loan from New York State’s Baptist headquarters and obtained a new site at 149 Brooks Avenue. Deacon Kron once again played a major rule in fundraising for and building a new church. The old church was physically moved and integrated into the new structure. The facility was completed in 1925, with the first service held on June 14, but Rev. Caldwell suffered a bad fall and resigned, his health to remain in permanent decline.
Rev. La Rue Cober replaced Caldwell and instituted a robust program of youth education. For instance, the 1927 Summer School became the largest summer program in Rochester, and the students produced an elaborate booklet full of photographs of the students. The school had a large faculty, consisting largely of mothers from the congregation. Few, if any, students of color appear in the Summer School class photos. The 1927 summer program commemorative booklet contains a notable short story in which a religiously unaffiliated boy and his family are converted after he attends the school. This story conveys the importance of personal salvation in the Baptist tradition.
Hard times befell Genesee Baptist in the 1930s–40s. The Great Depression spurred the church’s members to support each other financially and materially, even as the church finances suffered. Of the Depression, Cober recalled, “We probably would have lost the building in 1933 had it not been for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of a moratorium on mortgages for 10 years…. There were two other occasions when we came near to losing it, but very generous gifts from the New York State Baptist Convention and the Monroe County Baptist Association came to our rescue.” Over 100 male congregants from the church served during WWII. Rev. Cober remained at the helm during this time and pushed for open membership for all Christians, a policy that was ratified in 1946. Jean Cober, the reverend’s daughter, made a major contribution to the sanctuary by designing artistic shields, in honor of the apostles (including Judas Iscariot). These shields remain in the church today.
R. Claibourne Johnson, Cober’s successor (1946–54), is remembered for his devotion to social justice. He controversially ordained a Japanese minister, Isaac Igarashi, but he failed to appoint women to the church board of trustees, an event that ultimately occurred in 1963. Humorously, Rev. Johnson burned the church mortgage in a public ceremony after paying off the balance. The mortgage burning of September 24, 1947, has become a favorite bit of church lore.
Rev. Bruce Lambert, minister from 1954–64, supported racial integration as the neighborhood demographics changed from mostly white to increasingly non-white. The church integrated its congregation in 1964, the year of the Rochester race riot. As the 1960s progressed, the 19th Ward suffered from white flight, debates over racially integrated busing, block busting, and accompanying economic decline. We can interpret Lambert’s commitment to social justice as a counterpoint to the racial anxiety that spurred longtime white residents to flee to the suburbs. Aside from his activism, Lambert oversaw renovations at the church and hosted its first live nativity pageant.
Rev. Folke Ferre (1965–circa 1974) continued Johnson and Lambert’s social justice work, championing interfaith relations, aligning Genesee Baptist with the city’s Southwest Ecumenical Mission (SWEM), and collaborating with the 19th Ward Community Association. Rev. John Elliott (1974–85) oversaw a greater range of programming, the creation of a thrift shop, new men’s and women’s groups, and structural repairs to the church. Dr. Jesse Brown (1986–95) presided over a church with increasing ethnic diversity. His tenure saw the introduction of a new Gospel choir, the SWEM food cupboard, collaborations with Cameron Ministries and Fairport Baptist Homes, and what the church’s 2001 pamphlet Cherishing Our Diversity called “a slow revitalization process.”
By the end of the twentieth century, what was once a white-only congregation had become a racially and ethnically diverse congregation. Rev. Dr. Vera Evans Miller became Genesee Baptist Church’s first female and first African American minister in 1996. A schoolteacher by training, Evans hosted the church’s 130th anniversary in 2001, celebrating the nineteenth-century Baptists who founded the Rapids Church. In her introduction to Cherishing Our Diversity, Miller foregrounded the church’s history of social reform. Miller retired in 2018 and died in November of that year. As of February 2020, her successor as senior pastor has not been publicly announced.
 R. La Rue Cober, “Castle Town: An Historiette of Southwest Rochester, and the History and Program of Genesee Baptist Church,” (Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church Board of Trustees, 1935), 7–11; Donovan A. Shilling, “A Brief Look at the 19th Ward’s Fascinating Past,” chapter 12 in Rochester’s Marvels & Myths (Victor, N.Y.: Pancoast Publishing, 2011), 95–96.
 Cherishing Our Diversity: Celebrating Our 130th Anniversary, 1871–2001 (Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church, 2001), 5, University of Rochester Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, BX6480.R6 G448 2001, permalink; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 95.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 6; “Church History,” Genesee Baptist Church.org (N.d.), 1, accessed 30 Oct. 2016, http://www.geneseebaptistchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Genesee%20Baptist%20Church%20History.pdf.
 “Church History,” 2; Cober, “Castle Town,” 25; Wilbur G. Lewis, 1871–1971, Genesee Baptist Church, 149 Brooks Avenue, Rochester, N.Y.: First and Oldest Religious Organization in Southwest Rochester (S.l.: s.n., 1971), 1, Accession No.: RB–17537, University of Rochester Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, Rochester, N.Y.; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 97.
 “Church History,” 3; Cober, “Castle Town,” 25–27; Lewis, 1871, 1; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 97.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 7, 8; Cober, “Castle Town,” 25–27, 29; Michael and Glenn Leavey, Rochester’s 19th Ward, Images of America (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 32; Lewis, 1871, 1; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 97.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 8; Cober, “Castle Town,” 29; Lewis, 1871, 3; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 97.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 9; “Church History,” 4–6; Cober, “Castle Town,” 33; Leavey, Rochester’s 19th Ward, 25; Lewis, 1871, 3, 6–10.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 9, 11; Genesee Vacation Church School, Summer of 1927, Rochester, New York (Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church, 1927), 5, Rhees Rare Bks. Accession No.: RB–17233 (Pamphlet), University of Rochester Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation.
 Genesee Vacation, 19, photographs throughout; see pg. 7 for discussion of mothers who taught at the school.
 Genesee Vacation, 30.
 Lewis, 1871, 11–12.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 10.
 “Church History,” 6.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 11; Lewis, 1871, 15.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 73–75.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 3, 11.
 “Church History,” 6; Lewis, 1871, 15.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 3, 12; Lewis, 1871, 17. On block busting and urban decline, see: Leavey, Rochester’s 19th Ward, 8.
 “Church History,” 6–7.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 3, 12; “Church History,” 7. I could not confirm Ferre’s resignation in 1974.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 3, 11.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 12.
 Cherishing Our Diversity, 3 (incl. Miller’s foreword), 13; Leavey, Rochester’s 19th Ward, 25; “Rev. Miller,” Genesee Baptist Church.org, accessed 21 Dec. 2017, http://www.geneseebaptistchurch.org/about-genesee/rev-miller/.
 “Rev. Dr. Vera Miller Retirement Concert! [Event Page],” Facebook, last modified 8 July 2018, acc. 15 Jan. 2019, https://www.facebook.com/events/2100040146939348/; homepage contents as of 15 Jan. 2019 [mentioning Dr. Miller’s retirement concert], Genesee Baptist Church.org, acc. 15 Jan. 2019, http://www.geneseebaptistchurch.org/; “Rev. Dr. Vera Evans Miller [Obituary],” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 18 Nov. 2018, acc. 15 Jan. 2019, https://obits.democratandchronicle.com/obituaries/democratandchronicle/obituary.aspx?n=vera-evans-miller&pid=190767057&fhid=13386.