For 350 years, First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica has worshiped and served in the same community of Jamaica, Queens, New York. Organized in 1662, the church is the oldest continuously serving Presbyterian congregation in the United States. Its buildings are located in the heart of Jamaica, a neighborhood that was once a combination of farms and woodland and is now a wonderful mixture of residential and commercial properties. Its people has evolved too. At one time, it was homogeneously white and is now a wonderful amalgamation of cultures and nationalities.
The original congregation began holding worship services in a public meeting house. In 1699, the villagers built a forty-foot square stone church in the middle of the main road, now Jamaica Avenue, opposite Union Hall Street.The congregations of what are now known as Grace Episcopal, First Reformed, and First Presbyterian worshiped as
one congregation from 1662-1702, when they were then allowed to become three congregations. The pastors of these churches continued to meet monthly for prayer and planning. They laid the groundwork for our core principle of service by jointly providing a soup kitchen every weekday, along with new partners from the Catholic and Salvation Army traditions.
Over the years, First Presbyterian continued to expand and grow, both in facilities, members, and programs. The church knew the importance of providing a safe and spiritually nourishing environment for the community. In the early 1800s, the first Sunday School was organized. In 1840, the Jamaica church had seven Sunday Schools under its care throughout locations in Queens. First Church also responded to other community needs, both near and far, throughout the years. Early pastors visited churches of the south to both perform missionary labor and help to form new churches. Youth ministry was always an important part of First Presbyterian’s community outreach – a strong tradition that continues today.
During the early to mid- 20th century, Reverend Andrew Magill led the church during a period of wonderful growth in spite of two wars and a financial market collapse. He was a dynamic minister and an extraordinary leader. During that time, church membership flourished to more than one thousand as it continued to provide a safe and spiritual environment for the community it served. Years passed and the membership declined until Reverend Dr. Raymond Swartzback helped reverse the decline during the late 1970s and 1980s. Under the leadership of the current pastor, Reverend Patrick H. O’Connor, the church has grown in faith and outreach. In 2003, Rev. O’Connor invited the congregation to renew its commitment to Jesus Christ so that God’s purpose could be fulfilled through the church members. He called upon the membership to “Reach others for Christ and Develop Believers in Christ”. Now, church programs include mid-week Bible study, Girl Scouts, tutoring, soup kitchen, clothing closet, emergency food distribution, twelve step programs, athletics, choirs, parenting classes, the Alice Horn Prayer Room, computer training, and a comprehensive youth program incorporating education, recreation, socialization, mentoring, and leadership training. First Church also provides an adult program that is intellectually challenging and provides opportunities to enhance physical and mental health, develop social networks, and remain actively engaged in living life to the fullest.
Today, First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica continues to respond to the needs of a diverse community. It objective is to maintain and expand its multi-cultural congregation, increase outreach programs to provide a place of safety and support for the community, and develop effective systems to involve and care for new members. In recent years, the congregation has become an exciting multi-cultural congregation, representing some 35 birth nations. Having experienced earlier “lean” years, during the two most recent pastorates, the membership has risen to 750 active members, having doubled its membership in the last five years.
We hope to continue this growth and success as we enter the 350th year of the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica. We have made tremendous progress in the development of our latest outreach endeavor – The Tree of Life Center. The center will act as a haven, providing a multitude of resources to those who are most in need in the community. After school and weekend programs will be available for the youth of Jamaica so that they can make positive use of their time and energy. Adult education and financial consultation will be provided for those who are trying to restore their lives and break their dependence on the welfare system. The Tree of Life Center will offer something for everyone. It is a warm and welcoming home for anyone in the community who is seeking help or guidance, or would like to share their gifts through faithful service.