A ministry unfolding since 1845
In 1845, Dr. Sylvester Willard joined First Presbyterian Church by letter from Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago, where he had practiced medicine before coming to Auburn. Thus begins the story of First Presbyterian Church and the Case Mansion on the church grounds.
Case Mansion and the Steeple Bell that fell April 5, 1973
Dr. Willard was a well-regarded physician and also an organizer in 1848 of the Oswego Starch Company. He was very wealthy and equally generous. He was a benefactor of First Presbyterian Church and an elder for 38 years (1848 - 1886). Dr. Willard was a great friend of Rev. Charles Hawley, pastor from 1857 to 1885. Dr. Willard's digest of Dr. Hawley's sermons is a treasure in the church archives.
Dr. Willard was married to Jane Case Willard, whose brother, Theodore Pettibone Case, was a benefactor of the church also. His son was Willard Erastus Case, whose son was Theodore Willard Case, the builder of the Case Mansion.
Dr. Willard had two daughters. These generous women donated the Willard Chapel to the Auburn Theological Seminary. They died with no heirs other than their cousin Willard Erastus Case. Thus the Willard fortune came into the hands of Theodore Willard (Ted) Case.
Ted Case was very inventive and devised a method of putting sound on film. Thus he is credited with inventing "talking pictures." His work was done in a laboratory behind his home, the former Willard Mansion, now the Cayuga Museum.
In 1931, having sold the sound on film technology to Fox, Ted Case built the Case Mansion. The MacDougall and Boyd mansions were demolished to make way for the new house, which is very large, with 65 rooms. Over time Ted Case's fortunes waned, and he gave the Willard Mansion to the city in 1936, and the Case Mansion to the city in 1938.
From 1938 to 1946 the Case Mansion was used for various purposes including a National Youth Administration center, housing women who lived and worked in the mansion, making sheets, pillowcases, and towels for wartime supply.
In 1946 the Carmelite Fathers purchased the home from the city for use as a monastery. In 1972 the Carmelites offered shelter to mentally retarded people there. Afterwards, the Fathers invited a group of volunteers to move in and shelter mentally disabled veterans in the mansion. Accounts from that time show these volunteers sacrificed their own homes and money to do this. The service came to be called Unity House. By 1975 the Carmelites could no longer afford to keep the Case Mansion property.
In the meantime, First Presbyterian Church continued its mission and ministry. In 1869 the church had built a massive limestone edifice and gradually acquired land all around, often improving the land because there was a need. Then, in 1969, the city embarked on plans to build an arterial highway. The church would lose much of its land, be landlocked on the north side, and thus severed from some of its property.
On April 5, 1973 the organist arrived early for choir practice and began to play. The giant steeple collapsed on the organ, but the organist was thrown aside and walked out of the church. The church was destroyed by the collapse, and the congregation determined the church had to be demolished and the site sold. The search began for a new site. The Carmelite Fathers offered land next to the Case Mansion, and there the new First Presbyterian Church was built in 1975.
The Carmelites' crisis deepened, and the volunteers feared they would lose their home in the Case Mansion, as well as that of the disabled veterans--and the mission of caring for these men. The volunteers appealed to the First Presbyterian Church to buy the Case Mansion and continue the program. The church did so, thus embarking on yet another enormous mission in a long history of great missions by this small church in a small city.
Pastor Dennis Haines worked with the volunteers to incorporate their Unity House program, find an executive director, and secure all the approvals needed to operate mental health services in New York state. The program operated for 35 years in the Case Mansion and has expanded to other locations as well. It has grown from serving 24 disabled veterans to serving more than 700 clients a day in several counties. Members of First Presbyterian Church serve on the Unity House board and other committees.
With changes in mental health services, the Unity House residence program left the mansion at the end of 2011.
At its stated meeting in December 2016, after prayer and discernment, the session approved plans in re-designing the Case Mansion as our church’s new Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center (PERC). The Center continuing the mission of First Presbyterian Church (Led by God, Serving Christ, Guided by the Holy Spirit, Strong in Faith) is to provide an ecumenical ministry of hospitality, offering programs, space and nourishment to individuals and groups desiring spiritual growth, renewal and peace. In the tradition of Presbyterian retreat centers like Montreat in North Carolina or Stony Point in New York, the Center will offer opportunities to bring people together from all walks of life for prayer, rejuvenation and creative ways in building community.
- A History of First Presbyterian Church by Rev. Malcolm L. MacPhail (1936)
- Now We're Talking: The Story of Theodore W. Case and Sound-on-film by Antonia and Luke Collella (2003)
- A History of Willard Memorial Chapel and the Auburn Theological Seminary by Edward Rossman, Kathleen Walker, and Marcia Walsh (2013)
- Newspaper accounts of the purchase of the Case Mansion by First Presbyterian Church, 1975 and 1976 and correspondence in the church files
- Presentation on architectural history of the city of Auburn by Michael Long, manager of capital improvement programs for the city, May 6, 2007 in the Willard Chapel
- Correspondence with Stephen Erskine, retired librarian of Seymour Library of Auburn New York, October 24, 2007