The Dutch Church of Totowa

Bulletin of the Passaic County Historical Society, March 1958


The Old Dutch Reformed Church at Totowa (Paterson, NJ)

During Revolutionary War days, a little settlement lay about the Great Falls.  On both sides and near the Passaic River were the farms of the Dutch pioneers bearing names Post, Van Houte (Van Houten), Ryerson Godwin, Van Winkle, Van Gieson ——-so common those days in that vicinity.

Roads were few.  They were little more than trails.  The “York Road,” following the river connected the villages of Acquackanonk Landing and the Wesel with the Falls area.  From the northward came another road connecting the mines at Ringwood, Pompton, and Preakness with Totowa (as the Falls area was then known).  This Old Totowa Road passed between the houses of two Van Houtens which were then standing in what is now the ball field beyond Westside Park, passed the little house (1762) of Cornelius Neafie at the top of the steep hill and then continued down the h8ill on what is known as Ryle Avenue, Paterson today.  At the foot of the hill, it met a road leading to the Goffle.  From here it ran directly to the river just a few feet from what later became West Street.  Here was old Totowa Bridge, the center of things and the junction of the two principal roads in the county.

On the hillside along the old Totowa Road and clearly within the sound of the rushing waters tumbling over the Great Falls, the settlers from the area and from some of the more distant places constituted a church in 1755.  Dutch congregations had already been established in Acquackanonk and Pompton.  But, being “bereaved of a pastor in 1750” and having heard “with much joy” of the ability in preaching and being satisfied about the pious conduct of one young student of Divinity from a seminary in Pennsylvania by the name of David Marinus, both of those churches issued a call to Mr. Marinus on November 12, 1750, to become their pastor.  In the call, it was stated that “your Reverend is to preach in the Summer season of six months twice each Sabbath.  In the forenoon, you will explain a free text and in the afternoon you will preach from the Heidelberg Catechism.”

Mr. Marinus accepted the call.  During the early years of his ministry in Acquackanonk and in Pompton, he was very successful.  He appeared to be a man of considerable ability.

In those days, it was the custom for the ministers to preach occasionally during the week in hamlets remote from the churches.  It can very well be presumed that Dominie Marinus preached to the settlers at The Falls prior to 1755.  Finding his farm of six acres in Acquackanonk too small, he purchased 100 acres of land at Totowa on July 20, 1754, from Henry Brockholst, a large landholder.  This tract which was about 550 wide extended from the river at a point between the island and the falls, on a northwest line.

The young Dominie set up a “preaching station” in the area which re-kindled the religious interest in the people so that they applied on November 12, 1755, to the Consistory for permission to organize the Dutch Church of Totowa.  A satisfactory agreement was arranged with the other two churches and the Totowa church was allotted a fourth part of Mr. Marinus’ services and it was to pay one-fourth of his salary.

Within a short time, a Consistory was formed and a Church was constituted at Totowa.  This Consistory was made up as follows:  Simeon Van Winkle, Elder, the son of Patentee Simon Jacobse (Van Winkle), Simeon Van Winkle was a tanner who lived at the little white house along the river at the ford. (This spot was at the foot of Park Avenue in later days.)  Jacob van Houte, grandfather of Judge Garrebrant Van Houten; Johannes Reyerse (Ryerson) who probably lived at the Goffle; Jacobus Post, the builder of later known as “Zabriskie’s Mills” at Arcola [Paramus]; Dierck Van Gieson, Deacon and leading figure in the new church who lived, on what was later known as Totowa Avenue near Ryerson; Helmich Van Houten, who lived near the Lincoln Bridge of later days on Totowa Avenue; Johannis van Houte and Franz Post.

Shortly after the Consistory was formed, work was begun on a church building.  This was erected on land belonging to Henry Brockholst but afterward given to the church.  It lay on the hillside along old Totowa Road (now Ryle Avenue, and in the angle between Ryle Avenue and Hamburgh Avenue of much later date).

The north line of the property ran parallel to what later became Matlock Street about 100 feet south; while the south line ran along the line of “Quarry Road” northeast from Ryle Avenue; and the easterly line was from 15 to 20 feet from a brook to from 75 to 100 feet west of the present Hamburgh Avenue line.  The larger part of the almost triangular plot lay along Ryle Avenue.  It was not, however, until April 14, 1762, that Brockholst actually deeded the property to the Church.  This deed relates in part:

To all Christian People these presents shall come Henry Brockhurst, Esq. sendeth greetings.  Know ye that I, Henry Brockhurst son of her-at-law of Anthony Brockhurst deceased of the County of Bergen in the Province of New Jersey out of the good will I owe and the regard I have for the promotion of the Christian Religion and especially the manner of worship of the low Dutch Reformed Church of Holland according as the same is Established by the National Synod of Dordrecht, etc…and by these presents do give grant bargain sell alien convey and confirm unto Cornelius Kip, Robert Van Houte, Cornelius Westervelt, Johannis Van Blarcom and Cornelius Gerietse, Trustees of the Low Dutch Reformed Church of Totowa…..a certain lot of land situate lying and being in the County of Bergen in the Eastern Division of the Province of New Jersey near the bridge erected over the Passaic River at Totowa where said church is now being built…..(etc.) (The property conveyed containing one acre.)

Beside a buttonwood tree a quaint church building was erected of brown stone.  It was about 30 by 40 feet in size with the walls about 18 feet high.  A steeply pitched four-sided cedar roof covered the structure and overhung the walls from two to three feet; where it met in the center at a point, the roof was surmounted by a belfry.  This was simply constructed of four posts which “straggled” the pyramidal apex over which a roof was placed.  The bell with its wheel was left in the open.  On the top was the traditional weathercock.

The front door, on Totowa Road, was in the middle and on either side of it were two windows.  Both the door and all of the windows were set in arches made in the stone work.  Over the door, was a square stone, set up in the masonry on one of its points and bearing an inscription of which more will be related later in the story.  There was a spacious brown stone doorstep.  On each side of the church were two windows while the rear had no opening.

Upon entering, one observed that there was neither a vestibule or anti-room but on either side of the entrance there was a narrow stairway leading to the galleries.  The galleries were not wide.  They were provided with long benches and they were protected in front by open latticework of half rounded rails like stair banisters.

Two rows of boxed pews having straight, high sides and doors ran the length of the floor, while along each of the side walls were high-backed benches for the boys and the youths.

In front of the long bench running the entire length of the church sat the slaves and the “free persons of color.”  Under a “sounding board roof” attached to the rear wall, was the high pulpit.  To the right of the pulpit, sat the Elders while the Deacons sat on the left.  A few feet forward of the High Pulpit was the “Voorleser’s Box.”  He was the “Fore-reader” and psalm singer.

The ceiling sloped upward like the roof of the Church and was ceiled with boards.  The entire was painted a dingy drab.

Foot stoves provided the only warmth for the worshippers.  The “collection boxes” consisted of small black cloth bags attached to long poles to reach all the way through the pews.  On the bottom of the bags were two little bells.  The collection was used to pay the salary of the Minister and was taken at the conclusion of the sermon which usually lasted for more than one hour.

Here from 1755 until about the year 1762, the Reverend David Marinus served as minister and pastor.  After Dominie Marinus left about 1762, the church was supplied by the pastor of the Fairfield Reformed Church for about five years; then until 1772, it appears that there was no one to minister to the congregation.  But in November 1772, the Rev. Dr. Hermanus Meyer came and remained the pastor until his death in 1791.  The Totowa Church now severed its connections with the Pompton Church but remained in close relations with the Church at Acquackanonk and shared in the pastorate of the Rev. Henricus Schoonmaker who gave one-third of his time to Totowa.  He preached at Totowa from 1791 until his retirement in 1816 and for a time lived in Paterson.  After March 1816, services were held every other Sunday and they were conducted by the Rev. William Eltinge, the Pastor at Paramus from 1816 until 1827 when on March 26 a fire on the roof completely consumed the building.

It is thought that the fire started on the dry cedar roof as the result of a gunner shooting a bird which had alighted on the roof.  Before the volunteer firemen could arrive at the scene, nothing but the stone walls were left.  There were only two hand engines in Paterson at that time and due to a high wind, in less than one-half hour all of the woodwork of the church was completely burned.  The brown stone walls stood for about a year when they were taken down and used in the building of the Reformed Church commonly known as “The Town Clock Building.”  This church was erected on the east side of Main Street between Ellison and Van Houten.  It was dedicated on March 15, 1829; but like its predecessor, it too was destroyed by fire on December 14, 1871.  In the meantime, the Second Reformed Church asked for a charter which was granted; and on Sunday, June 1828, this church was opened for worship on the corner of Temple and Water Streets.

Burial Grounds of Old Totowa Church

The first interments were made near the church building; but, within forty years, the churchyard to the east and south were filled.  Unfortunately, only a few markers identified the final resting place of many of the first settlers of Passaic County.  If a marker was used it was usually a smooth field stone or slab of sandstone whose life span was short.

One finds it easy to contemplate as did Thomas Grey (1716-1771).

Perhaps in the neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or walked to ecstasy the living lyre.

Far from the maddening crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool, sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way

From about 1790 until 1845, interments for the Dutch Reformed churches were made in a cemetery lot lying to the southwest of old Totowa Road, west of the Island Market.  This property later passed into the hands of the Geering dye works.  In this graveyard many of the families of Paterson’s young days were interred.  General Godwin was one of the last to be laid to rest there.

Subsequently, many families had the remains of their loved ones removed and placed elsewhere; and in 1888, what remains were left, were removed to the [Sandy Hill] cemetery of the First Reformed Church on Willis Street (the Park Avenue site of the Eastside High School.) 

Earlier in this story mention was made of the brownstone which had been placed in the front wall, over the door, of the Old Dutch Church on Totowa Road.  For many years after the destruction of the old church, many versions persisted as to its inscription.  Mr. William Gledhill, being interested in local history and in exactness searched for the stone for many years after the fire and in 1865 he located it and copied the inscription.  The following is a copy of his diary made Aug. 19, 1865.

In my last talk with Mr. (Robert) King he said the Old Dutch Church in Manchester had in its front a stone, diamond shaped, with the inscription, ‘Het Huys Des Heeren’ and date, and that he had heard it was now somewhere in the Main St. Dutch Church.

I have this day seen it in the tower of that Church on the floor next above the clock works, just over the hole made for the new organ; the old well hole is there yet unenclosed, and n. of it stands the stone on a point.  It is about thus:

HUYS         DES
HEERENN              1775

Aug. 25, 1865
Seeing a quotation of this inscription on the church stone some days ago different from my memorandum and memory, I this morning, again visited the tower of the Main Street Church and find that the stone is 18 inches square but has been inserted in the wall point up, so as to present the appearance of a diamond.  It is about 2 ½ inches thick, of red sand stone.  The letters are all caps, and below is a facsimile, dots or period included.

HUYS:       DET
HEEREN            1755
V: D. M.