St. Paul's Church 1911
In February 1765, Dominie (Rev.) Peter Nicholas Sommer wrote in his journal that he rode up the hill from his post at the Lutheran Church in Schoharie to conduct a worship service with Holy Communion at the farmhouse of Johannes Zeh, between present day Berne and East Berne. Perhaps it was a fine, crisp winter day with bright sunshine. Or maybe it was a mild winter day, one of those thawing days that gives a glimpse of the coming spring.
Whatever the conditions, Dominie Sommer made the trip to minister to families living on the Hill under the rule of patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer. This is the earliest known record of an official Lutheran service on the Hill. Usually though, Berne farmers led worship in their homes, served only occasionally by ministers who rode up the hill to lead worship, preside over communion, officiate at weddings, and perform baptisms.
It would be another 25 years, November 22, 1790, before a congregation was officially established. The first pastor was called in 1792, and the first sanctuary was built sometime after July 27, 1797, when Patroon Van Rensselaer deeded land for that purpose to the congregation. There was no hamlet in the area yet, and a simple frame church, 40 by 50 feet in size, with galleries on three sides, was built near the Zeh and Wormer homesteads, halfway between what are now the hamlets of Berne and East Berne, just east of present-day Pine Park trailer home park. It is also the site of Pine Grove Cemetery, the Lutheran Church Cemetery.
The present brick church was constructed in 1835 on the west edge of the new hamlet of Bern (as it was then spelled). A clay bed suitable for making bricks was found on the farm of church member Peter Bassler, abutting the west knoll of what is presently Beaverdam Cemetery. The bricks were made and baked there at the clay bank over the summer months, then hauled by team and wagon to the church site all in one day in fall 1835. The new sanctuary had box pews with a door to each pew. By this time known as St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, it was dedicated on May 31, 1836. The sanctuary has undergone several renovations and additions since then.
St. Paul’s soon played an important role in the Anti-Rent Movement. The Helderbergs were settled in the 18th century under the patroon system, a form of feudalism, which imposed crippling rents and perpetual servitude owed to patroon Stephen van Rensselaer IV. The farmers of Berne and surrounding Towns were increasingly unwilling/unable to pay rent. On July 4, 1839, tenant farmers from throughout the Hilltowns met in the St. Paul’s sanctuary to organize against the patroon system and write a Declaration of Independence.
Following the farmers’ Declaration of Independence, sheriffs sent out to collect the overdue rent encountered direct conflict with local farmers. Anti-rent sentiment continued rising. The first Anti-Rent Convention in the state was held at St. Paul’s on January 15-16, 1845. Approximately 150 delegates from 11 counties, representing tenants of New York’s vast patroon estates, met here to discuss their common grievances. The following year, the state adopted laws that resolved some of the anti-rent issues and led to New York State Constitution revisions that abolished the patroon system. It was not until the 1880s, however, that the last farmers completed purchasing their land.
In 1873, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church was founded in East Berne, and a church built on land donated by Matthew and Mary Livingston. The reason for a second congregation is lost to history, but there are some guesses. One is so that members who lived in East Berne would not need to travel to Berne over the bad roads of the time, especially in inclement weather. Instead, only the pastor would make the journey between Berne and East Berne. Another possibility is that the “townies” of Berne disdained the farmers of East Berne, prompting the farmers to establish their own congregation.
Whatever the reason for two congregations in 1835, they consolidated again in 2010 and took the name Helderberg Evangelical Lutheran Church. The new congregation meets in the church building of the former St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Berne. The St. John’s facility was sold to Helderberg Christian School. To commemorate the unity of the former two congregations, the bell was removed from the steeple of each church and set into a free-standing bell tower built in the front yard of Helderberg Evangelical Lutheran Church (formerly St. Paul’s). The bell tower was dedicated in 2012.