On a beautiful Sunday in early October, the Rye Historical Society held the latest of its popular annual walking tours around Rye.
By Paul Hicks
On a beautiful Sunday in early October, the Rye Historical Society held the latest of its popular annual walking tours around Rye. The focus of this year’s walk, called “Estates of Grace: Religion in Rye,” was on the history and architecture of the city’s churches and synagogue. There is a very good synopsis of the tour information (researched and written by Gene and Pam McGuire) in a brochure available for a small charge at the Square House.
The strength of religion in the community, from its founding in 1660 to the present, has been due to the efforts of countless people of faith but no one has played a greater role than the Reverend Charles Washington Baird. He was one of the longest serving and most respected ministers of Rye Presbyterian Church, serving from 1861 until his death in 1887.
Born at Princeton, N.J. in 1828, Rev. Baird was the son of a well-known Presbyterian minister who worked in Europe for a number of years as a Protestant evangelist in France and other countries. Gaining fluency in a number of languages as well as a love of history at an early age, the younger Baird attended college at what is now New York University. After graduating in 1848, he continued his studies at Union Theological Seminary.
Following first in his father’s footsteps, he became chaplain of the American Chapel in Rome before devoting several years to writing books on church history and liturgy. In 1861, Rev. Baird was installed as minister of the Rye Presbyterian Church at the age of thirty-three, just as the Civil War was starting. During his tenure, the church grew in numbers and financial strength, and in 1869, the congregation approved construction of the first part of today’s church.
By 1872, construction was completed on the main church structure, topped by a tower and spire that reached to one hundred fifty feet in height. An earlier church historian, Barbara Abrams, noted: “Funds to pay off the $325,000 mortgage and build a manse were raised within only four years, aided no doubt by the eloquent sermons of Reverend Charles Baird.”
A sermon that Rev. Baird gave about the history of Rye and its Presbyterian Church at a Thanksgiving service in 1865 led senior members of his congregation to “respectfully solicit the manuscript for publication.” After six years of research and writing, he published in 1871 a “Chronicle of a Border Town, History of Rye, Harrison and White Plains, Westchester County, New York 1660-1870”. This detailed record of the first two centuries of colonization and development in this area is an invaluable resource for students of history at all levels. Reprints are available through Arcade Books in Rye, as well as online at Google Books.
An indication of why the author was so beloved by more than just the members of his congregation can be gleaned from the closing lines of the preface to his book: “With the hope that this humble chronicle may be found tolerably complete and accurate, I submit it to my fellow townsmen and especially to those whose desire for its preparation…has been my motive and inspiration in the work.”
Following the death of Rev. Baird in 1887, the Port Chester Journal reported on “The funeral of Rev. Charles W. Baird, D.D., the beloved pastor of the Rye Presbyterian Church, at Rye, N.Y…all the stores in Rye Village were closed and even housework was suspended, so universal was the grief and desire to manifest the respect that was felt for the deceased…It is estimated that 1,100 people were present…”
Emblematic of his generous support for the Rye community was his offering the use of the Presbyterian Church to the members and clergy of Christ’s Church for services when the Episcopal Church’s building was destroyed by fire in 1866. He and his wife gave to Rye a parcel of land that was located (near Citibank) at the intersection of the Boston Post Road, Grace Church Street and Milton Road, which for decades was known as “Baird’s Square.” It would be a fitting recognition of Rev. Baird’s great service to Rye for that small piece of property to be landmarked and to place there a suitable memorial of Rye’s “beloved pastor.”