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Early History of the Geneva Family YMCA

September 20th, 2019

By John Marks, Curator of Collections

The Geneva Family YMCA is a local institution. Genevans of a certain age have memories of the Castle Street building. People of a more recent age, i.e. since 1971, grew up at the William Street building. The swimming pool is a big part of memories of both locations. Gymnastics, other youth sports, and after school care are other common experiences.

portrait of a man in a beard

George Williams

What are the YMCA’s roots in the United States and Geneva? In 1844, George Williams  and a group of young men in London, England formed the Young Men’s Christian Association. They were part of the country-to-city migration during the Industrial Revolution. They moved to the city for jobs, but also found long working hours, poor housing conditions, crime, and immorality. The YMCA’s goal was to offer places for Bible study and prayer that led toward salvation and away from sin.

In 1851 Boston opened the first YMCA in the United States, followed closely by other large cities. Geneva didn’t face the large-scale problems of overcrowding and crime, but its citizens were concerned about sin and salvation. On January 31, 1886, a group of young men met to consider “the feasibility of forming an organization of Christian Young Men of all denominations, to work for the interest and attendance of young men of the village who were non-attendants upon church services.”

photo of street with buildings on both sides

Seneca Street looking west from Exchange Street – #7 in the left foreground

 

Two weeks later, about 75 men became members of the Young Men’s Christian Union. Sunday afternoon meetings were first held in rooms above the New York Tea Store at 7 Seneca Street, then moved in April to the Business College on Linden Street. Meetings were well-attended, but the group wanted to reach more men.

This is from the Spring meeting minutes of 1886:

 

It was felt that something more was needed than simply an organization and assembling on Sabbath afternoons for religious service. It was seen that the work must be aggressive, and that in order to accomplish the end in view, viz. to save young men from sin and death, legitimate methods and inducements must be brought to bear to counteract the evil influences which surrounded them. And with this end in view it was determined to provide pleasant and attractive rooms, furnished with good literature, suitable to different tastes and ages, innocent games and amusements for recreation, a social place for meeting and a gymnasium for physical development.”

In September the members voted to join the New York State Association of the Y.M.C.A. and changed their name and constitution. A committee looked for “rooms centrally located and adapted for our purposes,” while money was raised “for apparatus and furnishings” for said rooms.

 

photo a church on a street corner

Scotch Reformed Church

 

A suitable home was found in the former Associate Reformed Church on the corner of Castle and Genesee Streets. Built in 1831, the church had been formed by Scottish immigrants as a conservative branch of the Presbyterian denomination. Locally, it was known as the Scotch Reformed Church. The congregation became the North Presbyterian Church and left the Castle Street building in the mid-1870s.

 

 

photo a men standing in front of a building

YMCA on Castle Street (the former Scotch Reformed Church de-steepled)

The YMCA opened in “the Old Scotch Church” in March 1887. By 1891, a committee had formed to think about a new building on the site. The Castle Street building people remember, and that still stands, opened in 1894.

At the end of September, an exhibit on the past and future of the Geneva Family YMCA will open in the Hucker Gallery and also at the Y on William Street. Visit one of these locations to learn the full history of the Geneva Y!

2 responses to “Early History of the Geneva Family YMCA”

  1. Jack Bryan says:

    I don’t live in Geneva. Where on Castle Street is the former Scotch Reformed Church building? What is it used for now?

    1. Anne Dealy says:

      It is hard to see the label in the image above, but the church was on the corner of Castle and Genesee Streets. The YMCA tore it down to build their 1894 building that still stands there.

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