Weekdays, the St. Helena schoolhouse was used for teaching three R’s—Readin’, ’Ritin’ and ’Rithmetic. On the Sabbath day, it became a church house, where a fourth R, Religion, was taught.
St. Helena was a charge of the Methodist Protestant Church at Brooks Grove, a hamlet four miles up the eastern hill. The Grove was named for General Micah Brooks, of Gardeau Reservation fame, who settled there in 1832.
The Methodist Protestant Church movement started in 1830 and a society by that name was organized at Brooks Grove in 1840. The church was built there in 1844-45 and Rev. Short was the first preacher. The Brooks Grove Church is served at the present time, 1954, by Rev. Harold Wigden, who with his family occupies the parsonage beside the church.
A powerful revival took place in 1837 at Oak Hill and River Road Forks, east of St. Helena. Sixty persons were baptized one Sunday in the river, south of the then new (1835) highway bridge, by Rev. Robbins, a Methodist Episcopal minister.
In the summer of 1856, before the new schoolhouse was completed, the church people, in and around St. Helena, wished to hold quarterly meeting services. The old school building was not large enough for the occasion and Milton (Squire) Burnap offered the use of his barn, near Main Street. At least once in the history of the valley, religious services were held in a barn. The meeting was very successful and largely attended.
Many baptismal services were conducted in the early days by St. Helena religious believers. In 1860 , twenty-eight candidates of the Methodist Protestant faith chose immersion and were baptized in the stream while the congregation stood on the shore and sang, “Shall We Gather at the River?”
The clear-sounding bell pealed forth its invitation to worshippers across the valley each Sabbath afternoon. Sunday school and preaching service were held at that time of day, because the minister was busy with the Brooks Grove services in the forenoon.
Among those who served were Reverends Short, Campbell, Wildey, Marshall, Bott, Leach, Rowe, Hughes, Woodard, Brownell, Pattridge, Poste, Taylor, Tryon, and Weaver. Reverends Wildey and Pattridge served the charge twice, Mrs. Bott is remembered as a “temperamental coloratura soprano.”
Usually, the minister was called “Elder,” and-even yet, when one’s name is recalled, he is given that title.
For the church services, the teacher’s desk was the preacher’s pulpit and the benches and seats were the pews.
When Edward E. Johnson lived at St. Helena, he was the church song leader. He used a tuning fork to get the proper key and then started singing the hymn with his sweet tenor voice. There were many talented singers in the valley and all of them worshipped their Creator through beautiful hymns.
Weekly prayer meetings were held, either at the schoolhouse or at nearby homes. Nathaniel K. Barton, a highly respected “Christian by profession and blacksmith by trade,” was leader of the midweek service, which he began, invariably, by singing his favorite hymn, “A Charge to Keep I Have.”
The ladies of the St. Helena Church did a great amount of home missionary work, making clothing for the needy and caring for the sick of the community. When death visited the valley homes, the kindly neighbors attended last rites for the deceased at the schoolhouse. The Methodist Protestant minister officiated and the Piper family loaned their little melodeon, which was carried across the way and used to accompany the funeral singers.
Source: Anderson, Mildred L. H, and Marian P. Willey. St. Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee, 1797-1954. Castile, N.Y, 1954. Print.