SCHENCTADY – When Liberty Church was organized in 1922, services were held exclusively in Italian. Founded as an Italian Pentecostal church by Pastor Felix Rizzo, members of the congregation sat on milk crates and wooden boards when they met on the first floor of Rizzo’s home.
Today, services feature a full band playing contemporary music and are held in an 800-seat sanctuary equipped with webcasting equipment.
Yes, a lot has changed for the Albany Street Church—from its name to its location to the faces of its congregation. Yet for an institution celebrating its 100th anniversary at 6:30 p.m. Friday, with a memorial service featuring a walk-through museum to highlight the church’s history, many of the founding ideologies remain intact even as the church continues to evolve .
Liberty’s legacy lives on thanks in part to its senior pastor, Dennis Graham-Parker, who, like Rizzo, is an immigrant. Rizzo came from Italy. Graham-Parker grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and led a church in Kent, England before joining Liberty in 2017. He did not come to Schenectady Chance with his wife Wendy, a co-pastor, and two daughters. When Graham-Parker was in his twenties, members of the Schenectady Church, then called Calvary Tabernacle, visited his church in South Africa on a missionary trip. This began a lifelong connection and a handful of visits to Schenectady, including in 2010 to perform a wedding for two who met on that original missionary journey in the early 2000s. Graham-Parker, now 48, is the 14th pastor of the church.
As Liberty celebrates 100 years, Graham-Parker said it’s just as important to look ahead as it is to remember the past.
“A church will only survive if you take care of the young people. Because if you don’t, you’re lost. I value tradition, and so do we [as a church] appreciate tradition. But tradition doesn’t just cling to old things,” Graham-Parker said inside the modern sanctuary. A keyboard and drums on the stage and a sound system in the middle of the pews gave the room the appearance of a concert hall. “That makes our job difficult because as much as you want to be relevant, you don’t want to jeopardize the core message. So you have to bring those two things together.”
The 1922 Liberty Church, an Assemblies of God congregation, was previously called Calvary Tabernacle Church and moved from Strong Street to 1840 Albany St. in 1959. The church, with a current congregation of approximately 230, was expanded and renovated. In 2004, the site was expanded to 60,000 square feet and the new sanctuary was created. The original sanctuary, which still has the wooden ceilings and arches, now also has basketball hoops and has been converted into a common room.
Graham-Parker led efforts to change the name to Liberty Church in 2018, a move that signifies modernization. For one, changing Calvary Tabernacle was better for search engine results because the old name competed with other similarly named places of worship in the area, Graham-Parker said. But “freedom” should also mean modern thinking.
“People don’t want to be constrained by stuffy traditions these days, so there’s a little bit of freedom in the name,” Graham-Parker said.
Irma Martinez-Coyle, 41, who runs a homeschool co-op at Liberty that offers more than 70 homeschooling kids a once-a-week opportunity to study together, has been with the church for about a year. She said she felt welcome from the start.
“I wanted a church that was a little more diverse for my family, and this church has the heart of acceptance and diversity that we were looking for for our multiracial family.”
Last year, the church conducted a diversity study of its congregation and found that its members are 56% white, 25% black, 10% Hispanic, and 8% other members.
Shannie Surujpaul, originally from Guyana, came to the Church 13 years ago with her two young children and husband. They had attended another church in the area and were drawn to the diversity at Liberty.
“You should see it on Sunday,” said Surujpaul, 48, Liberty’s office manager and the self-described “bubbly” person who greets everyone before a service. “It’s such a diverse culture from around the world.”
But while Liberty celebrates the diversity that some of its newer members have brought with them, it hasn’t lost sight of its heritage on its centenary.
Surujpaul told Graham-Parker and his wife Wendy, “They run this church like giants, following and not forgetting those who came before them.”
The oldest members of the church have been part of the community for more than 80 years and have been members during Rizzo’s tenure. Rizzo retired in 1958. In 2020, the church bid farewell to member Yolanda Ricci, who was the longest-serving member at 102 years. Two current members in their 90’s were the last to marry in the Rizzo church.
Current congregational numbers are well below the more than 600 who attended church a decade ago. Graham-Parker said Liberty must continue to attract new members by being an active part of the community to keep its mission alive. For that reason, Graham-Parker said he’s proud that the church hosts everything from the cooperative to community meetings.
“Any opportunity to bring the community into our doors is fantastic,” said Graham-Parker. “That means we’re moving in the right direction.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
More from the newspaper:
Categories: Email Newsletter, News, What’s New, Schenectady, Schenectady County