July 12, 1970 - Education building ground-breaking ceremony
January 1979 - Some of Norfolk's Finest Architecture Stories
September 30, 1999 - New pastor called to First Presbyterian
December 3, 2004 - Rev. J. Shepherd Russell, Jr.

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July 12, 1970 -

Norfolk—Ground-breaking ceremonies will be held today for a $535,000-educational building at First Presbyterian Church, Colonial and Redgate avenues.

The event is the culmination of 11 years of research into the problem of renovating facilities of the church and constructing a building with funds from the congregation according to the Rev. Andrew R. Byrd, Jr., pastor.

The ceremony will take place at 10:50 a.m. after regular worship services. Present for the ceremony will be Dr. Mason C. Andrews, chairman of the long-range planning committee, and Linwood Parsons, chairman of the Building Committee.

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January 1979 - The Ghent Scene

"Some of Norfolk's Finest Architecture Stories"
By Tony Maygarden

First Presbyterian Church 820 Colonial built in 1911.

"There are a lot of meaningful memorials here at the church," said the church's present pastor, Dr. Andrew Reid Bird, Jr., recently. The church was built in 1911, and the history of the Presbyterians in Ghent goes back ever further than that. In Dr. Bird's words: "The people have the centuries worshiping with them.

The architects of the church was the firm of Ferguson, Calrow and Taylor which was located at the time the church was built at "733 Law Building." The architectural design was copied from a church in Scotland. The original was built of grey stone, but economic reasons forced its counterpart here in Ghent to be fashioned of brown brick.

The church seats 450, but it is so surprisingly large inside that even a full house would probably not feel cramped. The interior has many of the earmarks of a great gothic church. There is an immense high ceiling, large pillars on each side and beautiful stained glass windows.

On each side of the church are 19 working organ pipes, which add to the feeling of hugeness one gets while in the church.

As Presbyterian churches are, however, it is simply and plainly finished. The only thing in the church that could be considered elaborate is a highly decorated baptismal font.

The style of the interior is called Spanish Gothic, with a rich dark oak wood used throughout. The church's interior was completely done over in 1965, when a new roof was also installed. There have been no major architectural changes in the church since its inception.

There were some minor changes made to the interior when the church was refurbished. The choir loft was redone providing a larger youth choir, and elders benches were constructed in front of the church.

The outside of the church is dominated by the bell tower, which unfortunately, has no bell. Dr. Bird speculated that some day one might be given as a memorial. In any case, the tower is the church's most magnificent architectural feature. Its combination of horizontal and vertical lines provides an aesthetically pleasing picture worth remembering. When the shadows hit it just right it can be quite beautiful.

The church also has many stunning stained glass windows, all of which, except for the Tower Window which is made of Tiffany Favrile Glass dating from the first third of the century, were made by Henry Lee Willet of Philadelphia. Mr. Willet reportedly used mouth blown pot-metal glass and employed a similar technique as that used in the stained glass windows of the great cathedrals of Europe.

A booklet on the First Presbyterian stained glass windows says: "The windows do not serve so much to teach modern man, as to enhance his knowledge and inspire him spiritually."

Of immense interest are the eighteen or so memorials with which the windows were given. Among the names on the memorials are Royster, Rush, Moreland, Cooke, Joynes and Nelson. Many of the families who gave these beautiful memorial still reside in Ghent.

The First Presbyterian Church celebrated its 300th anniversary this year. While the church itself actually hasn't been around that long, its direct ancestors have been in one form or another.

Originally known as "The Church on the Elizabeth River," it was because of the times (around 1678) a church with no building. The first pastor was Rev. James Porter.

At the end of the Revolution, The Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom was passed allowing the congregation to build a church.

In 1800, the Bell Church, so named because it was the only church in the area that had a bell, was established, and around 1840 the Second Church was built across from St. Paul's on Church Street. Shortly thereafter, the two churches merged, forming the First Church.

During the Civil War, the First Church's pastor, Rev. George Armstrong, a staunch Confederate supporter, was imprisoned at Old Point Comfort at Hatteras. After his release he established the Second Church, and on October 13, 1901, the Ghent Church, was organized. Prior to this, the men's Joseph Brown Bible Class bought some land on Colonial and Redgate avenues, the site of the present building.

In 1902, the First Church merged with the Ghent Church, abandoning the building on Church Street, to form what is now The First Presbyterian Church.

In 1955 the church purchased more land on Colonial and Raleigh Avenues to enlarge and improve the church.

The present pastor, Dr. Bird, took over the pulpit in 1963. Dr. Bird was instrumental in keeping new members coming into the church. The church has held its own throughout the years, even during Ghent's hard times when the population of the area was becoming depleted. Presently there around 950 members in the church.

Dr. Bird stressed that the First Presbyterian Church is not just a "church with a building," but an active and alive church that wants to serve the community.

"The church is appealing to young families with children," said Dr. Bird. "Our youth choirs are particularly exciting, and we also have bell choirs."

Of the many community programs available at the church are three "local ministries." One is the Young Life program, which, under the directorship of Bill Clark, provides a meeting place for up to 200 young people. Another ministry is the "Lost and Found," run by Bill Bradshaw. This service lends a helping hand to alcoholics and derelicts in downtown Norfolk. The third ministry is a Christian psychological counseling service at the church. It is directed by Rev. Dr. William Hedrick.

One of the more interesting of the church's community programs is "Mother's Day Out," where every Wednesday mothers can bring their babies or toddlers to the church where they are watched, cared for and entertained while the mother goes shopping or runs errands.

At one time, before medical care was so involved and extensive as it now is, the church had a complete baby clinic, where the young children were taken care of both medically and academically.

September 30, 1999 - The Compass

New Pastor Called to First Presbyterian
By Dawson Mills

It only happens about once every 16 to 40 years but First Presbyterian Church has a new senior pastor, after a search that lasted almost two years.

The Rev. James "Jim" M. Wood, Jr., preached his first sermon on May 13 and was installed June 13 at the church on Colonial Avenue, which traces its roots to before 1678.

"It's exciting being here," says Wood, 41, who has previously pastored churches in Waynesboro and Allentown, New Jersey. "The church has a strong tradition that everyone wants to build on. It's great seeing the involvement in the community and the world.

"There is a real sense that God called us," he continues, referring to his wife, Sheryl, and their three son: Ross, 13; Adam, 9; and Zachary, 6. "There is a strong and overwhelming sense that this is where we're supposed to be. There is a feeling of real exciting opportunities."

Wood admits he didn't grow up in the church but was led to it by his wife of 18 years. After graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1980 with a degree in political theory, he first worked for a restaurant chain, rising to director of operations with responsibility for all of South Carolina.

"I was traveling three and four nights a week," he explains, "and I realized that what I was reading while out-of-town were things off of a pastor's bookshelf. And I wanted to know more."

That desire led him to quit his job and enter Princeton Theological Seminary, after having been out of the classroom for 10 years. The intent was to increase his own understanding but, while at seminary, he found himself called to full-time ministry.

"While at seminary at Princeton, things clarified," says Wood. "I worked at a church for two years as a student and they called me to be their pastor. And I've never looked back.

"It's one of the greatest gifts in life, to do what you want to do. Not a lot of people experience it. What I love to do is try to draw the church into all aspects of life. I love teaching, worship, and the mission component, having a family of faith go out and serve."

Wood's first church more than doubled its membership during his tenure. In Waynesboro, he introduced programs to bring the church more into every day life, while strengthening mission programs. This summer, he led a group from his former church on a mission trip to Guatemala, a commitment made before coming to Norfolk.

At First Presbyterian, with almost 1,500 members, Wood has introduced changes that are more evolutionary than revolutionary.

He has reintroduced the "Gloria Patri" into the worship service, after an absence of about 20 years. And, instead of sitting in the chancel, facing the congregation, he leads the service from a front pew, facing forward.

"I like the notion of being called from the congregation. I like the feeling of being drawn out of the congregation," he said. "And I enjoy being able to worship. It's a more meaningful worship experience for me."

Wood has also started weekly meetings among the staff to discuss theological issues, dubbed "Table Talk."

"It's sort of based on a book of stories about conversations of Martin Luther with his students," he explains. "It gives us an opportunity to talk about significant things instead of just things. It's a round-table discussion and it's voluntary. We invite everybody and it's been very well received.

Wood, who is finishing up his doctorate in literature at Drew University, says the transition is going well. "We have a great staff and from everything I see, the church is ready to keep moving forward."

Members of the congregation agree with that assessment. Federal Magistrate Judge Tommy E. Miller, of Chesapeake, recalls a Sunday shortly after Wood arrived when an elderly visitor became ill during morning worship.

"He got into the congregation," Miller says of Wood, "checked out the situation, calmed everybody down, and had everyone pray for the individual. He was in control. It was such a caring thing that he did. It really impressed me.

"He's such a positive person. In sermons, he's reaching out to all segments of the community. He's very open, with a positive view of God and religion."

Arline Commander, of Norfolk, is equally enthusiastic.

"We know he's the answer to our prayers,"she explains. "We have prayed that God would send the right man and he's the answer to our prayers. He's exactly what we need at First Pres."

Wood appreciated the welcome he and his family have received.

"The gifts of hospitality have been so overwhelming," he observes.

"This city is a wonderful place, with opportunities for recreation and for service. The church and congregation have so many strengths: adults, children, missions, worship. It's just been incredible."

December 3, 2004 - Virginian-Pilot

Minister Made a Name for Himself Among Presbyterians
By Carol Hanna Branch

Shep Russell had this uncanny ability to remember names. Not just the church members' names, but those of their children, mothers-in-law and pets.

It was a gift, people marveled.

"He would concentrate when he was introduced to someone," said Helen Winslow, an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, which Russell led for 16 years. "Then, he would find a connection."

These personal connections marked the life and 50-year ministry of the Rev. Dr. J. Shepherd Russell, Jr., "Shep" to everyone, until his death Tuesday at age 74.

"He was everybody's - not just ours," said son Feild Russell, also a Presbyterian minister. "He was blessed to be a blessing."

From leading a small church in Lake Waccamaw, NC, to First Presbyterian with its 1,300 members, Shep Russell never lost his personal touch.

Feild Russell recalled Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. "True hospitality came from both of my parents. Widow, widower, single person - we made them all part of our family."

While Shep Russell pastored, Jean, his wife of 52 years, directed the preschool at First Presbyterian.

Sometimes, he'd drop in to arrange the flowers at her staff luncheons.

As the Ghent neighborhood revived, young families poured into the congregation.

He guided them through tough times, like when a young mother died and a college student was killed in a car crash in the same week.

After retiring from First Presbyterian, Russell began helping Squires Memorial Presbyterian Church.

"He breathed some life into the church," said longtime member Nelda Pressly. "He was the age of a lot of us. We all have grandchildren."

And, of course, he knew their names, too.

During Shep Russell's three-year battle with cancer, "Squires was largely what kept him going," his son said.

When he became too weak to stand in the pulpit, he rested on a high stool.

Members of Squires prayed around the clock for his healing.

"I believe I'm alive today because of your prayers," Shep Russell told them during his last sermon on Oct. 10.

Although he'll be missed dearly, friend Jess Grimes said, "Saint Peter will be thrilled. Now Shep can help him with people's names as they enter heaven.

The Rev. Dr. J. Shepherd Russell, Jr. (1930-2004)

In January, he preached on heaven: "Frankly, for me there could be no happier place right now than a place free of pain and illness and death." A memorial service will be at 2 p. m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 820 Colonial Ave., Norfolk.

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