History of Highland Presbyterian Church
Highland Presbyterian Church is the oldest church in the Cherokee Triangle area of the Louisville Highlands. It grew out of a Sabbath school for children and an adult prayer group, which first met in 1873 in the Baxter Avenue home of Mrs. John A. Larrabee, wife of a Louisville physician.
Mrs. Larrabee’s father, W.H. Bulkley, and Joseph P. Gheens, first superintendent of the Sabbath school, also had important roles in establishing Highland Presbyterian Church.
In 1876, Gheens arranged for a frame Sabbath school to be built at the church’s current location, Cherokee Road at Highland Avenue. That building also served as a mission church, and when Highland Presbyterian Church was formally organized May 15, 1882, the wooden building was its first home. The first congregation consisted of 25 communicants who transferred their memberships from four other Louisville Presbyterian churches of the era, First Presbyterian, Second Presbyterian, College Street and Warren Memorial.
Under the leadership of Highland’s first pastor, Alexander Doak McClure (1882-1888), the wooden building was moved to the back of the lot in 1887 to make room for a brick sanctuary. Built in the shape of a Greek cross, the sanctuary was a recognizable, but small, portion of today’s sanctuary and included the tower and main entrance.
The sanctuary was dedicated on July 1, 1888, the same day that the Highland installed its second minister, Robert Ernest Caldwell (1888-1892).
As the congregation grew under the ministry of Thompson McDonald Hawes, Highland’s third pastor (1893-1919), the sanctuary was enlarged twice, in 1904 by adding alcoves on the sides and front of the building, and again in 1908 to extend the building south, to its present size. Under the Hawes ministry, Highland also greatly expanded its mission activities, including support for foreign missionaries in China and Korea and home missionaries in Eastern Kentucky.
The ministry of Peter Henry Pleune, Highland’s fourth pastor, lasted from 1920 until 1948 – the longest tenure of any of the church’s ministers. Even after he retired, he remained on the staff as pastor emeritus, serving in the role of an associate pastor for another decade. After the church’s original wooden Sunday school building had been enlarged several times, it was replaced in 1930 by the two-story brick structure adjacent to the sanctuary. It was named in memory of Dr. Hawes.
William Avery Benfield Jr. became Highland’s fifth pastor in 1949 and continued his ministry until 1958. Church attendance at Highland increased dramatically as it did throughout the country during the post-World War II era. To cope, the church created two Sunday morning worship services and eventually built an additional Sunday school building. A weekday school was begun in 1949. Suggestions to move the church elsewhere, where more space for expansion would be available, were debated several times over the next two decades, but always were rejected in favor of remaining in the Cherokee neighborhood.
Conrad G. Crow became assistant pastor in 1956. The senior citizens program was begun under the leadership of Mrs. Addison Smith in 1956. Highland's 75th Anniversary was celebrated in 1957.
Henry Pope Mobley, Jr. became the sixth pastor of Highland in 1958. The following year, Charles M. Hanna, Jr. came as an associate minister.
The Walker-Nevin Education Building was dedicated in 1960 for the elementary grades of the church school and for the Weekday School.
Miss Alice Louise Moffett became the Director of Christian Education in 1961. Miss Jan Wiest (now Mrs. Eugene Ward) became the organist the same year.
In order for mothers of young children to attend a daytime circle, the church nursery was extended about 1962 into the Mother's Day Out program, with Mrs. V.C. Rankin keeping the pre-school children. She served for 21 years. This program initially grew to two days a week with about one hundred children attending and expanded to two other churches for three other days a week.
In 1964, Leon Rapier replaced Maurice Laney as director of music. Herbert Pixley, Jr. joined the staff as an assistant minister in charge of education when Miss Moffett left in 1964.
The memorial organ was installed and a dedication recital was held on June 5, 1966. On one of the wood pipes of the organ is printed: "Vias mia dirigat Christus dum in sylvia muto. Nunc morte canta." When translated, it says, "Christ directed my ways while in the forest I was mute. Now in death I sing." A plaque and memorial book, located in the vestibule of the sanctuary, list the names of those in whose memory funds for the organ were given.
When new carpet was laid in the church in 1965, it was apparent that many of the pews were in bad condition. Plans were begun to replace them. Radial pews of solid oak construction were not available, so a plan was devised to change the aisle locations, using straight pews. They were installed in April, 1972. Some of the old pews were given to Trinity Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the west end of the city.
Hanna resigned in 1967 to become the executive secretary of Transylvania Presbytery.
In 1968, Robert Pickens Davis was called by the congregation as associate pastor. Before he arrived in June, Pixley tendered his resignation.
Robert Leon Carroll, Jr. joined the staff February, 1970 as associate minister with main responsibilities in Christian education. Lee Carroll served until July, 1975.
Several churches in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville began a cooperative venture in 1970 as the result of a survey indicating the needs of elementary-grade children, which were brought on by a changing sociological pattern of the neighborhood. The Presbytery of Louisville gave generous support for four years as an experimental ministry. In 1971, Highland Church joined the group which now includes 20 churches and a ministry that includes all ages, conducting a day-care center for infants and another for older adults. It is known as Highlands Community Ministries.
Need for off-street parking space led to the purchase of land on Watkins Avenue (which was only an alley) in 1962. Traffic tie-ups on Highland Avenue became so critical by 1973 due to the Weekday School and Mother's Day-out programs, that the church paid to have Watkins Avenue widened and paved in 1975. At the close of the year, a lot on this street and in the corner of the parking lot, which the Church had wanted many years, was purchased.
James Owen Chatham became pastor of Highland in 1981 when Dr. Mobley retired. Associate pastors under Dr. Chatham have included Paul Frelick, Whit Malone, Elizabeth Kaznak-Trexler, George Spransy, Joel Weible and Melissa Head.
Highland always has practiced involving itself with the world around it. Beginning in 1983 it established a relationship with West Chestnut Baptist Church designed to proclaim the need for racial unity in the city. This led to yearly worship services shared between the two congregations, the yearly joint Court Education Project in the district courts in downtown Louisville, and the ongoing Atkinson Readers program which pairs church members from both congregations with elementary school children as "reading buddies."
Beginning in 1990, the Kentucky Refugee Ministries established residence in the church and, at the peak of its work, brought over five hundred international refugees per year to the Louisville area, acclimating them to a new culture and lifestyle.
In 2001, the church purchased the former Parr's Rest retirement home across Highland Avenue from the church. In 2007, a capital campaign was launched to renovate the building which was re-named the Pleune-Mobley Center in honor of former pastors Peter Henry Pleune and Henry Pope Mobley. The campaign, "Blueprint for the Future," raised in excess of $3.2 million. In addition to providing space for youth programs and church meeting space, the building now houses the programs and offices of Kentucky Refugee Ministries.
After Dr. Chatham retired in 2002, Fairfax Fullerton Fair was called to serve as Pastor. Her installation was held on June 20, 2004. In 2008, the Rev. Doodle Harris joined the church staff as Associate Pastor for Youth and their Families. Dr. Fair resigned in May, 2011 to accept a call as Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dr. Cynthia Campbell, president emiriti of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, began serving as Interim Pastor on September 1, 2011.
Members of Highland, including many business, political and arts leaders, are committed to "answering God's call" and dedicate themselves to activities which benefit the community. Highland is the mother church of three other churches: James Lees Memorial (1893), Bardstown Road (1907), and Highland Park (now dissolved).
Today, the Church, with a membership of more than 950 continues to be a bustling place of service and dedication. Highland Presbyterian Church's Weekday School, under the direction of Ann Lacy, continues to operate for preschool through kindergarten children. The Parent's Day Out program operates four days a week offering needed care for children and "time-out" for moms and dads alike! Kentucky Refugee Ministries continues to be housed at the church, and Buckhorn Children and Family Services also uses space at the church. Highland Presbyterian Church is the meeting place for many adult education and self-help groups throughout the week and is an active participant in the Cherokee Triangle as well as in political and community gatherings.
Even with our long history, one thing has not changed about Highland Presbyterian. That's the spirit of all who worship here. We are "Ordinary People Answering God's Call." Please join us!