It was about 12 years ago that the Rev. Samuel Pendergrast met with the First Presbyterian Church of Rome Search Committee at Teddy’s Restaurant to be interviewed for the job of full-time pastor.
He would start as pastor that November, following in the footsteps of the Rev. Robert A. O’Meara, who served the church from 1972 until his retirement in 2005, and interim pastor, the Rev. Patricia Ashley, who served from 2006-08.
After almost a dozen years of service to the Rome community, Pendergrast announced his retirement as First Presbyterian’s 12th installed pastor. Pendergrast, who since March 19 has tolled the church bells at 108 W. Court St. to honor the victims and families of COVID-19, as well as essential workers and first responders, chimed the bells one last time at noon Thursday.
But Pendergrast won’t be off to the golf course or visiting exotic places at the start of his retirement. He has accepted a job as interim pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Cazenovia, a position he will start the day after Labor Day.
“I’m 65 and I decided I had done the work I came to this church to do, and it would benefit them to have a change in leadership. And I wanted to do different work,” said Pendergrast about his retirement. “As an interim for transitional ministry…I will lead the church in Cazenovia through a transition, as they take stock of who they are. I feel I have something to offer to churches for temporary transitional leadership.”
The Pendergrasts have no plans on moving out of Rome. He said wife Cynthia, a native of Iowa, is also currently enjoying her work as a long-time substitute teacher for the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central School District. The couple’s two grown sons reside in the Boston area.
As per his retirement celebration, “For a couple weeks” before beginning the job in Cazenovia, “I’m going to hang out at home, and my kids are going to come for a visit,” he said.
Famous in Rome for his cheesy Southern grits, Pendergrast was born and raised just outside Atlanta, Ga. He would attend college in South Carolina and then seminary in Louisville, Kty. He said he moved to Kentucky for seminary in 1984, and then moved here from Kentucky in 2008. Prior to that he and his wife resided in Iowa for a time.
Both sons decided to attend college in upstate New York — one at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the other at the University of Rochester — so when the position opened for a pastor in Rome, the Pendergrasts decided to take it into consideration.
“I was ready to make a change and find a church, so I expanded my horizons and found the church here in Rome,” said the pastor. “I actually like snow — I got used to the cold in Northwest Iowa — but it didn’t snow as much as it does here because it’s relatively dry in the Mid-West.”
After graduating college in 1977, Pendergrast struggled in deciding what he wanted to do with his life. His maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were pastors. His grandfather was also a lay preacher and elder, the same man he happened to be named after. Unfortunately, the pastor said he never really got to know his grandfather, as he died when he was just 1-years-old.
“I was a legend of my grandfather, sharing his name, and I had a sense I would follow in his footsteps, but I struggled with it, because I didn’t want to do it just because it was a family expectation,” said Pendergrast. “I wanted it to be my calling.”
“When I finished college in 1977, I worked as youth camp director and minister and then started seminary six years after I finished college — I was wandering and trying to learn what my direction was and realized, I’m a pastor after all,” he continued. “I grew up working in a church camp and continued after college for awhile, so I thought about being a camp director — thought about teaching...but after five years that I had been a pastor, I decided I didn’t want to leave this or do anything else. I’ve been ordained for over 33 years now, but I’ve worked in the church all my adult life doing other things, including camp work and youth ministry.”
Pendergrast said one of his most profound moments as pastor in Rome, was the funeral for Diana O’Meara.
“Because everyone knew Rick and Bob — Rick was in the state police — there were more state troopers at that funeral than I’ve seen in one place before, or since,” he recalled. “The church was packed, and people were standing in the lobby and outside. It was amazing that it was such a community event and how many people knew Rick and Diana. People were coming together to support a family amidst a loss to cancer at a young age.”
A highlight of his career was seeing the First Presbyterian Church of Rome’s Bethel Chapel undergo a complete remodeling. Included in the renovations was flexible furniture for multiple uses; and the parlor was renovated for fellowship events.
“A big highlight for me here was to be able to completely remodel our chapel — get rid of the pews, redecorate and include movable furniture so we can also use the space as a classroom and meeting room for various events,” said Pendergrast. “For a conventional church that didn’t change much over time, that was a huge transition, and today we make such great use of that space.”
As for relationships, the pastor said he has fond memories of his usual duties, or “ordinary things” that are part of the faith community, like performing community service, worship services, weddings, baptisms and funerals.
One thing that does stick in his mind, besides central New Yorkers’ love for being active in the outdoors during winter, is the community’s resilience.
“I have to tell you, I have noticed now seeing I’ve been here 12 years, thinking back, Rome was still pretty gloomy and depressed about the (Air Force) base leaving, and now that’s really changed,” Pendergrast beamed. “There’s new businesses opening, development housing...I think it’s been really encouraging to watch the community as a whole rebound with what happened in the 90s, and with all the mills closing and leaving before that.”
There is one special moment that the pastor said will always remain in his heart — when he was asked to join a Catholic baptism.
“Where I grew up outside Atlanta, it was thoroughly Protestant — in my upbringing, I didn’t meet Catholic people until the seminary at Louisville. So I get up here, and it’s really a heavily-Catholic culture, and I had to learn about that,” the pastor recalled. “But Father Hearn was one of the most welcoming, inclusive people I’ve ever known. One of my first Christmases here, there was a husband who attended church here, and his wife was at St. Peter’s. They wanted their infant baptized, and Phil asked me to take part in the baptism. He had me baptize the baby at St. Peter’s, and he even said during the service, it was the first time a Protestant pastor baptized a baby there. It was just such a warm, graceful and ecumenical thing to do. Here we’re all Christians and dedicating a life to God, together.”
Pendergrast said besides cherishing the memories he has of meeting and getting to know his parishioners and other community members, he will never forget the influence of two special ladies — Esi Simons and Nancy Weed. They helped talk him into hiking the northern parts of the Appalachian Trail.
“If I hadn’t come to Rome, I would not have met Esi Simons and Nancy Weed, who climbed the 46 high peaks of the Appalachian Trail,” he said. “When I was young, growing up in Georgia, I hiked the Appalachian Trail in the Southeast. Nancy Weed and Esi Simons learned this and got me interested in becoming a 46-er — climbing the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks — and in hiking the ADK Firetower Challenge. So I dedicate my completion of the High Peaks and the Firetower Challenge in memory of Nancy Weed and in honor Esi Simons. I started in September 2009 and finished in August 2014.”