First lighted church in Roselle celebrates 150th anniversary

Photo Courtesy of the Borough of Roselle
LET THERE BE LIGHT — The First Presbyterian Church in Roselle was the first church in the country to be outfitted with electric light. An electrolier, or electrically lit chandelier, from the original installation still hangs in the passageway of the church.

ROSELLE, NJ — Thomas Edison first brought electric light to the village of Roselle back in January 1883, when he was trying to prove that a town could be illuminated by power from a single generating station.

Roselle was chosen by Edison because it did not have any gas-powered lighting. Along with installing his incandescent light bulb, Edison installed a 30-bulb “electrolier” inside the First Presbyterian Church in April that same year.

While many aspects of 19th-century Roselle have changed, the electrically lighted chandelier still hangs in the passageway of the church, which is located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Chestnut Street.

“Our church has the distinction of being the first in the world to be illuminated by electric light,” said church secretary Elaine Rittinger in a phone interview with LocalSource on Oct. 9.

In 1949, the church suffered a devastating fire that nearly destroyed the electrolier along with most of the original church. Thankfully, the remains of the electrolier were saved and put into storage.

“The original fixture was made of brass and glass, with 30 lamps powered by 300-watt electric current bulbs,” Rittinger said. “They salvaged as much as they could.”
While the church was rebuilt shortly after the disaster, the electrolier was left in storage for almost 15 years. After much consideration, the church’s committee approached Lightolier, a company that manufactures a wide variety of light fixtures, to restore the electrolier. It was successfully finished in 1964, and has been hanging in the passageway of the church since then.

As part of the church’s 150th anniversary celebration in September, Mayor Christine Dansereau signed a proclamation in honor of its significance.
“It’s incredible that the church managed to save the electrolier during the fire,” Dansereau said in a phone interview with LocalSource on Oct. 9. “Even back then, they knew it was such an important part of Roselle’s history.”

During the church celebration on Sept. 16, which consisted of the church’s usual Sunday morning service and a special service in the afternoon, the electrolier and the church’s history were honored by the community.

“It’s safe to say that the electrolier is a huge part of the church’s community,” Rittinger said. “It sets us apart and tells so much about our history.”
According to Dansereau, the anniversary celebration was the perfect occasion to honor the church.
“I believe that we need to take a step back and appreciate our history every once in a while,” she stated. “Back in 1883, a dream became reality and not only for the village of Roselle, but for the entire world.”

The generator Edison built was originally located on the northeast corner of Locust Street and West First Avenue. However, after about 10 years, larger generating stations were built and a plaque was erected to commemorate the centennial of lighting in Roselle, according to “The Centennial History of the Borough of Roselle” by William Frolich and Helen Heumann.

The initial meeting of the First Presbyterian Church was June 12, 1868, making it the first church in the village.
“The churches are such a critical part of our history here in Roselle,” the mayor said. “We appreciate everything that they do and all of the history that they hold.”
Roselle officially became a borough in Union County in 1894, nearly a decade after Edison had brought electricity to the municipality.