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Urban Mission grows as it continues to assist those in need


Fourth in a series.



For 45 years, the Watertown Urban Mission has helped individuals and families rise above the challenges they face to find hope for a better tomorrow.

Today, the mission itself is hopeful.

With more than $1.5 million raised toward its $2 million capital campaign goal, the mission is poised to grow in its role as a beacon to neighbors in need because of the continued support of a growing number of donors.

Those who have made pledges or gifts to the mission and its campaign consider the organization to be a vital part of the community. The leadership of the mission, past and present, say that its history in the community parallels the work it does to help people get on their feet and contribute to society.

“What it seems to me has changed, is that people have accepted the Watertown Urban Mission as part of the community. We began as newcomers and moved through various stages of outcast,” said the Rev. James U. Cortelyou, the mission’s executive director from its founding in 1968 to 1984. “The mission is kind of coming into its own, from a position of dependency to one of actual citizenship in a community where it is on equal standing.”

The Rev. Mr. Cortelyou called it “astonishing” to see that the mission now owns a building and has been successful in raising funds to make it safer, more efficient and better suited to serve people in need. During his tenure, the mission moved from spaces it borrowed or rented in several locations across the city of Watertown, always struggling to make rent.

Margaret B. Coe, who served as an interim part-time executive director for a year and still is part of the organization’s finance committee, said the campaign is “long overdue,” for the exposure it has provided.

“The mission is wonderful. It’s fabulous. It’s what everyone dreamed would happen,” she said. “The campaign has raised awareness and that’s a really good thing. Not everybody understood that Watertown and Jefferson County cannot do without the Watertown Urban Mission.”

The mission’s first treasurer, Richard C. Williams, who volunteers at the mission every Tuesday in the food pantry, has seen this maturation over the past four decades.

“It’s amazing to know how little money we had to work with back then, and we were still able to make ends meet,” Mr. Williams said. “I never dreamed it would come to be this big of a deal. Boy, it really has. I think back to how it started, and it’s just amazing how it’s grown.”

Pamela B. Caswell, the mission’s executive director from 1988 to 2004, said the mission’s stature has grown because it has always adapted.

“I see the mission as staying responsive to the community,” Mrs. Caswell said. “I don’t see it as a static thing and I never have. It moves to meet the needs of the people it serves and the people who support the mission move it, too. The people who support the mission are its lifeblood.”


As the first executive director, the Rev. Mr. Cortelyou was a big part of shaping the vision of what the mission could be. The concept first was articulated in June 1967 by three Presbyterian ministers from Watertown who returned from a conference inspired to form an organization that brought churches together, across traditions and denominations, to help people in need who otherwise might not be served by other government and social agencies.

In just six months, the Watertown Urban Mission was formed with pledges of support from 15 local churches with varying traditions — Baptist, Catholic, Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Universalist. By June 1968, the mission announced the hiring of its first “Urban Minister,” bringing the Rev. Mr. Cortelyou in from Newark, N.J., where he had been active in fighting poverty while working as pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church.

Today, the north country has many examples of ecumenical unity among Catholics and Protestants of all denominations, from youth groups to worship services, but the mission has been at the forefront. In a letter to the mission’s leadership in 1993, Emmanuel Congregational Church’s pastor, the Rev. Graham R. Hodges, wrote that this unity was a “fantastic by-product” of the mission’s work.

“For the first time in its 160 year history, the Catholics and Protestants were officially working together,” the late pastor wrote. “Yes, prior to the Mission they belonged to the same golf clubs, went to the same social clubs and mingled socially. But their official togetherness was meager if at all, depending on individual priests and ministers.”

Today, the mission has 46 member churches from across Jefferson County. In recent years, new churches have come on board to continue the tradition of giving support “to make the compassion and reconciling purpose of God felt where ever there is human need,” as the organization’s mission statement says.


But that support system has grown from just churches in the early years to many individuals, local businesses, service clubs and granting organizations. Sales at the mission’s thrift store fill in the gaps and there is some government funding, but only one existing program receives a majority of its funding from a government source.

The mission’s support “has been building in a really positive way. We concentrated on building that support,” Mrs. Caswell said. “I think we’ve been successful not in changing the world radically, but we’ve moved things bump by bump.”

In the early years, according to Times archives, the mission’s work centered on activism. The newly formed organization spoke out on issues of poverty ranging from housing and the treatment of inmates, to the plans for Thompson Park to ensure facilities were available to families of all income levels. The mission’s office was in Asbury United Methodist Church. Help was given with what little resources could be afforded in that first $13,000 budget, but as the Rev. Mr. Cortelyou said in a Sept. 5, 1968, article in the Times, the mission sought to “be sensitive and articulate the needs of the poor.”

“In the beginning, we were pretty frugal. We were just a concept at first, and we weren’t sure what the concept should be,” the Rev. Mr. Cortelyou said in a recent phone interview. “So, we went to the poor and said, ‘Tell us what it’s like.’ We didn’t know. They told us how one woman with five children gets assistance and another with five children didn’t. We discovered that even though we still knew nothing of public assistance, we knew it was a mess.”

The mission worked closely with a grass-roots welfare-rights organization, which also was led by the Rev. Mr. Cortelyou, to help people navigate the social services system and get the help they needed. The mission provided some basic assistance similar to the current critical-needs program, but with little revenue and no significant operating space, advocacy became the focus.


In the 1970s, the Urban Mission had its share of successes and failures, programs that remain and programs that depended on grants that eventually dried up. The mission’s early work in housing formed the cleverly titled duo of programs known as ACT NOW – the Action Coalition Taskforce on the north side, and Neighbors of Watertown on the south side of the city. Today, the mission’s grant-funded HEARTH program helps the homeless or those in danger of losing their home to find housing, still working closely with the independently run and successful Neighbors.

The Impossible Dream Thrift Store is one of the long-standing programs. It started in 1973 as a communal project of the Welfare Rights Organization and became a program of the mission a year later. The store provided the community a place to donate “time-tested furniture” and “experienced clothing,” while giving cost-conscious shoppers a great deal. Forty years later, the store continues in this tradition with the name it received because naysayers said it was an “impossible dream” that would never last.

Jobs Unlimited was one of the grant-funded programs, which supported putting the chronically unemployed and “ex-offenders,” as the Rev. Mr. Cortelyou titled those just released from prison, to work in the thrift store, on NOW rehabilitations, home energy efficiency projects, tree cutting, furniture refurbishing, snow removal and more, including odd jobs at homes in the community.

While these programs helped select individuals, the mission’s programs started to become more broad-based with the thrift store, the opening of a food pantry in 1975 and the formalizing of a critical-needs program in 1986 with its own client advocate apart from the executive director. Also in the 1980s, the mission added new programs, including the Bridge Program, which continues a tradition of helping those facing jail or prison time, and Christian Care, which continues to welcome people and offer self-development opportunities. With these changes, services went from reaching hundreds of people 30 and 40 years ago to several thousand in the early 1990s.


By the close of 2002, still more than a year before the mission moved into the former Halley Electric building on Factory Street, the agency served individuals more than 10,000 times each year. That number has since more than tripled, as services were provided more than 35,000 times in 2012, according to the mission’s latest annual report.

Mrs. Caswell said the move to Factory Street was necessary because more people were in need of help, but the actual increase was not predicted to be as great as it has been.

“Times were changing,” she said. “It was a good thing that we were able to be (on Factory Street) with expanding services. Times have gotten much tighter, but we’ve gotten more organized.”

Mrs. Caswell said the programs got a big boost from her successor, the late Mary M. Morgan. She said Miss Morgan, who had worked her entire career in the Department of Social Services before leading the mission from 2005 to 2011, enjoyed the freedom afforded to the mission because it was not dependent on government funding.

While the programs have changed over the years, the core focus of the Urban Mission has not, said Erika F. Flint, who has been executive director since 2011.

“The mission has always worked to give people what they need to help them improve their lives,” Mrs. Flint said. “I don’t think it’s ever been about the thing a person receives, whether its food, clothing, a home, a job or anything else. It’s about hope. Everyone needs help along the way. Some of us got the boost we needed from a strong family, but for many in our community, the mission is their family, nudging them every day toward a better life.”

Donations and pledges to the “Mission: Possible” Capital Campaign can be sent as a check or money order payable to Watertown Urban Mission, with “capital campaign” written in the memo line, to Watertown Urban Mission, 247 Factory St., Watertown, N.Y. 13601.

Donations also can be made and pledge forms found online via the Mission’s website,

Andrew G. Mangione, a former Times staff writer, has been development director for the Watertown Urban Mission since 2011.

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