The early Presbyterians of Covington organized a congregation in 1841 under the leadership of the Reverend William Orr. Orr came to Covington in May of that year to open a school for young women. Orr preached in a rented room on Madison Avenue. The congregation was officially organized in November 1841 with 15 charter members. The first two elders of the congregation were Matthew McMurtry and William Ernst.
During the end of the year 1841, member William Ernst financed the construction of a temporary frame church building (25 x 40’) on Madison Avenue between 4th and 5th Streets. A more permanent brick church was erected in the following year on 4th Street west of Madison. The dedication of this new church took place on December 25, 1842. The congregation paid $3,500 to construct the building.
Reverend Orr stepped down as pastor of the congregation in 1844 to devote more time to his thriving school for young women (Orr’s Female Academy). The Reverend John Clark Bayless was named the second pastor of First Presbyterian Church. Bayless resigned in May 1854 and was succeeded by the Reverend John M. Worrall. Reverend Worrall remained at the Covington church until 1878. Under his guidance, the Second Presbyterian Church was established in December 1854 (later known as the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church). Reverend Worrall was also responsible for the construction of a new First Presbyterian Church in 1871-73. This new edifice was designed by the renowned Cincinnati architectural firm of Walter and Stewart. The red brick façade featured a spire rising 185’ into the sky. The total cost of construction amounted to $86,108.00. The church was located on West 4th Street adjacent to the First Baptist Church (also designed by Walter and Stewart 1870-1873).
The congregation continued to grow and prosper. In 1914, the young ladies of the church established an “industrial” school to train boys and girls in the domestic arts. Classes in basket weaving and sewing were held each Saturday afternoon. During the World War I era, sixty members of the church served in the armed forces. Three of these young men died in service to their country. The pastor of the congregation, the Reverend Hugh Leith, served as a chaplain in the United States Army.
The 1930s were a busy decade for the members of First Presbyterian. In December 1930, the tall spire on the church building was removed. This decade also witnessed the closing of the Sunday school program in the Austinburg neighborhood of Covington. First Presbyterian Church had sponsored this school for more than 40 years. The biggest event of the decade was the 1937 flood. Floodwater did considerable damage to the church building. Over 5’ of water destroyed most of the floors, woodwork and furnishings on the first floor of the building. In all, the congregation financed over $4,000 in repairs to the church building.
In 1941, the congregation celebrated its centennial. At this time, the basement of the church building was remodeled into a large assembly room and four additional Sunday school classrooms. The festivities of the centennial year were only damped by the United States entry in the Second World War. Twenty-two members of the congregation served in the armed forces during the conflict. Joseph Ehmet Jr. and Theodore Walker made the supreme sacrifice.
The neighborhood surrounding the church began to change in the 1930s. The 1937 flood and the construction of new suburban communities south of Covington convinced many members of the congregation to move. By the 1950s, the neighborhood had grown more commercial. Many of the congregation’s members no longer lived within walking distance of the church.
In 1955, Lakeside Presbyterian Church was established in the suburban community of Lakeside Park. First Presbyterian lost 23 members to this new congregation. By the mid-1950s, the church building on 4th Street was in a deteriorating condition. A number of members began discussing the relocation of the church to a more viable location. On January 9, 1957, the congregation voted to acquire a new location in a more suburban setting. A large tract of land was acquired between the Cities of Covington and Fort Wright on the Highland Pike. On this site, a new church was dedicated on September 17 1961. The last service to be held in the old 4th Street Church was conducted on September 10, 1961. The building was demolished in 1963 to make way for the construction of the Covington Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building.
A Brief History of the First Presbyterian Church, Covington, Kentucky 1841-1991 (in the collection of the Kenton County Public Library); Paul A. Tenkotte, Downtown Covington Churches (Covington, KY: Kenton County Historical Society 1986); Kentucky Post, October 30, 1914, p. 1 and November 11, 1930 p. 1.