History of The Mission

In June 1967, three ministers returned to the North Country from a conference inspired to form an urban mission ministry here in Watertown, New York. Their vision was to have churches of all denominations working together to help our neighbors in need. They saw the need to empower people, beyond providing simple assistance, to rise above struggles in their lives.

The Story of Your Mission

Since 1968, 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 is hopeful and ready to serve long into the future.

Having wrapped up its capital campaign with $2.1 million raised by the start of 2014 and with a completed full-scale renovation within the same year, your Mission is set in its role as a beacon to neighbors in need because of the continued support of a growing number of donors.

Through individuals, businesses, churches and organizations, the Mission today operates six major programs, plus a thrift store, which make the Mission a vital part of the community. The leadership of the Mission, past and present, have said 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 served for many years thereafter on the organization's finance committee, said the campaign was “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,” said Mrs. Caswell, who passed away in 2014 shortly after the renovations were complete. “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 about 50 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 Watertown Daily 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 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 activities of the Mission. 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. More than 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 are provided more than 35,000 times each year.

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 Mission has not, said Erika F. Flint, who served as executive director from 2011 to 2015.

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.”

The article above is a revised version of a story originally published in the Watertown Daily Times on August 12, 2013. At the time the fundraising campaign known as Mission: Possible was still in full swing. The article was written by Drew Mangione, a former Times staff writer, who served as development director for the Watertown Urban Mission from June 2011 to August 2015.

ISAIAH 58: 6-11

"This the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.