Urban Mission - A History

“True to the foundation upon which it was built, Urban Mission continues to be a collaborative effort,” said Dawn Cole, the Mission’s executive director (2018 – current).  “Programs and partnerships evolve in alignment with community priorities, making the Mission as relevant today as it was in 1968.”

The inspiration behind the Mission was first articulated in June 1967 when three Presbyterian ministers set out to form an organization that brought together the faith-based community to provide support to those not otherwise served by government and social agencies.  From humble beginnings in a shared office within Asbury United Methodist Church and an annual budget of $13,000, the Mission’s first executive director, the Reverend James Cortelyou, transformed the idea of ecumenical collaboration into action. 

In those early days, the Mission focused largely on advocacy, helping people navigate the social services system and get access to needed services.  During the 1970’s, the Mission expanded programming with the formation of ACT NOW, an action coalition taskforce and Neighbors of Watertown, an entity that would later operate independently.  Over the next couple of decades, additional programs were introduced, including the Food Pantry, Impossible Dream Thrift Store, Critical Needs, HEARTH, Bridge and Christian Care.

Recognizing a growing need for services, Pamela Caswell (executive director, 1988 – 2004) continued to build on the Mission’s program offerings.  Under Ms. Caswell’s leadership, the Mission found a new home at the former Halley Electric building on Factory Street.  Soon after, Mary Morgan (executive director, 2005 – 2011) took the reins, bringing with her a wealth of experience having worked in social services for several years.  Erika Flint (executive director, 2011 – 2015) led the charge to completely renovate the Mission’s facility, orchestrating a hugely successful capital campaign that raised more than $2 million.  Joanna Loomis (executive director, 2015 – 2018) introduced the Mission to “Bridges out of Poverty” concepts, working closely with community leaders to bring the “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-by World” workshop series to the north country.  The Mission’s current executive director Dawn Cole has furthered the Mission’s commitment to “Bridges out of Poverty” with several new initiatives to include Getting Ahead & Staying Ahead in the North Country and Building Economic Stability for Tomorrow (BEST).  In its latest endeavor, the Mission established a Community Assessment and Resource, or CARE Center, a one-stop shop offering access to numerous programs at partner agencies. 

Today, the Mission has an annual budget of $1.9 million with a staff of 18 professionals operating as many as ten different programs.  While advocacy remains a piece of the Mission’s overall work, programming has expanded to include a wide range of supportive services, all designed to help people build resources and work toward a higher quality of life. 

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“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.”


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.”

​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.”

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.”