Hempfield church gives thanks for its founding in 1772
Celebrating 240 years of worship is a milestone that lights the spiritual future of Harrold Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church.
“It was a delight to be there for the two services (last) Sunday,” said Bishop Rev. Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, which oversees the Hempfield church that began in 1772 with German settlers worshipping in a nearby one-room schoolhouse.
The first recorded events of the church were baptisms performed by Lutheran lay minister Baltzer Meyer, a schoolmaster.
The settlers began building a log structure to hold their services but had difficulty finishing the building, mainly due to Indian attacks, according to the church's history.
“To me the joy of being there with the congregation of the longest existing church in the synod, and highlighting the past, was setting the intention of looking ahead for a bright future,” Kusserow said.
The celebration recognized the church's retired pastor, the Rev. Reinhold “Dutch” Weber, and his 65-year anniversary as an ordained minister.
As the pastor in 1955, Weber was shepherding two separate congregations, German Reformed and Lutheran, when they made a decision with a lasting impact.
The two factions had split in 1885. In Hempfield, a second church was built nearby.
The church was separated for 70 years, until Weber began serving both congregations.
He said the moment is seared into his soul when the vote was taken to return to one body that would worship together.
“I still remember that Sunday afternoon vividly when the two church councils were meeting,” said Weber, 91, who is still active in the church and the Passavant Retirement Community in Zelienople, where he now resides.
“When one member brought up the motion to become one church, my heart was beating so hard ... it was an unusual experience,” he said. “It was the Lord working in mysterious ways and an enormous lift in spirits to unite the two factions.”
Weber enjoyed returning last weekend to see many of the couples he married throughout the decades.
“I am thankful to the Lord for every day. I feel so strongly about it .. the Lord has been so very good to me,” he said. “If I felt any better, I'd be 100.”
After the loss of his wife of 67 years, Lois, three years ago, Weber has kept busy writing to family members scattered across the country when he's not helping others. He has four children, including an adopted Korean son, nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
“Pastor Weber did a great job,” the current pastor, the Rev. John Smaligo said before the celebratory weekend. “I think it's also good to know that there are members of this congregation, who were here at the time of the merger, who hold him in high regard.”
Despite its age, the Hempfield church is growing.
“We are in a very strong growth mode in this church,” Smaligo said. “We have a balance of new families and long-standing members who work and worship well together.”
In addition to new members who joined earlier this year, 10 new families have become part of the church within the last two weeks.
A Saturday evening service had to be added in January to accommodate additional worshippers, Smaligo said.
Other visiting celebrants for the anniversary services included a pastor emeritus, the Rev. Robert Free; a former intern, the Rev. Elaine Hower of Lower Burrell; the Rev. Michelle Nicodemus of Ohio, who grew up in the church, and Michelle Kunkle, another former member who serves as the Christian education director at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Irwin.
Rose Domenick is a freelance writer.