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Connellsville tours combine fitness, history

| Saturday, July 17, 2010

More than 50 people endured near 100-degree temperatures to combine exercise with learning about Connellsville's spiritual history during a walk on Wednesday.

The Fayette County Healthy Lifestyle Task Force, a volunteer group of health professionals, sponsors the walks, which take place at historic locations throughout the county.

"It's a walking series that combines fitness with our local historic treasures," said coordinator Cathy Kumor.

Connellsville's tour included seven Protestant churches, some with congregations dating to the 18th century. Church members provided details on the history of the churches as participants enjoyed a respite from the summer heat.

The walkers covered about 2 miles.

Cool water offered outside each church eased the heat.

"Pittsburgh Street used to be called Church Street," Michael Edwards, president of the Connellsville Cultural Trust, said at the beginning the tour. "You'll see why." Four churches on the tour — Connellsville Presbyterian, Wesley United Methodist, First Baptist and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — stand within a few blocks of one another, all on Pittsburgh Street. The other churches are Otterbein United Methodist, Trinity Lutheran and Faith Bible.

Connellsville Presbyterian

"We truly have a beautiful church," Karen Hechler said. "The Presbyterian church came about in Connellsville thanks to a lot of Scotch/Irish people. The Redstone Presbytery, of which we are a part, was the first west of the Allegheny Mountains, formed in 1781.

"Connellsville's Presbyterian Church organized in 1831. For the first seven years, the congregation met in other people's churches," Hechler said. The first church was dedicated in 1839, with the present church, at the corner of Green and Pittsburgh streets, built from 1914 to 1915.

Huge German stained-glass windows depicting the nativity and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane dominate two walls of the church.

"They were made during World War I. The tradition goes they were guarded part way by German submarines," Hechler said.

The windows were assembled in Columbus, Ohio, and offer special effects not commonly seen, including stained glass that looks like light shining down on the praying Christ. Soldiers can be glimpsed ready to arrest Christ.

"Depending on the outside light, a cow can be seen in the nativity window's stable," Hechler said.

Four smaller windows depict the resurrection, the road to Emmaus, Mary with the infant Jesus in a manger, and the parable of the good Samaritan.

Otterbein United Methodist

Lay minister Todd Reagan discussed the church's roots in Germany. The Connellsville congregation began as the United Brethren in Christ in 1901. The congregation kept growing and in 1916, an early Boy Scout troop — the second oldest in Pennsylvania — was formed by Reagan's grandfather, R.C. Witt. The troop remains active.

Otterbein continued to grow and built the present Sunday school building in 1933. The current sanctuary — a modified Gothic style — was built in 1959.

The history of the United Methodist Church involves mergers; in 1946 the United Brethren and Evangelical Brethren merged to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church, followed by a merger in 1968 with the United Methodist Church, forming the United Methodist Church.

Also in 1968, Central Methodist Church on West Apple Street burned.

"The congregation met here separately," Reagan said. "In 1974 they merged with this congregation and used their insurance funds to help establish Connellsville Area Community Ministries."

Reagan said the 12 stained glass windows in the church depict symbols from the birth to the resurrection of Christ. Before widespread literacy, stained glass provided worshippers with a way to understand the Christian story.

Otterbein remains committed to its historical mission.

"John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist Church in England," Reagan said. "He said the church has one job — to save souls. Our mission today hasn't changed that much."

First Baptist Church

Peter Jandura said construction of the First Baptist Church began in 1901. The church cost $25,000 and features a rare circular shape.

"It became nicknamed 'the black church,' because the stones turned pitch black from coal dusts," Jandura said. "It was sandblasted 75 years after construction."

Jandura said church members have not completed a history of the church's windows. "They are potentially Pittsburgh glass. Hand made with hand-painted faces. The resurrection of Lazarus window is an unusual theme. I've only seen three as 30 years as a glass artist all over the country."

First Baptist features a 1955 Wicks organ with 3,000 pipes. The instrument cost $15,000, organist Mark Jordan said.

Trinity Lutheran Church

Billie Sandusky said Trinity began as the English-speaking offspring of the city's German-speaking church, and was established in 1884.

"In 1908, the congregation purchased the present property and built the church in 1910 from silica stone quarried in South Connellsville. It's trimmed with Indiana limestone and cost $75,000 to complete. H.C. Frick donated the chimes, and the resurrection window in the chancel was a gift of Sarah B. Cochran. Andrew Carnegie donated the first pipe organ, which has since been replaced. Helen Clay Frick donated bells. All the stained glass windows cost $2,900," Sandusky said.

Tudor arches on the windows and doors with triple arches symbolize the Father, Son and Holy Ghost throughout the building.

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The Rev. Chris Stillwell said the denomination began 200 years when Presbyterian ministers Thomas and Alexander Campbell came to southwestern Pennsylvania "and began our movement, based on their own interpretation of the book of Acts, with a simple hierarchy led by members of the church. We have communion every Sunday. We follow no creed but Christ and we are not the only Christians, but Christians only."

Stillwell said the Campbells settled in Washington and invited everyone in the area to have communion. "It helped cut through old world denomination problems. In 1832, the Christian Church began in Connellsville, one of the oldest in the congregation. Alexander Campbell spoke at our beginning."

The first building was constructed in 1840, then sold to St. John's German Lutheran Church. The second building was downtown and the current building dates to 1898. The pews are original, but cushions have been added. Nearly all the church's windows are stained glass, visually narrating the Christian faith.

In the 1960s, the Disciples of Christ was formed to distinguish the denomination.

The denomination respects infant baptism for those who transfer, but practices immersion baptism of adults and children 12 or older who accept the faith. In the 1920s, Ross Showman helped paint the baptistry picture, which depicts the Jordan River.

Stillwell said a former YMCA building was once attached to the building and was torn down for a parking lot. That's why not all the church's bricks are tan.

Faith Bible Church

The Rev. Barry Witt, cousin of Todd Reagan, is pastor.

Witt said the church was built in 1904 as St. Emery's Hungarian Catholic Church. Its architectural style reflects Hungarian influences and stained glass windows include St. Peter, Joseph of Aramathea taking Christ's body from the cross, St. Emery, St. George and St. Nicholas.

When the Darr Mine exploded on Dec. 19, 1907, more than 110 of the 239 miners killed belonged to St. Emery's. "It must have been devastating. Nine or 10 of them are buried in Chestnut Hill Cemetery off Wills Road," Wills said.

Faith Bible decided to keep the windows, left behind when the church was decommissioned by the diocese in 1970. Faith Bible Church purchased the building in 1971.

"We're nondenominational and baptistic in doctrine," Witt said, pointing to the words painted on an archway above the chancel, 'Ye must be born again!' We do not recognize the saints as saints, but we have coexisted with the windows. They're historic."

Wesley United Methodist Church

Curt Franks said the congregation began in 1789. Zach Connell hosted the congregation in his riverside cabin and the congregation expanded from there. The first building was located where Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church now stands. A second building was started in 1840.

Another building was constructed in 1885 at West Apple Street and Meadow Lane. This structure remains and houses apartments and vacant commercial suites.

By 1921, the congregation continued to grow so much, work began on the present building, dedicated in October 1927.

In 1995, a fire gutted the sanctuary, sparing the wooden baptismal font.

"The lectern, the altar and the chairs all burned," Franks said, "but not the font. The fire destroyed the chancel and partially melted the cross, which bent in half backwards, showing us bowed but not broken."

A fire alarm spared the church from serious damage several years later. An arsonist started a fire at an outside entrance.

Wesley's bells ring from its tower every Sunday. The sanctuary seats 800. Sarah B. Cochran donated the $25,000 Austin organ, actually five organs. Franks said each can be played separately or together to form a Great Organ, "our most valuable asset."

Although the walk just scratched the surface of Connellsville's more than two dozen churches, it offered a unique opportunity for participants to experience the city's history, Kumor said. "You can get out and walk in Connellsville. Tourists do it in other states. Why not here• It's a beautiful place to walk."

The next Wednesday Walk will take place at 6:30 p.m. July 21 at Christian Klay Winery on Route 40.

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