Churches in Kittanning, Sugarcreek mark 200 years
In the early 1800s, a village on the banks of the Allegheny was coming into its own. Kittanning was establishing itself as America reached ever westward. The town was growing, and many immigrants and their children were calling it home.
Saddle up a sturdy horse and a good morning's ride northeast through dense woods would bring you to a colony of German immigrants hewing out a home in Fairview Township, Butler County. Industrious and determined, these men and woman were bent on conquering the land to make a new life.
So it was, 200 years ago, that these communities established churches that gave them a sense of stability and connection with their heritage. Each was a place of fellowship and renewal, and no respectable settlement could be without one.
Keeping the Faith
In 1813, Faith Presbyterian Church in Kittanning, and St. Paul's Community Church in Fairview Township held their first services. Early on a Sunday, you could walk into these churches and participate in a service today — two centuries later.
Their longevity has much to do with the people who established them and the passion of those who attend them each week in the 21st century.
Kathleen Davis, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church for the last five years, appreciates the history.
“A sturdy little band of Scots decided we needed a Presbyterian church in Kittanning,” she said.
They met in the courthouse, then found their own building and grew. But in 1885, a scandal caused a split.
“We are one of the few churches where the Presbytery threw out the elders for heresy,” Davis said.
What was the crime?
“They bought an organ, and the Presbytery said, ‘You people have to go.' The church split. The progressive branch started their own church and left the building.”
The split lasted 10 year, then all was forgiven — and every church had an organ.
Founded in downtown Kittanning, Faith Presbyterian (formally known as United Presbyterian Church of Kittanning until a merger in 1958) moved to its location on East Brady Road outside of West Kittanning in 1985. Davis says its unusual round structure makes it stand out.
About 10 miles up Route 268 from Faith Presbyterian is St. Paul's Community Church. The building sits a few miles from its starting place in Fairview Township. In 1813, German immigrants built a log cabin to house their place of worship. According to the history of St. Paul's United Church of Christ, in the 1840s or early '50s, a white-framed church was built. A heavy snow brought the roof downand a new church was built in Sugarcreek Township, just outside of present-day Chicora.
Lifetime member Marge Terwilliger, 86, says St. Paul's also dealt with a division.
“One of the ministers had turkeys. Somehow, the turkeys got out and started eating the parishioners' corn, and it caused a church split.”
Shocking church organs and poultry running afoul aside, the churches have stood the test of time, and those that hold St. Paul's and Faith dear can tell you why.
“I love the people,” Davis said. “I love the diversity here, totally across the board economically, conservatives, liberals. Every position held on any given issue is (represented) here on a Sunday.”
Davis believes that Faith's connection to the community through service projects is one of its strong points.
“One of our strengths, one of our best programs here, is Christmas for Kids, started in the 1970s. One of the women in our church started it, when industries were going under, and steel just disappeared.”
“People of the church, with their own money, bought clothes and toys, and people could come in and ‘shop,' ” she said.
The program continues, though now families submit lists of their needs.
Another community outreach is through Faith's Busy Hands/Caring Hands.
“We have eight to ten ladies who make things, primarily pillows, to send to the cancer center and the skilled nursing unit,” Davis said.
St. Paul's wants to connect with the community, especially the unchurched.
“I think right now, we want to reach unchurched people in the community,” said Marge Junker, a member of St. Paul's for 48 years. “Karaoke, preteen dances, and kite flying are open to the community.”
The Rev. Randall Forester affirmed that community outreach is of great importance to St. Paul's.
“Every month we have a spaghetti dinner, all the money goes to missions,” he said. “We send 25 meals per month to local families. We use it as a mission to local people.”
“It's about ‘How do we reach the current generation but still keep our heritage?' (Our services) are traditional, but we use Power Point, and we try to preserve our heritage.”
Foreign missions are a priority for both churches — St. Paul's has mission trips to Argentina and Guatemala, and Faith has connections with missions in Rwanda.
The churches have something else in common that accounts for their doors still being open when so many others are calling it quits: families with children and teens.
“I love our kids,” Davis said. “We have our children's and youth ministry, and while they are here, it is our job to teach them about their faith.”
Terwilliger remarked on the importance St. Paul places on involving the youth.
“We are taking young people to Guatemala. Young men have joined our church through that.”
“I'm looking forward to my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren being a part of this church. I have four generations coming to this church.”
So what would the churches' founders think of all that has transpired over the past two centuries?
“They would be very happy they started it,” said Mitzi Shultz, a St. Paul's member since 1957. “The people here are good people.”
Davis believes, “They would be struck speechless — not expecting an organ or a woman in the pulpit. But they would be pleased that the Word is still at the center of the service.”
Two hundred years since two settlements worked to establish a worship community, people fill the sanctuaries of Faith Presbyterian and St. Paul's Community churches to continue those communities of fellowship. The heritage of their ancestors remains vibrant, with no end in sight.
Kathleen Edwards is a Leader Times correspondent.