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Butler's Covenant Presbyterian continues to reach out

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From left, the Rev. Robert V. Mathias, a retired Presbyterian minister, and Pastor James E. Swanson stand outside the Covenant Presbyterian Church along East Jefferson Street in Butler. The church is celebrating its 200th birthday beginning Sunday.

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By Bill Vidonic
Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Though the number of congregants at Butler's Covenant Presbyterian Church may be small, its commitment to reaching out to the community remains strong as it kicks off its bicentennial celebration Sunday, its pastor said.

“When we say, ‘All are welcome here,' we really mean all are welcome,” said the Rev. James E. Swanson, pastor of the church. “You can ask questions. Bring your minds to the church and also be fed good, solid preaching.”

The church is likely the oldest congregation in Butler County, according to a history account published in 1895. After establishing several prayer stations throughout Butler County in the early 1800s, the Rev. John McPherrin was installed pastor of the churches of Butler and Concord by the Presbytery of Erie on April 7, 1813, and began preaching at the Butler County Courthouse.

A stone meeting house was built in 1815, and the church was rebuilt in 1832, 1862 and enlarged in 1874. It was damaged three times by fires, Swanson said.

Visitors to the basement of the church can see some of the original hand-hewn beams used in the church construction, and the charring from one of the three fires.

Although the church at its height had about 1,200 members, it now has about 65 active members, and the average age of parishioners is the mid-70s. Swanson said that though the numbers are low, parishioners are generous to keep the doors open, and there have been members who have made bequests to help the church upon their deaths.

The church will host several activities throughout the year, including a Sunday celebration in which the Rev. Robert V. Mathias, a retired Presbyterian minister, will imitate McPherrin.

The church continues to offer programs to the community, Swanson said, including a food pantry and adult classes.

One pastor led a temperance movement, and evidence, including a crawlspace in the basement, makes the church believe it was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a network of routes and safe houses for escaping slaves before the Civil War.

For more information about the Covenant Presbyterian Church and its 200th birthday celebration, call 724-287-7731.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or

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