Armagh-Seward Presbyterian Church observes 50th anniversary of merger
Though the Conemaugh River separates their communities, a common faith allowed members of the Armagh and Seward Presbyterian churches to join together a half century ago.
The resulting Armagh-Seward Presbyterian Church, which was dedicated July 6, 1963 in Seward, will mark its 50th anniversary with a special service on Sunday.
The congregation first will gather at the site of the former Armagh church, in the Armagh Cemetery along Route 56, for a 9 a.m. service meant to acknowledge the history of its member families.
The group then will head to the church in Seward for breakfast prior to the 10 a.m. worship service. Dedication of a Founders Memorial Garden will follow to honor members from both congregations who helped bring the two churches together.
One man whose family history is deeply rooted on the Armagh side of the merged church is Craig “Buck” Fry of Armagh. The 68-year-old was baptized at the Armagh Presbyterian Church and is a life member of the merged church. He's been instrumental in gathering historical information and has played a large part in developing a memorial at the site of the Armagh church, which was razed several years ago.
“I was brought up the old way, when men wore suits and ties and women wore their Sunday best,” Fry said, noting that isn't the norm today.
Armagh Presbyterian Church — originally Wheatfield Presbyterian Church — got its start in 1786. In 1792, Rev. George Hill became the first installed minister for the Wheatfield church and for two others to the south — Fairfield, now known as Ft. Palmer Presbyterian Church, and Donegal, now Pleasant Grove Presbyterian Church. The traveling soon proved to be too much for Hill, who resigned from the Wheatfield sector in 1798.
Over the next 20 years, the village of Armagh began to flourish and, in 1820, a log church was erected in the community. It was replaced by a white frame church, constructed in the winter of 1835-36. A manse that was added later eventually was sold in 1933. The Armagh congregation grew from about 40 in 1831 to 96 in 1843.
In 1880, two Sunday schools were being held — one in Armagh and the other in a schoolhouse at Nineveh, which soon developed into the Seward church.
The Seward Presbyterian Church formally organized in 1901, with 33 members.
Rev. H.S. McCutcheon, called as the Seward church's first pastor, also handled duties at the church in Armagh. From that point on, Armagh and Seward have been served by the same pastor, with the exception of 1940-1963, where records show the Armagh church had supply ministers. McCutcheon resigned from both churches in 1903.
The Seward church building was dedicated on May 21, 1905. Subsequent bequests from deceased members allowed major renovations from 1938 to 1940. By 1949, the manse was built at a cost of $16,118. It has been rented out since 1996.
Rev. W.H. Nicholson, who served at Armagh and Seward from 1929 to 1955, stands as the two churches' longest-serving pastor.
Declining membership at both churches led to the call for a merger, which was approved by congregational votes on June 12, 1963. The combined congregations totaled 163 members.
Current pastor Rev. Rick Corbett accepted his call with the church on July 1, 2004.
After the merger, worship services were held in Seward. The Armagh church was used for community functions including Boy Scout meetings until the building's demise in 2004. A tractor-trailer that had been involved in an accident veered off the road and hit the old church building. Part of the resulting insurance payment was used to demolish the rest of the structure.
The bronze bell that for years had rung from the belfry of the Armagh church sat in storage at the Seward church manse until six weeks ago.
In 2011, a stone marker was dedicated at the site of the former Armagh church. The congregation has since been raising money to add the bell to the memorial. Fry said plans are to feature the bell at the 50th anniversary service but a timeline for installing it at the Armagh site will depend on the weather.
L&S Machine Co. in Latrobe volunteered to have the aged bell sandblasted and painted with a clear protectant coat.
“It looks good,” Fry said of the bell, which has a green patina. “When it left here, it was black.”
Fry said a brick border will be placed around the bell along with a small roof to protect it from the elements.
Fry has many fond memories of growing up in the Armagh church. He recalled there was a table used for Sunday School classes that held a secret — a sandbox inside.
Services were at 2 p.m., and on hot summer afternoons, women would pick up paper fans provided by local funeral homes at the ends of the pews,
Kim Fuller of New Florence began attending services at the Armagh-Seward Presbyterian Church in 1977, when she was 16, though her family frequented the Ft. Palmer church. She was asked to fill in part-time for organist Catherine Rummell, who struggled with health problems.
The Ft. Palmer and Armagh-Seward churches were sharing a minister at that point, and when the two parted ways years later, Fuller decided to stay with Armagh-Seward.
She and her husband, Kevin, have become mainstays. Both serve on the church session.
“I just remember how kind everybody was to me for being willing to come and fill in,” she recalled..
Rebecca Ray, who is helping to plan the anniversary celebration, discovered her family members —including four brothers — were among the first people to be baptized in the joint church.
Ray now lives and works in Pittsburgh but grew up in Seward and returns most weekends to attend Sunday services at her home church.
She recalled her father telling her that, when he and her mother first moved to Seward, they did not have a church home. “The first person who invited him to church was a member of the Seward church, and that is where my family has gone ever since,” she said.
As part of Sunday's celebration, the Founders Memorial Garden will be dedicated at the Seward church site. Ray said people who buy flowers in honor or in memory of loved ones on Easter and Christmas are asked to bring a bulb from the plant to place in the garden each spring.
“We're having people donate memorial bulbs to plant in the garden, just to perpetually remind us that the people who came before us are why we're here today,” Ray said.
Today, a normal Sunday at the Armagh-Seward Presbyterian Church usually sees about 30 people in attendance, according to Fuller.
“The members that are there are active and are very generous people,” she said. “They keep that church going.
“It's just a nice, quaint little church. For the small amount of members that we have, I think we do pretty well.”
The Armagh-Seward Presbyterian Church holds worship services at 10 a.m. Sundays at 223 Seventh Ave., Seward. The church no longer holds a Sunday school, but on the first Sunday of each month, coffee and donuts are shared prior to the service as a time of fellowship.
Anyone wishing to send a memorial contribution for the commemorative site can mail it to the Armagh-Seward Presbyterian Church, P.O. Box 301, Seward, Pa. 15954.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.