Johnstown church commemorates 130th anniversary of deadly flood
Behind the altar of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Johnstown are engraved the words, “Many waters cannot quench love.”
The verse from the Song of Solomon is a perpetual reminder of the Locust Street church’s role in the 1889 Johnstown Flood and its aftermath.
“I think that we here at St. Mark’s take that (verse) to heart,” said the Rev. Nancy Threadgill, St. Mark’s rector.
On Sunday, St. Mark’s will hold a special service commemorating the 130th anniversary of the flood. The 6:30 p.m. service will be followed by guided tours of the church.
“St. Mark’s was right in the midst of the downtown. As a congregation, they probably lost as many, or more, as any other church group,” said Richard Burkert, president and CEO of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, which operates the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Burkert, a parishioner at St. Mark’s, helped compile a history of the church’s connection to the flood that killed 2,209 people when the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River failed.
Among those who perished were St. Mark’s rector, the Rev. Alonzo Potter Diller, his wife, Marion Diller, and their two children, along with about half of the church’s membership at the time.
Louise Mead, parish spokeswoman, said the anniversary was seen as an appropriate time for a memorial for Diller and his family.
“We’ve thought for years about doing a commemoration about what happened to our church,” Mead said. “We’ve never really looked at the history seriously and thought we really should look at our own.”
In addition to the marble engraving of Song of Solomon 8:7, the church has a stained glass window commemorating Diller, she said.
Both the 1874 church building and the nearby rectory were swept away by the flood waters of May 31, 1889. On the empty lot Clara Barton of the American Red Cross decided to build the first of several “Red Cross hotels’’ – temporary homeless shelters for people who lost their homes in the flood, Burkert said.
“Her concern was for the upper middle class and the leaders of Johnstown to be taken care of so that they, in turn, could help the wider community,” Burkert said.
Barton obtained permission from Pittsburgh Bishop Cortlandt Whitehead to use the St. Mark’s site for flood recovery efforts. A two-story wooden building, 50 feet by 116 feet, was erected. The first floor held a sitting room, dining room, kitchen and laundry. The second floor held 34 bedrooms, with bathrooms at the end of the hall, according to a parish history.
“The time (Barton) spent here was the first actual disaster activation of the Red Cross in this country,” Mead said.
Johnstown’s Episcopalians, meanwhile, held their services in a one-room, prefabricated “Oklahoma” relief house – sort of a 19th century precursor to the FEMA trailer, Burkert said.
“The Pittsburgh flood relief committee bought hundreds of them and had them shipped to Johnstown,” he said.
On Oct. 19, 1890, a cornerstone was laid for a new St. Mark’s building. The new structure was consecrated on May 31, 1891 – exactly two years after the catastrophic flood.
St. Mark’s also sustained damage — but no loss of life — in the 1936 and 1977 floods.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .