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Carrick's Spencer United Methodist Church celebrates 175 years of ups, downs

Bob Bauder
| Monday, Sept. 17, 2012
The children and adults sing songs of heavenly praise at the end of the service at Spencer United Methodist Church in Carrick which is celebrating its 175th anniversary on Sunday September 16, 2012.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The children and adults sing songs of heavenly praise at the end of the service at Spencer United Methodist Church in Carrick which is celebrating its 175th anniversary on Sunday September 16, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Worshippers sing songs of heavenly praise at the end of the service at Spencer United Methodist Church in Carrick which is celebrating its 175th anniversary on Sunday September 16, 2012.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Worshippers sing songs of heavenly praise at the end of the service at Spencer United Methodist Church in Carrick which is celebrating its 175th anniversary on Sunday September 16, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

Kurt Knobel said the good people of Spencer United Methodist Church stepped in as a second parent when he was 4 and his father died.

They steered him toward the ministry, nurtured his faith and put up with his practical jokes. Speakers in the church steeple played music for all to hear, and he loved to switch the broadcast from religious to rock 'n' roll; once, he stuck a thumb tack under the parish piano player's seat.

“I'm a product of this church,” said Knobel, 61, pastor of three Methodist churches in Butler, who returned to his boyhood parish Sunday to celebrate its 175th anniversary with about 100 former and current members. “These people raised me. It was their prayers and devotion that led me (to the ministry).”

The church at Churchview and Spencer avenues in Carrick is one of the oldest Methodist parishes in the region. It was formed by pioneer families, who began meeting for Sunday services in their homes.

Their first building, a log structure known as Baldwin Chapel, stood on the same site and was led by Methodist preachers known as circuit riders, who visited parishes on horseback.

The church was officially organized in 1837. After Carrick, then known as Spiketown, broke away from Baldwin Township, the congregation changed the name to Spencer in honor of two sisters, Jane Spencer Appleton and Alice Spencer, who were key financial backers of a brick church that opened in 1867.

Parishioners had the current church built in 1925. It was dedicated in 1926.

Facing dwindling memberships and tough financial times, Spencer and four other United Methodist congregations formed the South Hills Partnership. They included Carnegie in Carnegie, Fairhaven in Overbrook, Hill Top in Allentown and the United Methodist Church of Castle Shannon. Crafton United Methodist Church joined this year.

Three ministers — the Revs. Sue Hutchins, Joseph Yurko Jr. and Linda Harrison — and church member David Brazelton take turns leading services at the churches.

“Part of it was financial, but a big part of it was a lot of churches in this area were experiencing a huge turnover in pastors, so we thought we could provide some stabilization,” Yurko said. “We all bring different gifts, different styles, and the people have really grown to enjoy it.”

Pat Lombardi, 71, of Baldwin, the unofficial parish historian, represents the fourth generation of her family to attend Spencer. She remembers her grandfather picking her up in his car and driving her to church on Sunday.

Lombardi said the church has experienced financial and membership ups and downs over the years, but always lived up to the 175th anniversary theme: “Open hearts, open minds, and open doors.”

In the 1890s, membership had dwindled to seven, but it surged to more than 600 at its highest point in the 1930s. It now has about 180 members.

“We've had good years and bad years, but the church stands,” said Jayme Graham, 54, of Baldwin, who was baptized in Spencer in 1958. “You walk into this church, and you will be well-received. People make you comfortable, and I like that.”

The Rev. Jack Piper, now pastor of holiday Park United Methodist Church in Plum, was Spencer's longest serving minister, from 1979 to 1992. He and his wife, Carol, said they spent their happiest years at Spencer.

“For whatever reason, they loved us, and we loved them,” Piper said.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-765-2312or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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