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Midland church determined to stay open despite 'crushing blow'

| Thursday, March 22, 2012, 12:00 p.m.

The First Presbyterian Church in Midland seems to be having a going-out-of-business sale, which would seem logical considering its congregation numbers only 12.

But members insist that's not the case.

"We're selling some of our history in order to survive," said Victoria Shaffer, 66, church secretary.

The church is selling hundreds of items, including an organ, two upright pianos and a matching 833-piece matching china set that is at least a half-century old. Choir robes and sheet music are being sold.

Leftover items will be included in the church's yearly spring cleaning sale of new and gently used housewares in May.

Founded in 1906, the church has occupied a three-story stone building overlooking Lincoln Park since late 1927. At its peak in the late 1950s, the church had about 300 members.

In an attempt to survive, the church and the Midland United Methodist Church formed the Midland Ecumenical Parish in 2000, sharing a minister and worship site. But the parish dissolved last year after United Methodist sold its building and its members joined another church.

"That was a crushing blow," Shaffer said. "We considered closing, too, but just couldn't bring ourselves to do that."

Because First Presbyterian does not have a pastor, members conduct Sunday worship services. The Beaver-Butler Presbytery provides ministers to distribute communion and moderate church leadership meetings several times a year.

A regional governing body for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the presbytery oversees 83 churches in Beaver and Butler counties, including First Presbyterian in Midland.

And although the presbytery owns its churches, it cannot force any to close, said Alan Adams, executive presbyter.

"Until they turn the keys over to us, they decide what to do," he said.

The Rev. David Byers, moderator at First Presbyterian for the Beaver-Butler Presbytery, said that while the church has its charms, it does not have enough appeal to keep it running successfully.

"First Presbyterian is a fabulous church in a fabulous setting across from (Lincoln Park). But the demographics aren't there for that type of church any more. Some people find it kind of staid and want something more modern.

"It's hard to let go of something that worked really well at one time," said Byers, who is pastor of Vanport Presbyterian Church.

"Midland is very traditional. Churches now are less traditional. They're more blue-collar and charismatic," Adams said.

First Presbyterian's strong sentimental associations make its remaining members reluctant to close, even if they recognize the need.

"I think we should close, but I'm tickled other members want to keep (First Presbyterian) open," said Marilyn Kovach, 84, who was baptized at the church in 1928.

"I've been a member since I was 9," said Jean Cozma, 85. "I was married here and want to be buried here as well."

"The church is as old as the town," said Michael Balco, 73, Cozma's brother. "It's deeply rooted in the community. A lot of our members were doctors, school administrators and steel company executives who were prominent in Midland's development.

"It's been an anchor; there would be a huge hole if it closed."

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