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Church looks back 150 years

| Saturday, May 18, 2002

When it was built in 1852, Franklin Park Baptist Church was in the middle of nowhere, some 18 miles from Pittsburgh via dirt road.

"It probably took a day to get into Pittsburgh at that time," said the church's pastor, the Rev. John Wiebe, who, along with about 200 members, will celebrate the church's 150th anniversary Sunday with a service at 10:30 a.m. and a party at 4 p.m.

Traffic allowing, Pittsburgh now is about a 20-minute drive from the church.

Franklin Park, which for much of its history was a farming community, has long since been paved over and now is a suburban bedroom community connected to the city by two interstate highways.

In a century and a half, much has changed at the church, which is at 2470 Nicholson Road.

The present church, for instance, was built in the 1950s on the site of the original church. The original church, a frame structure, was taken down decades ago.

Yet such changes are superficial. In fact, not that much has changed at the church as what might be suggested by a time span that encompasses both the horse and buggy and the Internet.

Most members of Franklin Park Baptist Church were born in Franklin Park. Not only were they born in the community, but so were more of their ancestors.

And the ancestors of many of today's church members, such as the Neely and Eberhardt families, were among the founding members of the church.

So was Israel Jones, who donated the land for the church. Jones was an ancestor of Glen Ford, a retired sheet-metal worker and Franklin Park native who is an unofficial historian at the church.

"Most of the members of this church were born in this area," said Ford, 71. "And a large number of them have had family involved in this church since it was set up."

That, said Wiebe, is a good and a bad thing.

"It is a good thing that we have been here for such a long time," he said. "But the problem with having been around for so long is that sometimes you can get stuck in a rut."

Several times in the past, the church has flirted with closing, only to rally, Wiebe said.

Today, it is a midsize church with about 200 members. Wiebe credits the Rev. Bob Cunningham, the pastor at the church from 1952 until 1985, with much of its strength.

"He is a founding father, really," Wiebe said. "If it were not for Bob Cunningham, this church might not even be here."

Wiebe, who took over as pastor less than two years ago, said he still worries about the issues such as the overall decline in attendance in mainline churches.

"Declining church attendance has been a trend in this country for more than 30 years, and it represents a challenge for us," he said.

Paul Merriman, 52, a deacon with the church and a lifelong member, said the church does a number of things to attract new members, including sending information to people who move nearby and offering a vacation Bible school in the summer.

"We have different musical groups that have come into the church over the years to perform in the hope of attracting people from the neighborhood," he said.

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