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First United Methodist in Donora turns 100, closes

| Friday, June 27, 2003

DONORA - It will be a day of celebration and sorrow for longtime parishioners of a Donora church, where a historic event will also be its last.

This Sunday, the First United Methodist Church of Donora will mark its 100th anniversary with a special 11:30 a.m. service followed by a luncheon.

Sadly, though, the church will close its doors the same day - marking the end of a century filled with fond memories, laughter and tears.

"It's going to be a bittersweet day," said the Rev. Ken Miller, pastor. "We'll be celebrating, but it will be pretty much overshadowed by the closing."

Miller said dwindling membership over the years and rising maintenance costs were the main factors behind the decision to close the church at the corner of Fifth Street and Thompson Avenue.

Only 15 to 20 parishioners - most of them seniors - regularly attend Sunday services, Miller said.

"I was told at one time there were as many as 1,000 members," Miller said.

Those were the days when Donora was a booming steel town and businesses and churches were always filled with parents and children.

The church's oldest member, Violet Fitzpatrick, 108, of Carroll Township, remembers its inception, and helping raise money for the event.

"My brothers hauled me around and we sold bricks for the church in 1903," she said. "I was there when they organized (the church)."

Fitzpatrick has seen the changes over many decades to the community and the church.

Over time, the mills and many thriving businesses closed, the population declined, and the churches lost members when families moved and older members died.

Longtime funeral director and parishioner James A. Rabe has watched his hometown change before his eyes, but the loss of his lifelong church will be very difficult.

"It's just so sad," Rabe said. "We've lost so many wonderful people as the years have gone by, and now the church."

Those who are still here today faithfully attend services and agree with Rabe that it will be hard to say goodbye.

"It's like losing a dear friend," said longtime parishioner Jean Bowers, of Donora, who joined the church in 1954 after marrying her late husband, Allan Bowers.

Bowers fondly recalls when they bought they're first station wagon to take the youth group on outings.

"We watched those kids grow up in the church," she said. "There are so many memories in that beautiful sanctuary."

Lifelong Donoran Don Binley was baptized at the church, where he and his late wife Joanne were married by the Rev. Lou Johnson, a former pastor.

"Lots of good memories will live there forever," Binley said.

A retired electrician, Binley said the trustees kept him busy at the church by working on electrical maintenance and problems.

"They always had a project for me," Binley said with a laugh.

News of the closing also saddened the Rev. Robert Peters, a former pastor who served there from 1978 to 1983. He has maintained close contact with the many friends he made in Donora and still regularly visits.

"It breaks my heart to see it closing," said Peters, of Waynesburg.

When Peters and his family arrived in Donora 25 years ago, they didn't know anyone.

"But we were embraced not only by the church members, but the community," he said.

He also fondly recalls that during his time at the church, he and other pastors in the community established the Ecumenical Lenten Series that continues today.

The series joined all of the Donora churches, which took turns hosting services.

"There were always a lot of great programs for adults and kids," Peters said.

Kerry Kogler didn't join the congregation until 1979 when he was in his 20s - because he wanted to help with the youth group.

For the past 20 some years, he has worked part-time as the church custodian.

"It's not going to be the same for all of us," he said.

Church members Nancy and Ray Jones, of Donora, have devoted their lives to the church.

"We just didn't feel that this should have happened," Nancy Jones said. "But we also realize what it takes to keep this open."

Peters, and other members, also are saddened because the church will sit idle. They would like to see it used for something positive, such as a community center.

In the meantime, many of the parishioners say they will join other United Methodist parishes. Miller will remain busy as pastor at James Chapel United Methodist Church near Finleyville.

Miller is confident that despite the closing, its members will continue on with their Christian traditions.

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