BELLEVILLE - Back when Kishacoquillas Valley was still frontier country, a group of immigrants settled down to build their homes and a place of worship.
Now, 175 years later, St. John's Lutheran Church in Belleville will celebrate its heritage during a special service at 10 a.m. Sunday, with special music beginning at 9:30. A representative from the Upper Susquehanna Synod will bring a blessing to the church on behalf of the bishop.
A brunch will be held after the service, and memories collected from the congregation's oldest members will be shared.
The Rev. Harry Billow, a retired Lutheran pastor who served Mifflin County for many years, will speak about Camp Blue Juniata, a summer retreat center run by area churches in the 1950s.
The congregation traces its origins to when land in the Kishacoquillas Valley was surveyed in the late 18th century. However, the French and Indian War kept many settlers away from the area until the early 19th century. In 1806, the turnpike from Clark's Ferry to Pittsburgh by way of Lewistown brought people to the valley.
Allensville was laid out in the same year, and its plans included the first Lutheran church in the valley, though services were held long before a permanent building was in place.
The first Lutheran pastors in Mifflin County covered a circuit through Lewistown, Jacks Creek, Siglerville, Allensville, Belleville, Mill Creek and other stations.
In 1834, a circuit rider, the Rev. Charles Weyl, came to Belleville and organized a church known as All Souls Lutheran. The cornerstone for the first building was laid on Aug. 3. On Dec. 21, the church was dedicated.
A year later, the church recorded 76 names of those who communed. Services were given both in German and English.
During major changes like the railroad and the Civil War, the Belleville Lutheran Charge was formed in 1861 and full-time ministerial services were available.
In 1876, a petition for the incorporation of the church was presented to the courts and approved. This changed the name of the church from All Souls Lutheran to The Evangelical Lutheran. This name was used until Mifflin County courts amended the charter on Aug. 29, 1921. It was then that the church congregation changed to its current name, St. John's Lutheran.
Along with its name, the congregation also changed buildings after 1879, when "a summer storm of hurricane velocity blew down the gable end of the 46-year-old church."
The congregation decided to build a new church at once, and the members went to work cutting down timber and sawing logs for the new building. In 1880, the congregation broke ground and laid the cornerstone on June 12. A box was placed in the cornerstone with the Bible, a Book of Worship, a list of officers of Pennsylvania and United States, copies of the Lewistown Gazette, The Democrat, The Sentinel and the Lewistown Observer.
The building, which still houses the congregation today, was completed in 1881. The church later built additions to create space for Sunday school rooms and its day care center.
Today, the church congregation is one of service, said the Rev. Paul Kampa, who has served the congregation for three years.
Rosalie Smith, a parishioner and interim pastor for St. John's, listed some of their projects as making blankets and Christmas boxes for children across the world, starting the Meals on Wheels program in the area, collecting donations for Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, holding services for the residents of Valley View and Ohesson retirement communities, and joining with West Kishacoquillas Presbyterian to hold annual vacation Bible school programs.
"It's awesome when we try to count the number of people we've helped," Smith said. "We feel blessed with 175 years of ministry."
The church also is affiliated with a congregation in Liberia, Kampa said. Along with sending donations, church member Joe Kanagy also does mission work there for six-week periods, he said. A roofer by trade, Kanagy helps to build churches and hospitals, he said.
"We try to be as visible as we can in the community, as Christ calls us to be," Kampa said, "to be there for our neighbors."
St. John's Lutheran is located on West Main Street, just outside of Belleville. For more information, call the church office at 935-2032.