LEWISTOWN - The Lewistown Presbyterian Church has a number of reasons to celebrate this month.
Number 225 - years as a congregation, a legacy older than the U.S. Constitution;
Number 100 - years since the dedication of the current church building;
Sentinel photo by BUFFLE BOYER
The Lewistown Presbyterian Church will celebrate its 225th anniversary as a congregation on Sept. 11 and 12.
Number 100 - years of activity with the church-sponsored Boy Scout Troop 4, the oldest continuously chartered troop in America.
While the numbers themselves seem significant, from the events that occurred within these centuries comes even more meaningful reasons to reflect on and celebrate the history of the congregation.
In 1785, the first congregation gathered on the banks of the Juniata River, on land now occupied by the Lewistown Country Club. They named themselves Derry-on-the-Juniata Church.
The original two-acre plot was purchased for "15 bushels of good, sufficient and merchantable wheat," according to a 2008 Sentinel article about the history of the church written by Daniel McClenahan.
As the congregation grew, services moved to the log jail and courthouse, then the brick courthouse on the square in Lewistown. In 1820, the congregation purchased land at the corner of Third and Brown streets in Lewistown and built a stone church.
One of the most notable pastors at the Lewistown Presbyterian was the Rev. James Woods, who led the congregation for almost 40 years from 1823 to 1864. His descendant William Woods later founded the local Boy Scout troop and donated land for the Seven Mountains Boy Scout Camp.
By 1854, the congregation tore down the stone building and constructed a new brick church at a cost of $12,000. There the congregation stayed for about 50 years. The brick building even stood the test of a tornado in 1874, though the roof and sanctuary were badly damaged and had to be repaired.
Around the turn of the century, the population of Lewistown boomed, and the Presbyterian church filled up so rapidly that the congregation again decided to build, said John Gregory, who helped organize the upcoming anniversary celebration.
In 1920, the church completed construction of its current brick building, which cost $50,000.
During the 1940s, while many local men were away at war, the congregation experienced its own trials at home.
On Good Friday in 1948, while church organist Florence Kohler was practicing for the Easter Sunday service, the oil burner under the church office exploded; and the lower level of the church went up in flames. Kohler was rescued from a second story window, and local fire companies saved the building from ruin. However, the damage was so great to the sanctuary and church school auditorium that renovations cost $30,000.
Fire again damaged the Presbyterian building in 1986 when flames from the basement storage area burned through the sanctuary floor causing extensive damage. The pipe organ, which recently had been restored, required extensive dismantling and cleaning.
The congregation again rallied to make renovations to the damaged building, creating a center isle in the sanctuary, installing new pews and replacing the stained glass windows. The church also installed new fire and security systems.
The old pastor's study was made into a historical room that holds treasures such as communion tokens that members received during preparatory services to show before taking communion. On a wall hangs a map of the pew seatings, which families paid to sit in. Old documents indicate that poet Robert Frost's parents Isabelle and William were married in the church.
Throughout the years, the congregation and church building have been an active part of the community not only through the Boy Scouts, but also through community lunches, the LUMINA Center, Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, the Mt. Rock Cemetery Board, Christmas community project, the preschool, missions trips and more, said Margie Smith, chairwoman of the anniversary committee.
"We've always been very community minded," Smith said.
Although the congregation is smaller than it was in the 1950s and '60s, Gregory said the members still are active both in the church and community.
To celebrate its history of faith in the Juniata Valley, the congregation will hold special services on Sept. 11 and 12 in Lewistown. On Sept. 11, members and friends are invited to meet at the Lewistown Country Club Middle Road field at 4:40 p.m. to walk or be transported to the original gathering site for the congregation. The Rev. Bob Zorn will conduct the vespers service near the old cemetery.
The Sunday morning church service at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 12 will feature a historical pageant, written by Marsha Soult and directed by Thiry Olbrich, followed by an anniversary tea in the Baraca Room.
Smith welcomed members of the community to join the celebration and tea with the congregation.
A historical booklet was written for member households during the celebration. Keepsake stained glass sun catchers made from the original stained glass left over from the sanctuary windows also were created and sold to the congregation.
Historical information from this article was taken from a 2008 article written by Daniel McClenahan.