Members turn church closing into a new start
Written by Lee Foley
December 2003

Lee Foley

I've got three stories about three different churches at three different points on their timeline.

 With only eight members left, the writing was on the wall. Tiny St Paul's UCC in Derry, Pa., east of Pittsburgh, was facing dissolution. This story comes from the Blairsville Dispatch, via , which quotes lay pastor Wayne Sautter, "It had reached a point where there weren't enough members to sustain it. The members didn't want to see the church used for a purpose that would be adverse to what it was used for all these years. I've seen old churches turned into bookstores, restaurants, fl ea markets." No latte or espresso joint serving self-centered yuppies here. Sautter and the few remaining members are having the church building torn down and the site will be used for a Habitat for Humanity home. Sautter, who serves two other congregations, Latrobe UCC and St. John's UCC in Darlington, will help raise the money to build the home, which will cost between $35,000 and $40,000. Members of those churches will also help out during construction. The search is now on for the family which will provide its sweat-equity, and work alongside the construction crews before moving into the home.

 Somehow, down through the years and with the loss of their native tongue, an early 19th-century cemetery at First German Evangelical Protestant Church in Pittsburgh was forgotten and eventually paved over for a parking lot in 1950. Sixteen years ago, a backhoe operator discovered the first of 727 graves ultimately to be unearthed. All this comes from an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Folks with connections to the by-then-disbanded church gave their OK for archaeologists, DNA experts and historians to survey the site and the bodies. They found that, over the years, the original church building was demolished, a new one built, and expansions were made to the new building which encroached and overlapped the cemetery. The experts think church members began to pass down less history to the children and new members, church records were lost or forgotten and the congregation began to speak English. All this contributed to forgetting the location of the cemetery. The congregation held its last service in 1984. The next year the church building was demolished. Recently, the Rev. Doug Patterson of Smithfield (Pa.) UCC led a service as all the remains were reburied. The scientists say life was hard and short for the immigrants reburied in late October. The women had an average life span of just over 34 years, and the men 37 years. Over a third of them died of cholera or tuberculosis.

 Our third church thrives and is much closer to the start of its timeline. Early last month, the members of Opihikao Congregational UCC in Opihikao, Hawaii, celebrated the 150th anniversary of their church's founding. All told, about 300 people turned out for the celebration, according to a story in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. The paper says 71-year-old the Rev. John Makuakane, who grew up next to the church and worshipped there as a child, led the celebration. Legend has it that, since there were no roads near the original church site, lumber was dropped from a ship into the surf and swimmers hauled it ashore. The original church site is lost to time and nobody knows exactly how old the existing church building is. No matter, even with no permanent pastor, about 50 people worship in it on a typical Sunday.

Some quickies here:

 Blues great Ray Charles has donated $1 million to UCC-related Dillard University. The New Orleans school will use the money for a black studies program. This past May, Charles received an honorary degree from Dillard. This news was circulated by the Associated Press to its member clients.

 Ten volunteers from Oak Meadows Senior Living facility in Oakdale, Minn., got a nice write-up in the Lake Elmo Leader, which serves their area. Oak Meadows is a member of the UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries. The 10 ladies spend each Friday stuffing the weekly bulletin at a local church. It all began when the church called the senior facility asking if any of the folks there wanted to volunteer. What started out as an occasional visit has now turned into a weekly event.

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