Monday, November 16, 2009
A new light shines on an old church
By Scott Beveridge
WEBSTER, Pa. – There was a friendly and long forgotten sound in the form of a church bell that chimed in my village a few weeks ago.
The clanging originated from a steeple atop the old Webster Presbyterian Church where I learned about God as a child growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The new pastor there said he just discovered the bell rope that sunny autumn afternoon when I approached him to say it was cool to once again hear the ringing. Our conversation then drifted off in passing as he went about his task of repairing the church.
I’m not sure why the many church bells were silenced in this neck of the Monongahela River valley about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. They used to echo off the hills in Webster, Pa., and nearby Donora to announce Sunday services when I was a kid in the 1960s.
The bell ringing seemed of die out, unnoticed, as flocks of people relocated for better opportunities after the mills began to slowly disappear. And many other local churches would close, too, and fall into disrepair as the jobs vanished.
The Webster church stood out, though. It was built in 1888 before the steel mills overshadowed the area, becoming the first church in a town with six saloons that once satisfied the thirsts of riverboat captains and their likes. It was a landmark for a village whose residents wanted to establish a solid foundation when the United States was rapidly expanding to the west.
The women of my generation who belonged to the church did their best to set a positive example and make Sunday school fun and interesting for children. Kids were not allowed inside the sanctuary until they turned 10 or 11 and could prove to the adults they wouldn’t disrupt the sermons. By that age, though, most of the children quickly became bored by the services and soon lost interest in church.
It wasn’t until many years had passed that I discovered the church was an antique, built in a style more common to New England. The clapboard building was a museum in itself, especially on the inside that contained its original pews, wainscoting and doors. A preservationist on a drive through town later said the church’s Gothic-style, green stained glass windows were rare and priceless.
Sadly, the last time I was inside the church 15 years ago the pews had been replaced by 1970s-style seating that clashed with the architecture. The organist, she gasped when I said something about being surprised by the new look that also included beige wallpaper. She huffed before saying the congregation had grown tired of sitting in uncomfortable pews.
The Presbyterians would dwindle in ranks, abandon the building last summer and sell it to the Mon-Valley River of Life congregation. The new members, while strangers to town, appear to be working hard to fix the place up because they have been repairing the windows and roof and making other visible renovations.
That’s a good sign for an old church that was built at a time when the residents of Webster had high hopes for a future that would never come to fruition.