The UM Churches Where I Once Ministered


The Local Churches and Communities In Which I Am Ministering

Dane’s Place ©2003

Each Sunday morning- for eleven years –  I left my home in Somerset, PA, and made the fifty-five mile round trip into Addison Township, located in lower Somerset County.  As I descended deeper into the foothills surrounding Mt. Davis, Pennsylvania’s highest peak, the open pastureland embracing Somerset gradually beames lost to the dense forest and steep embankments that nearly envelop the roadway. Mt. Davis is part of the 30-mile-long Negro Mountain Range, one of four Appalachian ridges in the county.  The topography is punctuated by rotund bluffs that protrude from the earth in random, herniated fashion.  The roadway washes around these huge mounds like a river seeking the path of least resistance while on its way to the sea. Yet, in spite of the steepness of these hillsides, it is not uncommon to see crops growing – a testament to the skill of the farmer who must add this challenge to the gathering of his harvest.  On the hillsides where no crops can be reaped, I often pass cattle leisurely chewing their cud, or sheep frolicking on the greens.

My first stop was at the Harnedsville United Methodist Church.  Harnedsville, PA was settled in 1764, and incorporated in 1800.1  The area was known among the Native Americans who lived there as, “the Turkeyfoot,” because the streams coursing through the region looked like the foot of a turkey.  The local school has kept the name and is part of the Turkeyfoot School District.

Harnedsville is named after Samuel Harned who operated a store, gristmill, and tannery “among a cluster of log buildings.”2  The area was originally known as “Mudtown. “3  Mr. Harned laid out the new village with 53 lots, though none of the original log cabins stand today.

The first church of the community was built in 1855.4  It was called Harnedsville Chapel.  It became the mutual place of worship for Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists.  The congregations took turns sharing the church while different pastors preached from a common pulpit.  Eventually, the Methodists utilized the building exclusively, and, when the church building collapsed, they constructed another one.  The Methodists continued to worship in this second building.

Around 1870, a circuit-riding preacher, Rev. George White, was holding services in a log schoolhouse for the Harnedsville Evangelical Brethren Congregation.5  He encouraged the residents to consider building a church.  They responded by erecting a structure that stood until 1910, when it was replaced by a brick church.  At that time, both the Harnedsville Methodist Chapel and the Harnedsville Evangelical Brethren (soon to be EUB) churches were flourishing, and serving the bustling community.  They held Sunday services in their respective church buildings, but often gathered together on Wednesdays for prayer meeting.6  Around 1968-1969, Harnedsville Methodist voted to close their doors and merge with the Methodist Church in nearby Confluence, PA.  The church building was sold and is used today as the office of a plumbing and heating business.  Most members went to the Methodist Church in Confluence, but a few eventually migrated to the EUB Church in Harnedsville.

In 1968, after the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Churches merged on a national level, the only remaining church building in Harnedsville became home to the Harnedsville United Methodist Church.  The present-day congregation gathers in the same brick building that was built in 1910.

Before I arrived on a typical Sunday morning, the lay leader and his wife will have opened the door, and turned the heat on if needed.  In the winter a neighbor sweeps the steps clear of snow, and a snowplow operator for the local municipality will have cleaned the parking lot.  Twenty minutes or so before morning worship, the lay leader pulled on a thick rope hanging from the belfry, sounding the bell throughout the community.  Not dependent upon the tolling reminder, the faithful will already have been arriving.

Harnedsville UM Church had 43 members on the roll while I was there.  An average of 20 people gathered each Sunday.  Most were elderly and retired folk.  Less than half of those in attendance were employed.  Some walked to church, some drove a half hour or more.  Some have been coming since they were small children, while others had been attending only a few years.  Even though many often saw or spoke with one another during the week, their greetings each Sunday involve friendly handshakes, warm embraces and kisses.  The most common joy echoed during worship service is the heartfelt testimonial, “I’m glad to be here!”  They came attired in slacks, skirts and denim.  Neckties are few, but one faithful member never seems appropriately dressed unless a Buck Knife was strapped to his belt.

I began serving the Charge as a lay speaker in 1997.  Their last pastor had finished school, and had received an appointment elsewhere.  Without a pastor, they faced the looming possibility of closing their church doors.  Therefore, they responded with gratitude when they learned that a layperson and a retired elder had agreed to hold services and administer the sacraments to them.  That spirit of gratitude continued to mark the people of the Charge – especially the Harnedsville congregation.  They genuinely appeared grateful for each Sunday that they could gather for fellowship and worship.  Because they ask so little of their pastor, they always seem grateful whenever a special service was planned, a hospital call was made, or a home visit was shared.
We may or may not have had a pianist for worship.  Four elementary-aged children, and three teenagers usually attend worship service. Two of the children remained for Sunday School, which is held for them in the basement by their mother.  About six adults also remained after worship to attend Sunday School, led by the Lay Leader in the sanctuary.

After service at Harnedsville, I drove three and a half miles to the Trinity United Methodist Church in Listonburg, PA.  This was a quiet, dimly lit, one room chapel that greets each worshiper with a musty, mildew scent.   The heavy oak pews were comfortably cushioned with thick green padding, and the plywood ceiling is peaked to match the contour of the outside roof, creating a marvelous acoustic setting.  A large, heavy door, wide enough to accommodate caskets, swings open with a thin, sheet metal key.  There is no basement, running water, or restroom facility at the church.  An open-air pavilion is beside the parking lot, but I have never seen it used.  In the summer months, a half-dollar-sized hole in the outside wall, near the door, is a passageway for wasps whose nest is presumably somewhere between the exterior and interior walls.

Behind the church is a cemetery, with many of the markers no longer legible.  No one has been buried there for decades and the cemetery is no longer tended – being now overrun with weeds and underbrush.  There is no one to shovel snow or sweep the steps in the wintertime, so service is sometimes cancelled during a heavy snowfall.

Thomas Liston founded Listonburg in 1790 when he built a tannery along what is now known as White’s Creek7.   Around 1810, a woolen mill, utilizing the creek water to power some of the machinery, was built in town.  Families moved into Listonburg to work at the mill, which produced wool blankets, fabrics and carpets.  Industry continued to enlarge the town’s borders as coal was mined by the Listonburg Mining Company, which built twenty new homes for its employees.  The bustle of the small town increased as the railroad was re-routed to a nearby stop, in order to transport Listonburg’s coal.  Eventually, the town’s economy supported four stores, four gas stations, a school, a post office, and a sawmill.

Remarkably, there was no church in Listonburg until nearly eighty years after its founding.8  Trinity Methodist Chapel was not organized until 1872, with the church building being erected that same year.  The first pastor, Rev. Lemuel W. Haslup, was a carpenter who designed and built the church with the help of local families.

The church, now known as Trinity United Methodist Church, had 19 members enrolled while I was there.  When I began to serve at the church, only five members attended – all women.  The previous pastor had warned me that one of the ladies who regularly attends does not find it unorthodox to abruptly rise from her pew during the sermon and share what God has laid on her heart regarding what God has laid on the minister’s heart.  I was told she could be identified as the parishioner who does not shake hands.  Indeed, she was flushed from the congregation by this queer custom, and with no small amount of trepidation I preached my first sermon there, relieved to be uncontested by the dear saint.  Later, she would gladly extend her hand to me, and we spared only over my occasional, and nearly unavoidable, tardiness.  She would pass from this life prior to my departure as pastor.

The church had grown over the past few years to include a few men.  Typically, we had about nine people for Sunday morning worship.  Though the Listonburg congregation was more quiet and reserved than the Harnedsville parishioners, they did not lack in faith.  They have seen their share of hardship, and can testify to God’s grace, which continued to bring them through.

As they reflect on their past, the people of Trinity UMC tell me stories of standing-room-only Christmas pageants, and Vacation Bible School programs that filled the sanctuary with laughing children.  I am told that during the church’s heyday, wooden partitions were erected in the sanctuary to create four Sunday School rooms.  While I was there they no longer had a Sunday School program, and there were no activities at the church during the week.  I believe there might be a certain sadness in their lives that is likely connected to the loss of their spirited past.   Anne Lenhart Snyder, while reflecting on the town’s remarkable history, wrote in 1987 that some folks were referring to Listonburg as a “Ghost Town.”9  The congregation has seen the four stores, sawmills, and post office of Listonburg close, and I believe they reluctantly envision the ineluctable closing of their church doors.

Because there was minimal congregational participation during worship service, we concluded in less than an hour.  That gave us a little time to visit before I had to leave.  Then, the lights and heat were turned off, and the door was locked until the following week.

For the final service of the day, I traveled next to Silbaugh United Methodist Church in Fort Hill, PA. This was a lovely, one-room church structure that traces its roots to around 1825,10 when a fellowship of believers was meeting in homes for class study and worship.  The group was led by William Silbaugh and James Boardman.  In 1879, a frame building was erected under the leadership of Rev. J.B. Taylor and J.F. Murray.  The building was destroyed by fire11 on June 12, 1914, but the following year another church building was built.  This same building stands today, and is the gathering place for the congregation.  Unlike her two sister churches, Silbaugh was not built in a town.  It was erected in the midst of field and forest, and continues to remain a country church.

Forty members were enrolled, while nine people regularly attended services at Silbaugh.  Two of the nine were employed, and all but one was a senior citizen.  They were a faithful, albeit soporific congregation of kith and kin.

For fifty-three years, Silbaugh was shepherded by one pastor, Rev. John H. Rodahaver.12  In addition to Silbaugh, Rev. Rodahaver served three other parishes, preaching at two churches each week.  The congregation vividly recalls him preaching while sitting on a chair when his failing health prohibited him from standing behind the pulpit.

Just like the other two churches that I serve, Silbaugh enjoys a rich heritage of activity and spirituality.  They held Sunday School classes each Sunday, and worship service every other week.  The church was also active with weekly youth group and prayer services, while baseball games were hosted in a nearby field.  They were renowned for their annual festivals that were held behind the church in an enclosed pavilion.  There, hot, homemade meals were passed out by joyful hands through the wood-framed serving windows, while games were played in the parking lot.  Both the nearby folk, and the Silbaugh members gathered to worship and fellowship within this mountain church, and to renew acquaintances beneath the shadow of her bustle. But, much has changed since those memorable moments of yore. Now, there is no youth group, or evening service.  The ball field is indistinguishable from the surrounding pastures, and the pavilion is boarded shut, with the serving windows tightly fastened on rusted hinges.  Only the cemetery shows significant growth, as the faithful continue to gather within its bowels, in silent fellowship, awaiting peacefully our Lord’s return.

Silbaugh declared that its goal for 2003 was to remain open.  They kept pace with their objective and deep inside, they hope not only to stay open, but grow in numbers and strength.  I had joined them in their hope, and prayed that God renewed their assembly.

Some had argued that two of these three churches should have closed permanently.  Granted, there were probably good reasons for that to happen.  But, I did not feel led to make that decision for the congregation, or direct them toward that end.  Tradition runs deeply in their lives and carries great weight for the three congregations, sustaining them in ways that I probably don’t fully understand.  If the time comes for them to finally close their churches, it will be their decision, and not mine.  No doubt that that will be a sad day for many of them, but they will patiently overcome the trial.  For, the faith that confidently led them to where they are will certainly carry them home.

Note: The Silbaugh UM Church officially closed its doors in 2012. 

 


1 Somerset County, PAGW ©2002

2 Ina M. Adams, Early History and Founding of the Village of Harnedsville, PA.

Ibid.

Ibid.

5 Harnedsville UMC Records.

6 Interview with Irene Heinbaugh, April 22, 2003.

7 Fern Fisher, Listonburg: Mine and Mill Town.

8 Interviews with local residents have revealed no evidence of the existence of any  church building prior to 1872.  It is highly probable, however, that Christians were meeting for worship and fellowship in homes.

9 Anne Lenhart Snyder, The Lenharts of Listonburg.

10 Silbaugh UMC Records.

11 Reportedly, a man who was in love with a woman who had spurned his love, started the fire.  Apparently, he was attempting to destroy the only meeting place where she might find another suitor.

12 1980 Western PA Conference Journal.

 

 

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