St. John's Historical Facts
The year 2021 marked the 225th anniversary of Lutheran worship in Lewistown. Our Lutheran ancestors began gathering for worship on the second floor of the local jail in 1796. Through the next 225 years, local Lutherans worshiped in 6 different structures in 3 different locations, and had 36 pastors.
According to tradition, a Lutheran pastor named Rev. Fisher began to preach to the Lutherans in Lewistown in 1796. He held services in the second story of the “old log jail”, which was located at the site of the present jail on the corner of Market and Wayne Streets. We have no record of exactly when Rev. Fisher began his ministry here, or the size of his congregation, but we do know that because of the large number of German settlers in this area, services were held in German. (It was not until 1825 that services were held in English!) At some unknown point, services were moved to an old stone schoolhouse located on West Third Street at the present site of the Henderson/United Fire Company.
On January 3, 1814, the lot next to the schoolhouse was purchased for the sum of $66.55. According to the deed, the lot was purchased from Peacock Major and his wife Martha and was located “on the south side of Third Street”. It is believed that the price of the lot was low because there was a pond across the street that was often inhabited by noisy kids and very vocal frogs! This lot was the proposed site of a church and cemetery and was jointly owned by the Lutherans and the Reformed. (That church eventually became “Zion’s Evangelical Lutheran and Reformed Church.”) It was not until 1824 that construction on the proposed church actually began. We have to assume that it took ten years to raise the money for construction. This is a photo of the Old Schoolhouse, the second site of Lutheran Worship. According to historical records, this was one of the two earliest schools in the Lewistown area. Lutherans worshipped here until 1850.
The cornerstone for the newly constructed church was laid on July 29, 1824 and the building was finally dedicated on June 12, 1825. (That cornerstone is currently located in our garden.) The new church sat where today’s United Henderson (United) Fire Company sits today. It was originally called the “German Evangelical Lutheran and German Evangelical Reformed Church” but changed to the “Evangelical Lutheran and Reformed United Church of Zion” in 1827. Over a period of several years, the church became anglicized so that by 1840, the Lutheran services were held only in English. In 1840, the Reformed congregation withdrew from the church.
“Sunday School” was introduced in 1839 by Pastor Christian Lepley, the church’s 12th pastor. It got off to a rocky start because of the low church membership at the time; there were less than 70 adult members and 45 children attending services. Church attendance continued to decline for several years, but had a period of growth around 1843, when the local newspaper reported 170 Lutheran children marching in a local celebration.
By 1849, it became clear that the Third Street church was too small for its growing congregation. According to existing Council minutes, the congregation met on October 20, 1849 to create a building committee that would make arrangements to build a new church. In January of 1850, the committee opened bids for erecting a new two-story church and the contract was given to Isaiah Coplin for $3,700.00. On May 7, 1850, the lot on the northwest corner of Third and Main (the site of our present church) was purchased for $700.00. The cornerstone was laid in late May. New articles of incorporation were secured and the church became “St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lewistown”. In December of 1850, the old church on the site of the Henderson Fire Company was sold on the steps of the courthouse to the Borough of Lewistown for $400.00. The church was eventually torn down and the cornerstone was returned to us. It is presently in our garden.
Tragedy struck on the evening of January 28, 1852. As the new church neared completion, it caught fire. The fire began in or near the 120’ wooden steeple and was believed to be the result of arson. According to newspaper reports, firemen and townspeople rushed to the scene. Quick-thinking men worked to keep the base of the wooden steeple wet so that when the steeple inevitably fell, it would fall backwards onto the rear of the church, thus saving nearby structures. Sadly, there was an inadequate water supply available so much of the church, saved a few structural walls, was destroyed. The only contents saved were a single bench, a box of books and some bibles and hymnbooks.
Council minutes dated January 29, 1852 show that Council met and resolved to get $3,000 from the insurance company and re-build on the same site. Also noted in the same minutes was an entry stating that the Presbyterians had immediately passed a resolution to offer the Lutherans the use of their church on Sabbath afternoons. The next day, St. Mark’s made the same offer and offered the use of their basement for Lutheran Sunday School.
The rebuilding of the church after the devastating fire did not go smoothly. First, there was an insurance issue. According to church records, the church structure had been insured for $3,000.00; however, the insurance company reneged on the agreement and paid only half of that amount. During the ensuing litigation between the contractor and the insurance company, the lot and ruins were sold by the sheriff. The buyer was a congregation member named Daniel Fichthorn, whose name is
often mentioned in our church records. Fichthorn purchased the lot and ruins for $795.00 and then transferred the property back to the church for $451.50.
The anticipated cost of rebuilding the church was $3,300.00, with the understanding that the new church would be built on some of the
existing walls that survived the fire. Securing enough money to rebuild proved challenging. In addition to the generous offerings from
congregation members, the women of the church sponsored various fundraising events to raise money. According to church records, some
memorial funds were tapped for various projects; for example, a memorial fund was used to purchase a new 500 pound bell for the newly
rebuilt steeple. (This steeple and bell were later destroyed when a tornado ripped through Lewistown.)
The actual rebuilding began in June of 1852. By this time, the pastor, Pastor John Rosenberg, had become quite discouraged and he resigned his position in November of 1852. He was replaced by Pastor C.M. Klink, who was reported to be "the man for the job."
In May of 1853, the congregation held a meeting after the worship service. They authorized the purchase of the adjoining lot for erecting a parsonage and an additional lot to serve as the Lutheran Cemetery. The cost of each was $500.00. The financial strain on the church was great, but they resolved to raise the needed money. One member even mortgaged his property to raise money for the projects.
The following month, the congregation authorized Council to adopt the policy of “renting the pews in accordance with such scale as they may adopt.” The exact fees for renting pews is unknown, but it appears that the fees were based on the space needed and location of the pews. Our archives contain Pew Rent ledgers from 1862-1865, and it appears that the fees ranged from $1.25 to $3.75, paid quarterly.
The Civil War began with the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Our church records give us unique insight into the impact of the Civil War on our community.
Our archives contain “Sunday School Minute Books”. These books were used each week to record the attendance of teachers; the attendance of male and female students; recent congregational births or deaths; and a sentence or two about the weather and local concerns. Most entries began with something like, “The Lord has blessed us again on this cool pleasant morning…” or “This is a beautiful warm and clear Sabbath morning, it appears that the very light from Heaven is shining upon us.”
As the conflict with the South gained momentum, the authors of the “Sunday School Minute Books” began to record news from various battles, always asking God to spare the country. The first mention of the conflict was recorded on April 14, 1861. The author of the entry wrote, “This morning the Lord has again permitted us to meet in the Infant Sabbath School Room in peace and quietness, while many others this day, prevented this blessing on account of a civil war now commenced in South Carolina, in our beloved land. May the Lord save us from a bloody war.” On April 21, 1861, the dame author wrote, “We again have been permitted to meet in the Infant Room in a goodly number. We are near the seat of War, but our town is in a great excitement about 300 of our citizens have already gone to the scene of war. May the God of all Battles be with our noble troops, and that peace may be soon restored to us.”
The following is a continuation of last week’s more notable entries in the “Sunday School Minute Books”. It is clear that the Civil War was of constant concern to the congregation, and there are many references to men from Lewistown that joined the army. Most of the entries were written immediately following major battles.
May 12, 1861: “Our Country is on the verge of a bloody war with the Southern rebels.”
July 21, 1861 (after 1st Battle of Bull Run): “About 3 or 4,000 souls were hurried from here into eternity on the Battlefield in an act of Civil War.”
September 21, 1862 (after Battle at Antietam): “This is again a very pleasant Sabbath and full school. Since last Sabbath, Thousands of our soldiers were laid low by the ravages of war in Maryland – God save the Country.”
June 21, 1863 (shortly before Gettysburg): “The Rebel army are endeavouring to make Penna the seat of war. God forbid.”
June 28, 1863: “This is a pleasant day in appearance, but sad to many hearts of the adult portion of our community on account of the approach of the rebel army into Penna and near us, yet the school is full of interesting scholars.”
Added to the bottom of the same page: “A company of 100 men left this morning for the seat of war more are preparing to go, may God be with them and may our beloved country and its free institutions be perpetuated.”
July 5, 1863 (Battle of Gettysburg): “We have good news from our army this morning. The rebel army that has invaded Pennsylvania is becoming overcome by our army, under the blessing of God. Our President has issued a Proclamation, calling upon the people to give thanks to God for recent victories and asking his blessings for the future. May God give us victory!”
July 12, 1863: “Since our last meeting, we have news from different parts of our land of the complete success of the Union army. God be thanked for it, but the battlefields are crimson with blood and strewed with the dead.”
April 16, 1865: (Assassination of Lincoln) “This is a day of National gloom, on account of the cruel assassination of our President A. Lincoln, a day long to be remembered in America.”
May 21, 1865: “Jeff Davis, the Arch traitor of the American Rebellion is arrested and is now at Fortress Morrow to await his awful doom as a traitor. May God have mercy on his soul.”
The post-Civil War era was apparently financially comfortable for the Lutherans. Three extensive repair projects occurred over the next 30 years. The gallery in the rear of the church was removed and several unspecified improvements were made during the pastorate of Dr. J.B. Baltzy (1868-1870) at a cost of $3,000.00. On July 4, 1874, a tornado blew through Lewistown and destroyed the steeple and bell. (They were replaced two years later.) A major renovation occurred in 1882. The Council resolved to raise the money to “put the church property in a suitable state of repair” at a cost of $2,300.00. This renovation included cushions for the pews (people were complaining that the paint on the pews stuck to their clothing!); new furniture; painted woodwork and walls inside the church; carpeting; repair to basement windows; repair to the organ; and the installation of a new altar rail. There is a faded photograph of the interior of this church hanging in the hallway leading to the library. It is the last photograph on the right.
In 1890, plans were made to erect a Chapel for use by the growing Sunday School programs. It was decided that the existing stable, located next to the sanctuary, would be torn down, and the Chapel would be built on that site. (This is where our Fellowship Hall is today.) A building fund was created and it was resolved that construction of the foundation would begin when there was $6,000.00 in the fund. The actual cost of the entire addition was only $4,000.00. The 1892 cornerstone for this addition still exists on the Main Street side of the church.
The first Lutheran Cemetery was located on the Third Street next to the first church that was built in 1824. (This is the site where the Henderson Fire House currently sits). The cemetery was added to that lot in 1827 and was used as a Lutheran burial site until 1854. On April 29, 1854, the church sold the old 1824 church to “the Borough of Lewistown for a firehouse for $450.00, payable April 1855.” In May of 1854, the church purchased our present cemetery, located on Fourth Street. The Council minutes stated: “The committee on the Grave Yard purchased John Sterett’s lot adjoining the Methodist Grave Yard for $505.00. One half of the purchase price was paid in cash and the remaining $250.00 was to be paid on April1, 1855.”
All was well until March of 1883 when Council decided to dispose of the original burial ground. The Trustees were directed to “dispose of the old burial ground in the manner they may deem advisable, and to see that the bodies yet remaining be properly removed and reinterred in our present burial ground.” Three months later, the Trustees came back to Council with the following report: 1) 40-50 bodies remained in the original cemetery; 2) the cost to remove the bodies was in excess of $100.00; 3) the amount of space required to reinter was problematic; 4) the removal of the bodies would require the entire lot to be dug up; 5) too many congregation members objected to this plan; 6) the plan would “bring a stigma upon the church”; and 7) “there is no money in the transaction.” It is unclear whether the bodies were ever removed. Hopefully a review of our archived cemetery records will tell us.
In 1892, talk began that the congregation had outgrown the church and something needed to be done. Council appointed a committee to brainstorm ideas for “the accumulation of money as a building fund for the rebuilding of a church edifice for St. John’s…” . Council resolved that there was a need for a larger church and that the church “will not be better able to build when the necessity is upon us than we are now able.” They resolved to have the new church completed during the summer of 1896. That didn’t happen. Instead, the church made a plan of action and created a building fund to accumulate the needed funds.
Unfortunately, there is a gap in our historical records from 1890 to 1902. In piecing together information from other documents, we know that plans were made to tear down the existing church and rebuild a larger church on the same site. The church was torn down in July of 1900, and the construction of the larger church - our present day church - began immediately.
The new church – our church - was built in the Romanesque style, and was modeled after one of the Lutheran cathedrals in Hanover, Germany. The seating capacity was 600, which was unheard of in Lewistown. A local newspaper article from 1902 boasted that the structure had “a heating plant with the capacity to make comfortable the church, chapel and parsonage” and “toilet rooms privately locked and modernly fitted.” The pipe organ was a gift from Andrew Carnegie. The cost of the new church was between $25,000.00 and $30,000.00.
The cornerstone for the church was laid on December 16, 1900, and approximately 1000 people attended the ceremony. The finished church was dedicated on February 16, 1902. Three church services were held that day (with standing room only at all three!), and the services were highlighted by music by the choir and soloists; speakers including past pastors of the church; and an organ recital of the magnificent new organ!
You will recall that in 1892, a Sunday School chapel was erected adjacent to the church on the Main Street side. This sparked a gradual increase in Sunday School attendance so that by the early 1900’s, as many as 500 people were attending Sunday School. Fortunately, the church had entered a period of prosperity during this time, so Council began to make plans to build an extension to the 1892 chapel. Preliminary plans were made and funds were raised, and the cornerstone for the chapel was finally laid on September 17, 1911.
Interesting note: The 1911 cornerstone for the Sunday School extension can be seen in the courtyard. When we sold our first Third Street church and property to the Borough of Lewistown for the building of the Henderson Fire House, several years passed before the borough tore the church down and built the fire house. When they did, they returned our original cornerstone, dated 1824. That same cornerstone was used again as the cornerstone for the 1911 Sunday School extension. Prior to it being laid, it was given to H.A. Luck, a local marble dealer, who had the stone re-faced and re-cut with the two dates: 1824 and 1911. You may have noticed that H.A. Luck’s name is on our baptismal font.