When historians write the history of the last century, probably none will mention the small white frame church tucked away in the corner of Western Pennsylvania in a place called Castle Shannon. It falls to us to tell our own story.
A group of 73 Presbyterians gathered in the Castle Shannon Public School on March 28, 1897 to hear a sermon preached by the Reverend W. A. Jones of the Knoxville Presbyterian Church. His text was Psalm 26, which in part reads, "I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells....My feet stand on level ground; in the great assembly I will praise the Lord." We don't know what the Reverend Jones said but from the text we might conjecture that the topic of forming a church was definitely being discussed. We do know that those words set in motion the beginning of more than a century of service to God by a body of believers that has remained strong and viable down to the present.
It was decided at that meeting to go ahead and form a Sunday school and, eventually, to incorporate as a church. This was to be a mission project of the Pittsburgh Presbytery. As always a collection was taken and 75¢ was gathered. We will leave it to the reader to decide if that small amount has been blessed and multiplied over the last century.
Ground was broken and the corner stone was set for the church on October 2, 1897 on a piece of ground given by George Smith. In previous histories this land is listed as being at the corner of Maple and Lebanon Avenues. Since those streets are parallel today, we would find that location to be Lebanon Avenue and Shady Lane. While the construction continued, the small congregation continued to meet at the school house and eventually at the Odd Fellows Hall.
On February 14, 1898, the mission was incorporated officially with 56 charter members. Now they were officially a Presbyterian Church. On that day, several baptisms took place including the first infant, Wanda Lucille Herron, born in the previous August and two adults, Minnie Skees and Sarah Jane Campbell, whose family name was still on our membership rolls a century later. The church issued its first call for a pastor and hired the Reverend Edwin L. McIlvaine for a yearly salary of $800.
In 1898, William McKinley was President of the United States. People still moved west in wagon trains. Horseless carriages were the coming fad, as were phonographs and telephones. Flight was still a few years off, and electricity was slowly making its way out of the cities into the rural areas such as Castle Shannon. In fact, the electric trolley had a major stop in Castle Shannon. Many people traveled out of the city in those days to enjoy a "country outing" at Linden Grove. The country folk of this simple village were farmers, coal miners, shop keepers and hotel owners. Farmers grew vegetables, had orchards and raised livestock. Most of these products were sold in the city or locally. The coal went to the mills along the Monongahela River. The day following the incorporation meeting, the battleship Maine exploded at anchor in Havana, Cuba, and America was about to go to war.
This was the backdrop against which the founding of the First Presbyterian Church of Castle Shannon occurred. The name tells us that great expectations for growth in Castle Shannon seemed to be on the horizon. Why call it the "First" if no others were to be expected in the future?
By May 8, 1898, the new church building, at a cost of $1800, was ready for its dedication service. Of course an organ would be needed and by some unknown set of circumstances one was donated by the most famous Presbyterian in Pittsburgh at that time, Andrew Carnegie. It was a pump organ and would remain in use until 1928 when it was replaced by a pipe organ for the princely sum of $3800. A surviving copy of the "programme", donated by Jean Martin, tells us that the sermon was preached that day by the Reverend Matthew B. Riddle. Reverend McIlvaine was installed a few days later. Riddle’s text came from Exodus 35, v. 4-29 and 36, v. 5-7, "Building the Tabernacle." Probably because of the lack of hymnals the words to the hymns sung were printed in the bulletin. Among the songs sung was "The Church's One Foundation." By May of the following year, the first recorded wedding took place as Carl Christian Zirckel wedded Bessie Girard Tyler.
Perhaps due to finances, McIlvaine resigned in October, 1899. During his tenure, the church's income, including the money from Presbytery, was not sufficient to pay his salary. The church's total income for 1898, including $215 from Presbytery, was $748.18.
On May 10, 1900, the Reverend Bryon E. P. Prugh was called as pastor and, again, Reverend Jones of Knoxville preached the installation service, this time from John 13:8. But the Reverend Prugh was to resign within a matter of months with no indication in the records as to why his tenure was so brief. By January, 1901, he had moved on.
A supply preacher by the name of the Reverend Harry Bailey was retained for $600 per year. Bailey would remain until October 22, 1902 when Reverend D.B. Rogers was called at a salary of $800, of which Pittsburgh Presbytery was paying $200. Rogers remained until August of 1905.
In December, 1905, the church put forth a call to the Reverend Harry O. Gilson of Wilkinsburg to pastor our congregation. Gilson was a widower with one son and one daughter. On Feb. 15, 1906, he was installed and remained a part of our church either as the pastor or pastor emeritus until his death in February of 1944. As part of his initial calling, he was paid $800 annually, allowed four weeks vacation, and given use of the manse which had been recently purchased by the Ladies Aid Society. Gilson's daughter, Elsie, also played a major role in our church. In 1907, Elsie was elected organist by Session and remained so for nearly 40 years, doing the job on a voluntary basis!
By January 1, 1903, the treasurer's report indicated that after expenses the beginning balance for the year was $2.71! In order to get things done, more funds would obviously be needed. To this end, the Ladies Aid Society had been formed in April of 1898 out of the old organization called the Women's Industrial Society. They held bazaars, festivals, and suppers and did quilting and thus managed to raise considerable sums of money for the Church. Its first recorded event was a "Peach and Ice Cream Social" which netted $25.17 in September 1898. Another event was an Oyster Supper and Bazaar in 1900 that raised $200. Probably the most consistently successful events were the annual Strawberry Festivals which in later years netted over $300 at times.
With some of this money, the Ladies Aid Society paid church bills and a portion of the pastor's salary. They also made a major purchase—a pair of lots at the corner of Poplar and Walnut Avenues. These lots, one vacant and the other with a house on it, were then donated, in 1903, to the congregation for its future use. The lots were a better location for a church with much easier access than the dirt road to the top of the hill on Lebanon Avenue, especially in the winter.
Our congregation began giving to mission efforts early on. By 1905, we supported the Freedmen's Association (a legacy of the Civil War/Reconstruction era), foreign missions, home missions and synodical missions.
Finances were still a problem and other means of raising funds were tried. In January of 1908, a Winter Cantata was performed by a 60 voice adult choir. The cantata was entitled "David, the Shepherd Boy" and admission was charged: 25¢ for adults and 15¢ for children. Ten dollars was raised and part of that was used to pay the gas light bill.
In February finances were looking better and Session asked the Presbytery to lower its yearly aid to us by $50. But by September the Session noted the "depressed financial condition" of the church. Summer giving, as usual, was low.
A tradition that has carried on to the present of combining a Thanksgiving service with the Methodists seems to have begun that year as this is the first mention found in the Session minutes.
In 1911, Gilson began to look into building a new church on the lots donated by the Ladies Aid Society. Having just built a building fourteen years prior and not wanting to build another, which probably wasn't financially feasible anyway, the congregation came up with a unique solution of how to make use of the gift. Move the church! If faith can move mountains then moving a church would seem easily accomplished. The plan called for the building to be placed within 2 feet of the property line of the lower lot in order that an addition of an "auditorium...50 feet square" could be built on the uphill side. The plan also called for the addition and the church to be bricked. A contractor was engaged for the huge sum of $2470 to complete the move. Presbytery agreed to pay $1000 of the contract.
In June, after gaining right-of-ways across properties and on borough streets, the church was jacked up, placed on huge rollers and inched down the hillside and on down Poplar Avenue. It took seven days and rather than miss Sunday worship, the church service was held in the sanctuary as the church sat on the hillside across from the Martin home on Poplar Ave. Talk about faith! Finally, the building was spun around 90 degrees and placed on its new foundation at 3636 Poplar Avenue where it has remained ever since.
Our church finally gained financial independence in 1912 when all aid from the Pittsburgh Presbytery was ended at our Session's request. The year 1912 also saw the growth of our congregation towards evangelism as we held a joint evangelistic revival-type meeting with the Methodists during the first two weeks of November. Other area churches invited to participate were the Lutherans, Bethel Presbyterian, Fair Haven Methodists and Fair Haven Presbyterian.
Fair Haven Presbyterian was officially organized on December 7 of that year and, incredibly, our little congregation's Session took on the responsibility of the "care" and supervision of the mission church. Even in that early time our church was reaching out.
On February 11, 1923, the 25th anniversary of the church's founding was celebrated with a special evening service. The sermon was delivered by the same pastor, W. A. Jones, who had preached the first sermon to the fledgling congregation in the school house two and one half decades before.
Little is recorded about events that affected the growth and well-being of the First Presbyterian Church of Castle Shannon during the first half of the twentieth century. Two world wars and the Great Depression certainly impacted the congregation in some way but the written records only hint at the problems.
To replace the original donated organ, a mortgage was taken on February 16, 1927. Besides the purchase of the pipe organ, the money was used for the painting of the manse and the church and to add an addition to the church. The records are unclear as to what the "addition" was. However, examination of photos seems to show the enlarging of the area that is where our communion table sits today. This probably was done to accommodate the new pipe organ and its workings. It would take 24 years to pay off this $5000 mortgage.
By 1930, the church was using a printed weekly bulletin for its services and at a Session meeting it was voted to cease giving announcements from the pulpit unless they were "very urgent." In the summer of 1931, probably as a sign of the dwindling attendance, the Methodist church joined with us to hold "outdoor Sunday services." But a crushing blow to the church's well-being was delivered in 1932 when the Reverend Gilson tendered his resignation citing health reasons. His 26 year pastorship is still the longest in our history. The very reluctant Session accepted his retirement but immediately elected him as pastor emeritus. He served in this role until his death.
The church membership, which peaked at 200 and 164 for Sunday school, soon plummeted as the church began a period of nearly 15 years with supply/interim and part time pastors. In just one year, the membership dropped to 144 members and the financial situation became critical. The supply minister was dismissed for lack of funds with which to pay him and a month to month arrangement was made. Finally, in March of 1934, the Reverend W.C. Sweet was called, but by then the membership had slipped to 121.
The following year, a now desperate Session called on Pittsburgh Presbytery to form a committee to study the "spiritual and financial condition of the church." Our records do not show if this occurred or what the results might have been but just asking for a study is evidence that the congregation felt it was in dire straits. Even in the worst of times, however, lighthearted remembrances exist. At the time of our centennial, Lee Walker recalled the Sunday morning that, just as the pastor was quoting the scripture Matthew 7:6 "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs...", suddenly walking down the center aisle came her little dog which proceeded to go up to Lee's mother, Marguerite Moorhouse, in the choir. "They didn't laugh much in church in those days but they did that Sunday," said Lee.
Sweet must have taken the plea for help from Presbytery as a signal to leave and was replaced first by the Reverend Clarence Davison and then the Reverend Franklin Trubee. But still membership fell.
In May, 1938, Reverend Harvey M. Smith was ordained at our church and received into membership. Later that year, he became our newest pastor. By April, 1939, our membership roll had been reduced to nearly half in just seven years-105 members. Smith wrote Session a letter in March, 1940 detailing his plan to help the church prosper under his guidance but one month later, like the pastors of the previous eight years, he resigned.
With the coming of World War II and a new pastor, Reverend Arthur Gard, the membership suddenly began to grow again reaching a decade high of 129 members. Gard moved on in 1942 and was replaced by the Reverend C.E. Ludwig, a supply pastor. Ludwig left in 1944 pleading poor health. Probably for financial reasons, our church entered into an arrangement with the Beechview Presbyterian Church to share a pastor, the Reverend Kirk Davis. The long time volunteer organist and daughter of Reverend Gilson, Elsie Gilson, resigned in December of 1945 after 38 years of service. While that may seem like a record that will not be easy to match, our current Director of Music, Marilyn Stokes, has now been serving in that position for 30 years!
In 1946, our World War II veterans were honored at a church dinner. They were Robert Martin, Adam Fetterman, Robert McRoberts, David Clark, Jim Campbell and Milton Hamel. Membership climbed to 137 and the post-war building boom was hitting Castle Shannon. The Session hoped that this would help the future growth of our congregation. A discussion was held regarding the "erection of a new church." Excitement over the growth of our community must have been running high. But a split was brewing in the body of the church over the current half-time pastor. The record is unclear about what the problem was, but the Session minutes mention the need for an elder and Davis to "settle their differences" for the good of the church. It didn't end there. In November, 1946, a Congregational Meeting was held to elect Davis as the full time pastor. He was voted down. The following month a petition of 55 members was given to Session. It demanded a second meeting to vote on the issue. That meeting was held in January and this time Davis was elected, pending the outcome of a meeting with Shadyside Presbyterian Church to see if they would subsidize $2000 of Davis' salary. Shadyside agreed; however, as the vote to accept Davis had been split, Davis chose to resign. The Reverend Charles D. Hindman accepted a call in 1947. His annual salary began at $3400 plus use of the manse.
The Fiftieth Anniversary for the church was held in May, 1948 with a series of events including a sermon on Sunday, May 16, entitled "Hats off to the Past–Forward March" given by Hindman during the regular service and a second sermon was presented that evening at a special service by the Reverend Dr. Howard C. Scharfe, who was according to the program "one of Pittsburgh's outstanding ministers." Later that week, a Wednesday evening service was held to give recognition to members and to have a social time afterward. The celebration week ended the following Sunday with a Communion service and the reception of new members.
As the decade ended, Hindman had brought the church back to 178 members and a much more secure financial standing. That summer, what appears to be the first "Summer Bible School" was approved by the Session.
The 1950's opened with the church paying off the 1927 mortgage (which according to records was to be only one year in length!) and then assuming, in 1953, a new mortgage to remodel the basement by building (or modernizing, the record is not clear) restrooms, and adding a minister's study and choir room to the left and right of the chancel area, respectively. Two lots to the rear of the church were purchased from the Borough in 1951 and it was here, in 1956, a major addition, at a cost of about $10,000, was built onto the rear of the church. This is the Fellowship Hall today. At the same time, an old building at the rear of the property was torn down. An earlier reference called it a "carriage house."
In May of 1951, Hindman resigned and the Reverend L. Reynolds Mahard received a call. He would pastor our congregation for the next 17 years, making his call at that time the second longest in our history. More changes in the physical nature of our church also took place during this time. Aluminum siding was added, the basement area was partitioned into rooms, and the offices and the sanctuary had some remodeling work completed. The reason for the large addition was the growing need for more Sunday school space. The Ladies Aid Society, Bible Class, and Standby Class were merged to form the Women's Association in 1951. In the late 1950's the "Three M's" social group formed and held various social functions throughout the year. (Three M's stood for Mr., Mrs. and Miss. Would it be Four M's today through adding Ms.?)
We would be remiss not to take a moment here to recognize the immense contribution of the Ladies Aid Society to our church. From the very beginning, the tireless work of its members contributed to both the financial and spiritual life of our congregation. Over and over, the Session minutes mention the contributions of these ladies paying bills and, even at times, the mortgage. As it passed from the scene and the Women's Association emerged, one can be sure that many looked back upon that organization with great fondness and thanksgiving.
Our records tell us little of the momentous world events that swirled around our community but we were able to find that at least five of our young men were on active duty during the Korean War. They were Ken Stimmel, Frank Wolfram, Myron Mahard, Charles Campbell, and John Cox.
During the 1950's, the membership finally climbed back to and then surpassed the 200 members that had been there upon Gilson's departure. In 1957, the rolls listed 314 communicants. It was during this time that the church hired its first student pastor. In October, 1955, Archie McPhail, a seminary student, began a youth program at our church. The following year, John P. Borter, also a seminary student, continued the program which became highly successful. Attendance at activities ran between 35 and 40 youths. In December, 1957, Borter moved on. At the time of our one hundred year anniversary, in 1997, he had been the pastor at Slippery Rock Presbyterian in Ellwood City, Pa. for nearly thirty years and was married to former member Carol Braymer.
As the 1960's began, a change in our governing format took shape. The Session was reformed into a unicameral board consisting of the Elders, Trustees and Deacons. Our membership continued to grow and serious financial worries faded. During this time, our church was listed as, among all Pittsburgh churches, one of the top 10 financial supporters of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. And it was at this time that the Session continued remodeling our facility by covering the church's exterior with aluminum siding at a cost of over $2300. Water problems that would continue until the 1998 construction project began to cause damage to the new addition. In 1963, a 100 foot long French drain was added in an effort to stop the flooding of the concrete floor which had by then already heaved and cracked. The floor was also retiled at that time to try to repair the damage which is still visible today.
In 1969, the Reverend Mahard accepted a call to another church and on July 1, the Reverend William J. Provost accepted the pastoral call to our church. For the first time ever, our church hired a secretary, albeit part time, Nancy Weslager. Nancy remains a church member to this day and is married to the primary author of this history, Edd Hale.
As in times past, more of our sons served in times of war. Our Vietnam War era veterans were Rick Martin, George Thornton, Jr., Jack Thornton, Calvin Swoager, Jr., and Wally Lips.
With the start of the new decade came a very unexpected development from Presbytery. It seems that in 1913 our church received an interest-free loan from Presbytery but had never repaid a penny of it! Presbytery now wanted the loan repaid. In the 1972 budget, the 59 year old loan was finally satisfied.
In 1971, the History Committee met and planned the coming events for the 75th Anniversary celebration. The church chose to celebrate the anniversary in 1972 rather than 1973 using the date of the founding of the Sunday school instead of the incorporation of the church.
During the next few years, the church fell on hard times and the attendance dwindled. In the summer of 1972, the congregation was forced to borrow money just to keep the doors open. William Provost resigned in March of 1974 and again the attendance, membership and finances declined. As if to punctuate the low point, while our congregation worshipped with an interim pastor one Sunday, a church member, Matthew Gilkeson, suffered a fatal heart attack during an April morning service.
A new era was about to burst forth on the long-suffering congregation with the arrival of the Reverend James Laine as the new pastor in October, 1974. Laine's charismatic personality and Charismatic spirituality brought a revival to the Castle Shannon church that surpassed any other time period of its 75 year history. While the membership did not grow substantially, the weekly attendance averaged over 180 and the church began to rapidly expand its facilities and ministries. A Wednesday evening "Prayer and Praise" service was added. In 1975, the adjoining house and property, 3638 Poplar Ave., were purchased to be used as Sunday school rooms and office space. The building was named Gilson Hall in honor of the longest serving pastor. As the pastor's duties mounted, a lay assistant pastor, Carl Weeks, was hired. And in 1976, a nationally known Christian TV celebrity, Ben Kinchlow of the "700 Club," visited our humble church and spoke at two events during a weekend.
Rev. James Laine
Unfortunately, this growth spurt was to be short lived. After only three years, in May of 1977, Laine chose to move on, founding his own nondenominational church, Faith Community, just a few miles away. This drew about 48 members away with him and, again, as so often in the past, we began a search for a new pastor. But the ministries begun and the spirituality awakened by Laine's time here have survived to the present even though many members have come and gone.
A new pastor was called in February of 1978. Reverend Jack M. High came and was given Gilson Hall as a manse. Jack Edgar was later added in the position of Assistant to the Pastor.
Rev. Jack High
Rev. Jack Edgar
In 1985, Pittsburgh's steel industry was in its death throes and unemployment was reaching levels unknown for decades. Our church set two Sundays to take an additional offering that would go to the needy families. This was a cooperative effort that was led by the Presbytery. Additions to our staff during this time included honoring the Reverend Mahard with the position of pastor emeritus in 1984 and the hiring of a student intern pastor, Craig Kephart, in September of 1985. His duties were to assist with Prayer and Praise on Wednesdays and to teach a Sunday school class for adults. Also, when needed, he would fill the pulpit. Little did he know that that responsibility was soon to grow to nearly full time.
In December, 1985, Jack High resigned. Since he and his family had been living in the manse and would soon vacate it, Session realized that the high cost of maintenance and utilities of the manse would become a burden on the church. Consequently, the decision was made to temporarily winterize the home and postpone a final decision on its future until later. Before this could occur, a family within our Congregation requested to rent the manse. This was approved and they occupied the house in June. Kephart became the "temporary supply pastor" although he was still a student. Reverend Mahard acted as moderator. The search was on, yet again, for a new pastor.
In the fall of 1986, our Evangelism Committee made a huge effort to reach the whole community when it visited 400 area homes leaving questionnaires and booklets. Fifty questionnaires were returned. Finally, in March, 1987, Reverend Fred Soberg was called as our new pastor to begin June 15. That summer, Reverend Craig Kephart moved on to become the pastor at the Venice Presbyterian Church in McDonald, Pa and subsequently Executive Presbyter of the Washington Presbytery.
Rev. Craig Kephart
Rev. Fred Soberg
In 1996, the manse, Gilson Hall, was sold for $28,000 after it had fallen into disrepair from years of neglect because of lack of funding. The proceeds were used to jumpstart a new building program.
The one hundred year anniversary of First Presbyterian Church of Castle Shannon was celebrated in 1998 and the church was rededicated following extensive remodeling of the entrance, bathrooms and classrooms that same year. The celebration banquet was attended by over 150 current and former members and pastors. A plaque was affixed on the wall of the new entrance way. The following year the sanctuary was painted.
In 2009, after 22 years, Dr. Soberg's pastorate with our church, the second longest in our history, came to an end. For the second time the church hired a student pastor, Scott Shetter, in March 2010, to act as a temporary supply pastor until a new pastor could be found. After screening several candidates, the committee recommended that, upon his graduation from seminary and ordination, Mr. Shetter would be offered the position. Our current pastor, the Reverend Scott Shetter, was ordained and installed in October 2011and installed to a full pastorate in October 2013.
The first decade and a half of the new century has witnessed our congregation being involved in numerous outreaches and programs in our community and beyond. For example, one of our youth, Erica Young, along with Ellie Huebner, traveled to Russia on a mission trip partly supported by the congregation. Another of our members, Matthew Hale, along with his wife, Beverly, moved to Detroit to start an inner city ministry as members of the international organization Navigators. They too are supported through our Mission giving. In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc throughout the Gulf Coast area, our church twice sent volunteers to Gautier, Mississippi. Under the direction of the PCUSA, they cleaned up, painted, plastered, rebuilt, and did whatever they could to help families that had been devastated by the storm. Our annual Christmas Day dinner which delivers meals to those in need and serves others who walk in, has been reaching 350 or more people. This Christmas meal has been served now for 20 years. Members have also given of their time to take young people to visit nursing homes and to serve meals to the homeless at Light of Life Mission. An active jail ministry regularly visits the county prison. The Men’s Ministry has continued for nearly two decades reaching out to men in our community and serving the church by performing various tasks when needed. In 2013, for instance, the men poured part of a new sidewalk in front of the church. Our Mission and Outreach committee has for several years participated in the Castle Shannon Borough Community day handing out free water and free prayers where needed! And our successful Vacation Bible School continues each summer touching children from all around our community.
Among the numerous building projects undertaken in this time were a new retaining wall and sidewalk, stained glass window repairs, rebuilding the alley storage area, and a new furnace and A/C in the Fellowship Hall, among others. The single largest project completed since 2000 was the addition of our church parking lot in 2003. While this project was filled with many ups and downs along the way, its completion has served our congregation wonderfully. Another major renovation undertaken in 2013 was a new roof for the nearly 30 year old rear addition. These two items alone cost the church over $70,000.
But the real story of our church home is its people and their unending faith, hard work and love of the Lord. While the "official" records may not necessarily have expressed it, the spirit and mission of the founders has continued to burn in our hearts. With God's blessing may we pass it on for the generations to come.