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The Gilson Era

In December, 1905, the church put forth a call to the Rev. 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 ($200 from Presbytery), given use of the manse, and four weeks vacation.

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 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, 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 was the annual Strawberry Festival which in later years netted over $300 at times.

With some of this money the Ladies Aid Society paid church bills, a portion of the pastor's salary and 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 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. (See the actual photos here.) 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 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.

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.

Church circa 1920's
Circa 1920 after being moved
to 3636 Poplar Ave.

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 effected 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 parsonage and the church and 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 Rev. 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.

A Flock Without a Shepherd

The church membership which peaked at 200 and 164 for Sunday school, immediately plummeted as the church went through 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 Rev. 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 that tells us that the congregation felt it was in dire straits.

Even in the worst of times, lighthearted remembrances exist. Lee Walker (née Eileen Moorhouse) recalls 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, 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 a the Rev. Clarence Davison and then the Rev. Franklin Trubee. But still membership fell.

In May, 1938, 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 role had been reduced to nearly half in just 7 years105 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 8 years, he resigned.

With the coming of World War II and a new pastor, 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 Rev. 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 Rev. Kirk Davis.

The long time volunteer organist and daughter of the Rev. Gilson, Elsie Gilson, resigned in December of 1945 after 38 years of service, a record that won't be matched for many years to come.

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 part ($2000) of Davis' salary. Shadyside agreed. Incredibly, Davis turned it down and left our church!

The Rev. Charles D. Hindman accepted a call in 1947 and remained until May, 1951. 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 that evening at a special service was presented by Dr. Howard C. Scharfe, "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.