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In the beginning The Gilson Era Stability Returns

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Stability Returns

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 (costing about $10,000) was added to 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."

It is also during this time (1952) that the Rev. L. Reynolds Mahard received a call and would pastor our congregation for the next 17 years making his call the second longest in our history.

More changes in the physical nature of our church 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 body of the church was changing, too. 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 with the addition of 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 seven 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 roles 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 present, he has been the pastor at Slippery Rock Presbyterian in Ellwood City, Pa. for nearly thirty years and is married to former member Carol Braymer.

As the 1960's began, a change in our governing format took shape. The Elders, Trustees and Deacons were united to form a Unicameral Board that we know today as Session.

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 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 Rev. Mahard accepted a call to another church and on July 1, William J. Provost accepted the pastoral call to our church. For the first time ever our church hired a secretary, albeit part time, Miss Nancy Weslager.

As in times past, more of our sons served in times of war. Our Vietnam War era veterans were Rick Martin, George Thorton, Jr., Jack Thorton, 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 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 flagged. 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 Direction

A new era was about to burst forth on the long suffering congregation with the arrival of the Rev. 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.

However, this growth spurt was to be short lived. After only 3 years (May,1977), Laine chose to move on, founding his own nondenominational church just a few miles away. This drew about 48 members 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 the Rev. 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. Jack M. High came and was given Gilson Hall as a manse.

Our beautiful pipe organ, purchased in the 1920's, finally gave up the ghost and the Session purchased its first electronic organ.

As the church expanded and the expense of repairs was growing on the flat roof of the Fellowship Hall, plans were made to add a second story to it. Unfortuately, the cost and other factors stalled these plans which would be revived just a few years later. Finally, in the Fall of 1983, a three phase building program was begun with the erection of the addition over the Fellowship Hall at a cost of $14,000. This shell would be completed by the men and women of the church over the next year and a half. Rooms included a pastor's study, a larger secretary's office, a choir room, class rooms and restroom facilities. With this the costs had risen to over $30,000. By December phase one and two had melded together as plans went forward to totally remodel the sanctuary as well. This project would extend into the summer of 1985 when the sanctuary was gutted and remodeled. The carpentry work was done for $8400, while the new furnishings would run over $15,000. In September, the new interior was unveiled on Rally Day as the Congregation marched in together to view the work for the first time. Phase three would not get off the drawing board until 1997.

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 Rev. 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 (Gilson Hall) 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. The Rev. Mahard would act 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. 50 questionnaires were returned.

Finally, in March,1987, the Rev. Fred Soberg was called as our new pastor to begin June 15. That summer, Craig Kephart would leave. He is now the pastor at the Venice Presbyterian Church in McDonald, Pa.

More remodeling occurred in 1989. The Fellowship Hall was spruced up with drywall and storage areas added plus a new ceiling and lighting for $12,000.

A part time youth pastor was added in 1991. Tom Swan worked diligently to develop a program to attract the youth of our community to Christ. Tom moved on in 1995. The youth program continues today under the leadership of Jami Hale Conn.

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.

Today, as this history is being written, we have nearly completed that major renovation project. We have widened the entrance and added a handicap ramp. In the basement below the sanctuary, new restrooms (also handicap accessible) were built along with new classrooms. The exterior has received a much needed facelift with new siding and a new roof. To this point the costs have run to about $160,000. And in the the near future, the upper vacant lot will be converted into a parking lot capable of accommodating about 24 vehicles.

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 next 100 years.

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