The oldest church in Carbon County has just reached a new pinnacle.

Members of Ben Salem United Church of Christ, founded 1797, say the house of worship's $2.3-million-dollar complex is free of debt, paving the way to unbridled worship to the glory of God at the serene, 14-acre setting along Church Hill Road in Lehighton.

To get the job done, the 500-member congregation pulled together and coordinated an unprecedented amount of fundraisers and special events that enabled the church to pay off the mortgage in just eight years.

The church building, built in 2002 and only the third one in 214 years, came with a $1.85M price tag. The balance was spent on a bell tower and expansive parking lot.

"The bottom line is that the Lord does it," says Dayle Smith, church elder and past board president. "If the congregation firmly believes it's going to happen and if they have faith in the Lord, then it'll get done."

The Rev. Jim Knappenberger, interim pastor, acknowledges the importance of the achievement, something unique by any standard.

"It's the first retirement of a mortgage at any church I've been," he says.

On Thursday, Sharon Elder, board member, and Dolores Kuehner, fundraising chairman, discussed the many different activities that went into raising funds to pay the mortgage, starting with a general campaign.

The capital fund campaign was launched Oct. 29, 2000, and brought in $600,000. Monies derived from activities sponsored by the United Church Women, the Fundraisers Committee, and Ben Salem Blanket Makers and Quilters also backed the effort. Among the initiatives were handmade quilt raffles, craft bazaars, and selling pizza, cookie dough, doughnuts, hoagies, pierogies, and you name it.

In addition, there were dinners, strawberry socials, county fair stands, public auctions, book fairs, sales of cosmetics, housewares, candy and even wood art.

Church members say they're grateful for the support of the Rev. Jeff Kistler who was on board for the majority of the project campaign, later retiring.

Smith says church members also are grateful to New Tripoli Bank for having faith in the congregation.

"When a bank sticks its neck out for a church, it's a whole different thing," says Smith, explaining that banks typically take a much different view of a church mortgage application compared to a residential mortgage.

The church complex includes a cemetery and social hall, the latter located near the site of the previous church building which was torn down.

Members says plans are being looked at for the potential addition of a wing at the site of the new church.

The first worship service in the new building took place on Dec. 18, 2002, with a dedication service on Jan. 5, 2003.

Ben Salem Church has the distinction of being the oldest church in Carbon County. It grew at the site of an early settlement and place of worship and education. Services took place in neighborhood barns and houses. From its founding days, Ben Salem was a Union Church of Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

The first church was a log building measuring 30-feet by 45-feet. The second building, built 1855, was made of brick. It was remodeled in 1927 and again in later years.

In January, 1986, the Lutheran and UCC congregations consolidated into one faith under the auspices of the UCC, with the Rev. Paul. W. Cope called as the first full-time pastor in 189 years.

The general public is invited to join with the Ben Salem congregation on Sunday for one of two morning services at which time the mortgage document will be shredded. The 8:15 a.m. service will feature a contemporary format while the 10:30 a.m. service will be traditional for those who prefer a more classic manner of worship.

A noontime farewell luncheon also is on the itinerary as the congregation will offer best wishes to departing Pastor Knappenberger.

On April 18, Ben Salem UCC will welcome a new pastor, the Rev. Michael McGowan.

Ben Salem members are dedicated to the church constitution: "To worship God; to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to celebrate the Sacraments; to realize Christian fellowship and unity within this church and the church universal; to render loving service toward all people, and to strive for righteousness, justice and peace."