A team of tough, dedicated Panther Valley coal miners did the unthinkable in 1931.
The hearty, confident workers planted dynamite inside a tall and stately house of God and lit the fuse.
But they weren't bent on destruction. Instead, they used skills honed from the dark recesses of the earth to artfully carve out a basement beneath a church. Their sweat, ingenuity and faith created much-needed space beneath the priceless 1896 brick cathedral at the corner of White and Market streets.
It was a daring, monumental job done by members of the church congregation. In total, the volunteers excavated 60,000 cubic feet of dirt and installed seven tons of steel beams and posts to support precious floors overhead. Some 520 feet of lineal French drains were placed under six inches of concrete floor, and then covered with 3,860 square feet of 4" Terrazzo finish.
The entire project was finished in 1942 after 16,000 man-hours of labor.
One must keep in mind the work was done by men who'd already spent a full day working in the mines. They couldn't give up their jobs, no matter what. All of this took place during the Depression years when families struggled to put food on the table.
"The women would make them dinner," said Diane Temples, church secretary and historian.
When all was said and done, the dangerous project was accomplished by sheer devotion.
No architects. No engineers. Just simple inspiration by the pure love of God.
"Our basement is a miracle," Temples explained.
house of God
The basement project was just another step forward for what began as the First Presbyterian Church of Summit Hill and Tamaqua.
The original church built on-site, 1846, had been a plain, wood-frame building erected at a cost of $1,415. It served as a regional facility for a congregation dating back to April 19, 1839.
"Back then there were 24 members from Summit Hill and six from Tamaqua," said Temples.
In fact, building a church high atop a mountain was an act of faith in itself. Summit Hill is said to be the highest elevation in the greater Lehigh Valley region. Buildings there are subjected to strong winds and severe weather. And the reality of severe weather continued to challenge the congregation in many ways.
But history shows that the church, from the start, was rooted in strength drawn from a wide region.
For example, in 1842, for a short time, Port Clinton was part of the Summit Hill congregation. It seemed members came and members went relative to religious dynamics of the era.
In 1843, another faction left when Tamaqua First Presbyterian Church formally organized to serve the population of eastern Schuylkill County. In fact, the Rev. Daniel Webster had been preaching monthly in a Tamaqua union church since 1838 or 1839. He'd done the same in Summit Hill, preaching every fourth Sunday since November 1836.
By 1867, the Summit Hill church had fallen into disrepair. Pieces of plaster would fall from the ceiling during services. The original wooden building was so dilapidated the snow would blow in and melt on the congregation. In fact, on Dec. 31, 1871, Sabbath school was suspended for need of infrastructure repairs.
In 1872, the church was remodeled, and in 1873 a manse was built next door. Things held up for another 20 or so years.
In November 1897, a daughter church was formed in Lansford, begun with 60 members from Summit Hill and the Mauch Chunk (now called Jim Thorpe) Presbyterian churches.
New church rises
But by 1895, the church once again was in need of extensive repairs.
In April, the original building was razed. Then, on Aug. 11, a cornerstone was laid for a new church by Rev. J. Robinson.
On Mar. 22, 1896, the new building was completed at a cost of $15,000.
According to records: "The church is a beautiful structure, built of brick with handsome colored windows. A large and spacious Sabbath School adjoins the sanctuary and can be made serviceable by means of rolling doors which separate the two rooms. The interior is handsomely finished in oak. The pews are arranged in a semicircular fashion so that the minister speaking from the pulpit can readily see the whole congregation. The church is lighted by means of electricity, a handsome electrileer being suspended from the ceiling. The tower, in its massive beauty, rises over 100 feet above the street."
The Summit Hill church thrived, its magnificent steeple becoming a landmark in the community. However, weather again became a factor with blizzards and wind taking a toll.
On Aug. 19, 1954, Hurricane Hazel struck a death knell for the spire after causing extensive damage. By July 1955, the congregation agreed to remove it rather than attempt repairs.
In 1971, the Lansford church merged with Summit Hill, in a sense, returning home. Three years later, the Jim Thorpe church also merged with Summit Hill, prompting a name change to the First Presbyterian Church of Panther Valley.
But even more change was yet to come.
In 2008, the Tamaqua First Presbyterian Church building closed after 151 years. That congregation also merged with Summit Hill. This event prompted yet another new name Hope of Christ Presbyterian Church.
Despite all of the changes, the mission remains constant along with many programs, such as the church's Winnie the Pooh Pre-School which has provided a foundation to well over 1,200 children for 40 years.
The skies haven't always been nice, but the church on the corner has weathered the storm. It even survived dynamite.
So what makes Hope of Christ special?
Members says it's a feeling of belonging.
"This place is home to me, it's my family," said Mary Beth Hankey, one of 140 members.
And that's because members share a bond. They believe in each other and something even greater.
"What keeps us going is the people serving the Lord," said Temples.
A celebration dinner for church members will take place Sat., April 26.
A celebratory service is set for 10:30 a.m., Sunday, April 27, with the Rev. Barbara Lucia, interim pastor.
The church features an exceptional chancel choir, often mistaken for a professional touring group, directed by the talented David Perkins.
There will be worship, fellowship, song and celebration. It'll be a blast in its own special way and the public is welcome to come help light the fuse.