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175 years of spiritual leadership

  • St. John's United Church of Christ, Tamaqua
    St. John's United Church of Christ, Tamaqua
Published October 15. 2010 05:00PM

It's fitting that two Tamaqua congregations will mark their 175th anniversary on the same day - October 24. The two houses of worship have shared bonds since 1835.

Both churches share the name St. John's. Both congregations once worshipped in the same building, and both share a long, proud history of advancing Christian principles throughout the development of the town.

The two St. John's churches trace their start to earliest Protestant preachings in the town.

Those early services took place in 1810 or possibly earlier by circuit-riding preachers, some of whom were German Lutheran and some Reformed. They were called the Reise Predigers, German for "traveling preachers." The first ones known to visit Tamaqua three or four times a year were the Rev. John A. Schellhart, a German Lutheran, and the Reverends Theophilus Sillick, William Schaeffer, and the Rev. Daniel Hassinger, all Reformed.

St. John's United Churchof Christ

It is known that prayer services and communal baptismal ceremonies took place in Tamaqua regularly in 1825 through visits by the traveling ministers. Ten years later, St. John's United Church of Christ was organized when the Reverend David Hassinger grouped the Reformed residents into one congregation.

In 1836, the congregation embarked on plans for the town's first Protestant church in conjunction with a Lutheran congregation led by the Rev. Frederick Minner, with whom they had shared prayer space for quite some time. Both groups had been meeting in a little Dutch Hill schoolhouse.

On June 18, 1837, at the corner of Patterson and Biddle streets, a cornerstone was laid for the new Union Church and both congregations took the name St. John's. The completed church was dedicated on September 10 of that year. The structure was built on land donated by Richard Willing. The tiny, white, wooden church had three windows on each side and a small front tower. It stood for just 18 years before being replaced by a sturdy brick building on the same site. Today, a bronze marker embedded in stone and situated in the cemetery on Patterson Street denotes the exact location.

The two congregations continued to hold services together until 1883 (also reported 1885), when the congregation of St. John's German Reformed Church built their own wooden church on Pine Street, featuring two stories and several stained glass windows. The land was purchased for $1,500 from Lafayette and Catherine Fritsch. In 1914, a brick exterior was applied to the structure and the tower was rebuilt in grander style, $22,000 worth of improvements. A Hall pipe organ costing $7,000 was purchased in 1927 and much additional remodeling was done.

Several pastors served the church through the years, including the Reverend Peter Z. Oberfeld (German name, Oberfelter), who headed the church from 1847 until 1850. He gave his life rescuing a child during Tamaqua's Great Flood of 1850. From 1867 to 1875, part of the church's membership split apart under the name Trinity Reformed Church due to disapproval of a prayer meeting of the pastor at that time, the Rev. Julius Kurtz.

From the time when the Rev. Dr. Isaac E. Graeff served the church in the 1880s, St. John's Reformed had possession of the 1827 stone hotel, using it as a parsonage and private home. The building was built by the Little Schuylkill Company at the corner of Market and Mauch Chunk Streets and still stands today.

To note the 175th year on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010

A special worship service will take place at St. John's UCC at 9:30 a.m. with a guest sermon by the Rev. David Knoebel, son of the congregation whose father, the Rev. Arthur Knoebel, served as minister at St. John's from 1944-57. The general public is welcome and encouraged to attend the 9:30 a.m. worship service.

According to Ben Shafer, president, "We have four members of our church who went on to the ministry who are planning to participate in the worship service that day. They are Mrs. Joan (Kacik) Townshend, who was commissioned director of Christian education in 1957; the Rev. David H. Knoebel, who was ordained in 1961; the Rev. Brad S. Lutz, who was ordained in 1974; and Mr. Gary Rarick, who is currently attending Lancaster Theological Seminary and will graduate in the spring of next year."

Shafer noted that the Rev. Dr. Paul H. Sherry, who was ordained in 1958, is the only ordained son of the congregation who will not be in attendance since he has accepted a new position in Washington, D.C., and has obligations there pertaining to his duties.

The service will be followed by an anniversary dinner.

Also, in December, the church will host a Bach and Handel Chorale concert as part of the celebration, as the church looks forward to a strong and vital future.

"We're going to be here another 175 years," says the Rev. Kevin Duffy-Guy. "We're going to continue to minister to the community."

More information about the activities is available at (570) 668-2573.

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran congregation, officially organized 1835, shares much of its early history with St. John's United Church of Christ.

The church recognizes the Rev. John A. Schellhart as having served the congregation from 1810 to 1820, then traveling ministers from 1820 to 1835, and then the Rev. W. Minnich, 1838-40. The records for St. John's Lutheran Church from 1854 until 1857 are not available, but it is known that the Rev. G. Heilig came to the church in 1857 and remained until 1861. At that point the Rev. John F. Boyer headed the congregation until 1875. Some other early pastors were the Rev. E. T. Hennicks, 1876-80, the Rev. H.T. Duensing, 1880-85, the Rev. Paul Glasgow, 1886-89, and the Rev. A. E. F. Hanneman 1889-96.

The church on Dutch Hill needed repairs in 1883 and it proved an opportune time for major decision-making for there Lutheran congregation. The group purchased the share held by the Reformed wing at a cost of $1,500. An existing Sunday School on Mauch Chunk Street, built 1867, would now become the place of worship. In 1877, the Lutherans acquired the land adjacent to the school, extending their property west to Pine Street. This land would become the site of the new church. Bricks from the Dutch Hill church were used to "wall in" the Sunday School building.

On April 17, 1895, the congregation entered into agreement with Becker and Schilbe Contracting for construction of a new building at the corner of Mauch Chunk and Pine streets. Extra effort was put forth to incorporate as much of the old church as possible and to feature a Gothic tower rising 92 feet in which to place the original bell from the old church on Dutch Hill. This tower can still be seen today.

In 1908, the church edifice was renovated and redecorated. A new altar and altar hangings were dedicated. A big change took place on June 3, 1918, when church council approved the name change to St. John's evangelical Lutheran Church. All council and congregational meetings were then conducted in English, a departure from the original German language.

A modern educational building and parish house were constructed on July 1, 1956, under the pastorate of the Rev. Charles A. Mathias.

Other milestones have included: May 4, 1975, dedication of a redecorated church; July 4, 1976, dedication of a brass plaque in the church cemetery during the country's bicentennial; and Oct. 27, 1980, dedication of the History Room, through the help of Joseph Jacobs. The entire tower was repointed during the 1990s, along with other improvements.

St. John's Lutheran Church continues to maintain the original cemetery on Patterson Street where many of Tamaqua's first settlers are buried, including some of the Burkhardt Moser family and Tamaqua's first hero, the Rev. Peter Z. Oberfelter.

To note the 175th year on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church has been holding anniversary activities since October of last year when the anniversary year was launched at a service with Dr. Robert Hughes. Next Sunday, Oct. 24, the church will continue the celebration with a special worship service at 3 p.m., with the Rev. Dr. Samuel Zeiser, bishop, Northeastern Pa. Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church. The worship service will include a walk though the history of the church, and the general public is welcome and encouraged to be on hand at the anniversary service.

A dinner is planned following the service. Anniversary committee members include: Karen Campomizzi, chair; Judy Filanowski, Marilyn Henninger and Pastor Wofford.

"It's exciting. God calls us to do so much work," says the Rev. Phyllis Wofford, explaining that the church mission will continue with passion. "We do God's work with our hands, what I like to call faith in action. It's important we get people to search out God's word."

More information is available at (570) 668-4570.

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