Temple of learning
DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS It looks like a church, but it isn't one, and never was. The building along Grier Avenue in Grier City is the historic 1885 Union Sabbath School, a facility in need of support from a new wave of volunteers.
For 127 years, it's filled a special role as the area's only non-denominational forum for celebration, bible study and community spirit.
Today, its future is unclear.
Membership has dwindled at the Grier City Union Sabbath School and adult volunteers are needed to keep the doors open.
Right now, three women and a handful of helpers are doing their best to maintain the site - Loretta Beltz, Quakake, Edie Messerschmidt, Grier City, and Georgine Clemens, Still Creek.
All three have spent many years devoted to the facility. For example, Beltz has taught Sunday School there for over 42 years. Messerschmidt has played the piano for at least 35 years. Clemens spends hours keeping the place shipshape.
But where are the volunteers of tomorrow who'll continue the tradition?
In an attempt to secure help in perpetuity for the historic facility, the women have pursued the building's nomination to the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places. The unique school appears to merit that distinction. However, such a nomination does not result in state financial assistance nor does it guarantee manpower needed to keep the doors open. Therein lies the problem.
There is no question the school is rich in heritage. Its role as the center of the community is unquestionable, say supporters.
"Mary Heffelfinger will be 102 in May. She raised her family in Grier City and she says 'everybody went' to the site," says Messerschmidt. That's because Bible study wasn't the only thing taking place inside.
Sunday school was only one role of the facility. Also held there were funeral dinners, social events, girl and boy scout meetings, and even a quilting bee held on Mondays.
"There was a homecoming day in 1925 with a musical and a quartet from Mahanoy City under Carl Zellers," says Beltz, the former Loretta Price of Locust Valley.
"On Sunday night they'd hold a church service if a minister was available to donate his time," says Messerschmidt.
The large sandstone school is so important to Messerschmidt that when her husband Bill passed away last May, Messerschmidt designated all memorial donations to go to upkeep of the school. The couple had been married 38 years and Edie recognized her husband's devotion to the place.
"Bill was a superintendent there," says Messerschmidt, the former Edie Godshall.
The school was founded at a February 28, 1885, organizational meeting held on the front porch of what is now the Messerschmidt homestead at 187 Grier Avenue. Early records suggest that the school building was once a firehouse situated on a parcel owned by George Purnell. But the building was moved.
Today, the school is located at 202 Grier Avenue. The street is a hill leading up to I-81 atop the mountain. According to records, the building actually had been constructed a few parcels away, downhill. The school was rolled uphill on logs to its current location and a new public school, still standing but now a private residence, was then erected at the original site. In those days, the school was known as the Ebertsville Union Sunday School.
At one point, kerosene lamps, a chandelier and pews were donated to the school by Primitive Methodist Church, Tamaqua, the nation's oldest church of that denomination. But the Grier City Sunday School building saw a touch of bad luck. On January 8, 1951, a fire heavily damaged the basement and top floor, apparently destroying or damaging those donated pews. They were then replaced and repairs were made to damaged stained glass windows. In fact, to this day, the main overhead wooden beam in the cellar boiler room is visually charred, a reminder of the fire that came close to destroying the timeless temple of learning.
The school today is in excellent condition thanks to work by the small corps of volunteers. The wooden floors have been repaired, furnace updated, and the roof is fairly new.
The interior is kept spic-and-span thanks to strong worth ethic and plenty of devotion by Georgine Clemens.
But the women worry about the future. Financial help is needed to maintain the facility and manpower is critical. Who will take over? Can the Grier City Sunday School survive?
Families served come from not only the 954 residents of Grier City and Park Crest, but a wide area. Still, the numbers are low. The school presently serves 29 youngsters, although only about 10 are active.
"At one time there were 40 to 50 children in primary," says Beltz. In fact, she recalls a time when the school was so crowded with participants during a Christmas celebration that there wasn't enough space to accommodate all of the angels and shepherds. Their cup runneth over. But those days are history.
However, valued instruction still takes place. The adult level teacher is Linda Light. Beltz handles the nursery, Clemens is in charge of first and second grades, Penny Chescattie specializes in fourth and fifth, and Messerschmidt takes care of fifth and up."We're open to new members and if anyone is out there looking for a church, we could rent the top floor," says Messerschmidt. That portion of the building is set up like a traditional church with altar, pews, organ and piano. The only difference, perhaps, is that the stained glass windows feature geometric Art Deco designs instead of spiritual depictions. This likely was done due to the bible school's unique status as nondenominational. The stained glass windows were designed by J.M. Kase. Inc., of Reading, Pa.
Simply put, the rich tradition of Grier City Sunday School is in jeopardy.
Shadows of doubt linger over the survival of the meeting hall that has served as the heartbeat of the town. The 1885 Grier City Union Sabbath School has miraculously survived for 127 years, its mission never wavering. And it might be the only Sunday school of its kind in the region.
But will its revered heritage be strong enough to help it continue?
"Our main goal is to make sure there's a future," says Messerschmidt.
A fund has been set up to try continue the mission. Donations are being accepted at Grier City Sunday School, c/o Edie Messerschmidt, 187 Grier Avenue, Barnesville, Pa., 18214.
More information about the school is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.