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Spotlight: Lansford's original house of worship

Volunteers seek public's help to save 1850 Old Welsh Church

Once facing certain demolition, Lansford’s Old Welsh Church is proving to be as tough as the miners who built it.

The 1850 wood-frame building is a time capsule of truly historic proportions and has been beating the odds, including weather, neglect and even fire.

Some might even call its survival a miracle. Whatever the case, volunteers say immediate steps are needed to stabilize the structure, especially after a destructive blaze 10 years ago.

Old timber

Construction began on Lansford’s first church at a corner on West Abbott Street in 1849 and “some of the timber used to build the church was 100 years old,” says volunteer Bruce Markovich of Lansford. That means some of the wood came from trees still standing when George Washington was president and Indians roamed the valley.

“The church was at first nondenominational. Catholics and Protestants used the same building and it was also used as a school,” he says.

In fact, Bill Harleman, president of the Lansford Historical Society, clarified the strategic role the church played in helping to establish a few of Lansford’s early faith communities.

“It was the first church built in Ashton, as it was known then,” he says. “And it not only served the Welsh, but a number of ethnic groups and denominations were allowed to use it while organizing their own congregations and later building their own churches. It was 20-plus years later when the next church was built in Lansford.”

Harleman calls the church “one of the most historical buildings of the valley.”

In 1869 the church overcame another unique challenge. Because of difficulties with the Welsh language, some members saw a need for an English liturgy and asked that a service be conducted in English. They were refused and decided to break away and form a new church, called the English Congregational Church.

In later years, other members and their descendants became founders and members of area Protestant churches.

Perhaps most unusual, the church never had indoor plumbing. Instead the congregation used an outhouse.

In August 1902, the church served as temporary headquarters for the 12th Pennsylvania Regiment of state militia when the regiment arrived to restore order during the Great Coal Strike.

In 2009, the building survived what was termed a “fully involved structure fire” fought by five fire departments from two counties. The blaze roared for five hours, and yet when firefighters finally entered the place they were surprised to find damage less severe than what they’d anticipated.

That stroke of luck was eye-opening, maybe even miraculous, considering the building’s wood timbers were dry and the place lacked running water.

The Old Welsh Church underwent a restoration beginning June 4, 1985, with help of the Centennial Committee.

More than $34,000 was raised to bring the church back to original condition.

A hardworking group of volunteers, The Welsh Congregational Church Preservation Society, organized a restoration ceremony on Aug. 17, 1986. The group also published an ambitious 48-page printed program detailing the early history and re-emergence of Lansford’s most time-honored house of worship. The booklet indicates that the final regular service took place in 1935, although occasional services or special events were hosted at the church in later years.

For instance, a centennial celebration was held Dec. 26, 1950.

Just a few months ago, preservation society members Michelle Griffiths and Lynn Richards were among the volunteers who conveyed the church deed to the Lansford Historical Society as a step toward restoration.

Security a priority

“First, the place is being secured against vandalism,” said member Dale Freudenberger.

Markovich, whose ancestors were married at the church, says other work is needed immediately to stabilize the building.

“The sill plate which holds up the walls has rotted. The rear has dropped 5 inches. The church has to be jacked up to its original position and the entire sill plate replaced. Three rotted roof joists need to be replaced and the entire roof.”

Markovich says the plan is to complete structural repairs in 2018. Then, next year, address interior needs.

“Our projected completion date is Christmas of 2020,” he said, which would be the building’s 120th anniversary.

“Our long-range plan is to move the oldest house in Lansford onto the property to use as a miners display and working bathroom.”

The society hopes to raise $10,000 this year. Project total costs will be around $60,000.

In the meantime, the society is asking for the public’s support. In addition to donations, the group needs assistance from skilled tradespeople who might be able to lend a hand, whether by helping with roofing, electrical or construction. It is hoped that youngsters who live nearby might help with keeping the property trimmed and maintained.

Those willing to help are urged to call 570-617-4683.

“It’s been here for 168 years,” said Markovich. “We want it to last 168 more.”

Historian and volunteer Bruce Markovich of Lansford says the elaborate brass chandelier inside the 1850 Old Welsh Church originally held candles. Later it was converted to gas, and then, finally, electricity.
Surprisingly, the Old Welsh Church on Abbott Street never had running water. It’s treasured as Lansford’s oldest church and a contributing resource to the Lansford Historic District. But public support is needed to secure and save the building. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Volunteers, neighbors and other interested parties take a break after gathering on May 10 to assess the condition of Lansford’s 1850 Old Welsh Church. Additional help is sought to restore the historic property.
A 2009 fire left a gaping hole in the church’s main floor and damaged support beams.