Wenger

The author, Chester L. Wenger, is seated at right, holding the hand of his wife, Sara Jane Wenger, at the wedding of their son, Philip R. Wenger, top right, to husband Steve Dinnocenti, top left.

Longtime pastor Chester Lehman Wenger attracted national attention in 2014, when his credentials were stripped by officials at the Lancaster Mennonite Conference as punishment for officiating at his son's same-sex wedding.

And after the 102-year-old's death last week, that same son remembered Wenger as a mentor and friend.

"I just couldn't be more proud to be his son," Phil Wenger said.

Chester Wenger died early Thursday at Landis Homes near Lititz, according to his obituary, which noted that he spent his last days playing harmonica and thinking about how to "transform whole communities."

The long-time pastor, missionary and church leader was the youngest of seven children — the son of A.D. Wenger, who served as president of the Eastern Mennonite School in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It's there that Chester Wenger met his wife of 73 years, the late Sara Jane, with whom he eventually had eight children.

"He loved his children," Phil Wenger said.

Chester Wenger also devoted his life to faith, working for more than a decade as a missionary in Ethiopia, where he founded the Bible Academy of Nazareth. Later, he was the first chairman of Ethiopia's Meserete Kristos Church, according to LNP | LancasterOnline archives.

Eventually, he returned to the United States and to Lancaster County, where he directed home ministries and evangelism programs at the Salunga-based Eastern Mennonite Missions before serving as the pastor at what would become Blossom Mennonite Church. He stepped down in 1991.

It was more than two decades later, in 2014, when Chester Wenger was thrust into the national spotlight, choosing to officiate at the wedding of his son, Phil Wenger and his same-sex partner, Steve Dinnocenti. Chester Wenger was 96 years old at the time.

It was that action that led to the loss of his credentials. Still, he stood by his decision, authoring an open letter to church leaders, calling for inclusivity.

On Monday, Phil Wenger made sure to point out that his father forgave church leaders.

"It was just a remarkable example," the son said, remembering his father for his faith and recalling an earlier conversation they had. "He came to me and said, 'You know, sometimes people just don't understand.'"

While the nation may remember Chester Wenger for his same-sex marriage stance, Phil Wenger remembered his father for everyday moments, too.

Phil Wenger, founder of the Isaac's restaurant chain, spoke about how his father offered business advice and support.

Now, Phil Wenger serves as president and CEO of the Lancaster Conservancy, and he also credited his father for instilling in him a love of nature — teaching him about different types of trees and animals.

"He was always stopping the car and looking into the sky and pointing out the birds up above," Phil Wenger said.

Phil Wenger also memorialized his father in an email shortly after his death.

"He loved life, his family, his church and our natural world," Phil Wenger said.

Chester Wenger was preceded in death by his wife, Sara Jane, and his eldest son, Chester Lloyd Wenger. He had 16 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.