As you drive along Mountville’s Main Street, the towers of the Gothic-style St. Paul’s United Methodist Church rise above the trees.
A large stained-glass window overlooks the roadway. In the afternoon and evening hours, sunlight pours through the colorful glass illuminating the sanctuary. At night, interior spotlights illuminate it for passersby.
But the church’s prominence is not based solely on its stately architecture. It also is the oldest house of worship in the borough and a community gathering place.
On Sunday, May 19, St. Paul’s, located at 100 W. Main St., will begin a yearlong celebration marking its 175th anniversary.
“It’s the big stone church with the big heart,” said Elaine Savukas, who serves as a Sunday school teacher as well as the chairperson of St. Paul’s 175th anniversary committee.
The service will feature four former pastors — the Revs. John Lynch, Arthur Rettew, Ted Mefford and Janet Steger. The service also will honor more than two dozen 50-year members. And a time capsule that was buried during the church’s 150th anniversary will be unveiled.
Following the service, a catered meal, which has sold out, will be served in the fellowship hall.
A brief history
St. Paul’s evolved from three separate denominations. It began in 1844 as a United Brethren in Christ Church, became an Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1946 and merged with the United Methodist Church in 1968.
Organizing members first met in a barn on the John Hoover farm, several miles north of Mountville. In 1844, they paid $1 to a local United Brethren bishop for a half acre of land on his farm. The single-story brick church they constructed featured separate entrances and seating for men and women. The services were conducted in English and German. No pastor was assigned to the church. Instead, it ws served by circuit riders who pastored different churches in the county.
A unique footnote about that first structure is that during one especially enthusiastic service, part of the floor collapsed.
“I think they were, uh, very evangelical,” Savukas said.
According to church history, men from the congregation held up the floor joists to keep the coal stove from toppling into the basement.
By 1869, membership had outgrown the existing church and members opted to build a new brick church across the street at 45 W. Main St.
The current church
Another membership surge followed and in 1905, the current Gothic-style church was built on the site of the first church. The design came from a catalog of church architectural plans from the 1870s which, lay leader John Hostetter noted, predated the Sears, Roebuck catalogue.
The sanctuary is curved, as is the pulpit. A pair of large stained-glass windows augment the wooden ceiling beams. The five aisles are neither deep nor wide. And that has been known to cause problems. Church member Doug Warner said rear pews can be removed if a casket is brought into the church for a funeral. But he recalls a lighter moment. When he and his wife, Margaret, were married at the church, her wedding gown train snagged on a pew.
The church has changed over the decades — an education wing and fellowship hall were added in the 1950s. The kitchen has been upgraded. In the 1990s, structural concerns forced the church to lower the bell tower by 15 feet and remove the bell, which has since been replaced with a carillon.
The church also replaced its Rodgers electric organ with a Buch/Walker digital organ, said organist and choirmaster Eric Laurie.
A busy church
Today the church has 227 members and averages 90-110 on a Sunday.
It also serves as a community resource, hosting preschool and Bible2School programs. The church has a clothing bank and provides bus passes to school students.
Other community outreach programs include Lumina, donations to the Columbia Food Bank and Gatehouse for Women. It also sponsors missionary workers.
“It’s a busy church,” said the Rev. Jim Calvallero, who has been the pastor since 2013. “On top of that, we sponsor two (Alcoholic Anonymous) groups, Wellness That Works, the Masons meet here and we provide space for (Boy Scout Troop 349) and the Lions Club.”
It was Cavallero’s suggestion that the church expand the celebration for all of 2019. He said church members have been enthusastic about the anniversary. Some from as far away as Florida have reserved space for Sunday’s dinner.
“We’ve had a much greater response than we expected,” he said.
Later this year, West District Superintendent, the Rev. Bumkoo Chung, and Eastern Conference Bishop Peggy Johnson will attend special services.