The Wenger Meetinghouse just outside Jonestown proper remains a beautiful restoration of a historic building, thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Wenger Meetinghouse Preservation Association, but the existence and upkeep of the building was not always a guarantee.
Warren Wenger, a 9th-generation Wenger family descendant, is the president of the Wenger Meetinghouse Preservation Association (WMPA). “I never thought I’d be involved with this place as much as I am today,” said Warren, who for clarity’s sake will be referred to by his first name.
The Wenger’s Cemetery Association (WCA), not to be confused with either the Wenger Family Assocation (WFA) or the Wenger Meetinghouse Preservation Association (WMPA), owns the property, while the WMPA is in charge of maintenance and upkeep. Warren was asked to join the WCA in 1980, and has been involved with various aspects of Wenger history, including the meetinghouse, for quite some time.
The long road to preservation
The term meetinghouse refers to a particular kind of old-fashioned American building. Certain historic meetinghouses in colonial America doubled as both a place to discuss public and official matters and a place of worship, distinct from the contemporary definition of a church, referring to the worshiping congregation and not the physical building. As the separation of church and state became an important component of American government, the dual purpose of many meetinghouses narrowed into one or the other.
The Wenger Meetinghouse was constructed in 1871 on the 170-acre Hans Wenger homestead. Hans and wife Anna, who died in 1772 and 1771 respectively, are thought to be buried on the property, according to Warren. The United Zion church, a relatively tiny offshoot of Pennsylvania Mennonites originating in the 1850s, used the building for religious services. Before the meetinghouse, church members held meetings in regular houses.
The United Zion church occupied the meetinghouse until the mid-20th century. It was sold in 1977 to the WCA, who has owned the property ever since.
The continued existence of the meetinghouse has had some close calls. In May of 1953, the United Zion church, while planning to move services to Fredericksburg, attempted to auction the building off, stipulating that “Whoever purchases the building, according to the terms of the sale, must remove it from the premises. The church site is to be added to the cemetery to enlarge it.” The sale, however, was halted by an unknown individual. In the 2000s, there was another debate regarding whether to embark on preservation efforts or tear it down. Ultimately, the building stayed.
The WMPA began unofficially in 2010, before being recognized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization the following year. It was clear that the meetinghouse had seen better days when the restoration efforts began. A roof leak, beginning in the 1980s or earlier, had done damage to the walls and interior. The building had been used sparingly for decades since the last United Zion service in 1974: aside from a WCA Homecoming Service in 1978 and a small period of rental by an independent congregation in the 1980s, there was no notable occupation of the building until 2004, when the WFA decided to move its August reunion worship service there from Lancaster.
“We started at the top and worked down,” said Warren regarding the restoration efforts. A new slate roof was put on, along with a new chimney, redone windows, shutters, and brickwork. All work on the building was done by Lebanon County businesses, save for the roof, which was finished by a Lancaster contractor.
There have not been significant projects undertaken on the meetinghouse since the 2013 restoration, but new updates are being discussed, including a redone floor, refinished pews, and period-accurate stoves. The carpet and floor have been kept for “a long time” and several areas at the feet of pews have worn through to the planks below. The stoves are thought to have been added in the 1950s or 1960s, though the information on them is sparse.
Information on the other aspects of the building is somewhat lacking–it is unknown how old the ceiling is, and the origin of the furniture is also unclear. The pews, first thought to be original, were found to have woodwork more ornate than anything the United Zion would have used in their time. Likewise, the stand at the front of the congregation is probably not original. “In the United Zion church, the minister is on the same level as the people,” explained Warren.
With new preservation projects on the horizon, the meetinghouse looks to be in great shape for future events. The 97th Annual Wenger Reunion will be held beginning on August 16. The events during the reunion include the Historical Meeting at 7:00pm on August 16, the Reunion Meeting at 2:00pm on August 17, and the Worship Service at 11:00am on August 18. On September 8 at 2:30pm, the 6th Annual PA German Service will be held at the meetinghouse, and on December 8 at 2:30pm the 4th Annual “Christmas at The Wenger Meetinghouse” will commence.
Warren is pleased with the renewed interest in the building. “Everything fell into place,” he said, regarding the restoration of the once-neglected meetinghouse. “The building is used more now than it has been in a long time.”