The closing of St. John’s United Church of Christ (UCC) in June was like losing a family member for Amy Shirk.
It was, after all, the place where six generations of her immediate family on her mother’s side, the Hills, as well as her extended church family, gathered every Sunday to worship.
“In every room and every space of that church, I have memories of my family,” Shirk said. “I can only remember up to my great-grandmother, but she was like an angel on Earth.”
Affectionately known as “Nana” to everyone, Alice Christiana Harper would sit inside the Sunday School room each Sunday, serving as the de facto church greeter as people entered the building.
“Literally everyone who would come to St. John’s would have to say hello to her,” Shirk said. “She used to wear a charm bracelet that had a charm for all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so it had a lot of charms on it. She walked with a walker and just the memory of her charm bracelet tinkling is a clear memory to me in that church.”
Although the Hills were not charter members, the family roots do run deep over the church’s 159-year history. Amy’s grandfather, mother, and she all sang in the church choir and attended church religiously.
“For me, my church is so steeply rooted in my family that there are memories of my family everywhere, and that is one of the things that made me so sad about closing the doors,” Shirk said. “My mother sang in the choir since she was 12 and I sat right next to her in the alto section when I was a young girl.”
Shirk added that St. John’s, located on the 900 block of Willow Street, is one of the most beautiful buildings she’s ever seen, and noted that the acoustics in the sanctuary are heavenly. Adding to the building’s charm, the Belcher mosaic stained glass windows are reportedly the largest collection of its kind in the entire world, a statement she based on conversations with the church’s historian.
“The acoustics in the church are the best acoustics I’ve ever heard in my whole life and in any building that I’ve performed in,” Shirk said. “We would practice our singing downstairs and when we came up to the sanctuary to perform, it sounded 10 times better than it did down downstairs.”
Rev. David Jones, who is pastor at St. Mark’s UCC, which is just four blocks away and at St. John’s when it closed, said the building is unique.
“The one thing I’ll always remember about St. John’s is that when it was founded it was a church of innovation,” Jones said. “It was a church of innovation when it was originally built because the walls are so thick that if a tornado were to come through the area, that building would remain standing.”
At one time in its history, St. John’s steeple was the highest point within the city of Lebanon, Jones said, and added that it was the place to be on Sunday morning in its heyday.
“When the Lebanon Fire Department would get a new ladder truck, they would always bring it by the church to test it out,” Jones said. “If they could reach the top of the steeple, then they would know that they could reach the top of any building in Lebanon.”
Hired as only the 19th pastor in the church’s history, Jones said he agreed to be the pastor at St. John’s with the hope of being able to turn the tide of a declining membership base.
“I never went into the ministry with the intention of closing a church down,” Jones said. “To see a church go through this has been very hard. It was a slow downward spiral that they had been in for quite some time.”
There were many reasons, Jones noted, as to why the church was unable to regain new members. The inability to attract and retain new members to replace an aging church membership was the primary culprit.
“The biggest reason is that it was an older congregation that lacked youths and younger families,” Jones said. “The church couldn’t attract younger families because the older adults lacked the energy needed to create the kinds of programs that attract the youth.”
Jones said St. John’s has a pretty interesting history that, in some ways, actually predates its commissioning service on Oct. 18, 1860, which is about six months before the start of the Civil War.
The church was a spinoff of Tabor United Church of Christ, founded in 1760, and which just happens to be the same year the iconic Washington House was constructed in the 1000 block of Cumberland Street.
“There was no animosity between the members of Tabor and St. John’s because they viewed it as an opportunity to grow the local ministry,” Jones said. “The cornerstone was laid in May 1859 and when we recently took out the time capsule, it unfortunately was in a wooden box and everything in the box had disintegrated.”
Jones said the church existed as long as it did thanks to its use of high worship, meaning members practice numerous traditions during a service that were handed down through the generations.
“There’s a lot of standing up and a lot of kneeling and when I first came here, I really had to adapt to that format,” Jones said. “The members of this church found their connection to God through a high form of worship. While that is what helped them hang on for so long, it is, unfortunately, what has harmed them in modern times. It’s harder to reach the younger generation because they are not interested in practicing those traditions.”
As it became clear that the church family was nearing the end of its long-standing run, members started having conversations about one year before the final service on June 28 about St. John’s future.
“We would have congregational meetings and someone would ask a question and the conversation would revolve around that we can’t recover from this, we can’t turn this around,” Jones said. “It was hard to get the work of the church done, and the work involved in running such a large church became too much.”
Put to a vote that no one really wanted to take, the congregation voted 17 to 6 to close the doors forever and move the church’s assets, and the remaining membership, to nearby St. Mark’s UCC, located in the 400 block of N. 8th Street.
Although COVID-19 robbed the membership from gathering in what should have been a time to reminisce and slowly, but surely, say their goodbyes, about 50 members did attend the final service at St. John’s that last Sunday in June.
“There was a heavy mood in the sanctuary; it was an emotional service,” Jones said. “We did celebrate communion, and the one song we sang was “Jesus I Live to Thee,” which was written [in 1850] by [Rev.] Henry Harbaugh. Although singing was discouraged because of the coronavirus, it just didn’t seem right if he didn’t sing that song given the church’s history.”
Jones said the last service also witnessed the removal of key church articles, including a massive Bible presented by Tabor’s pastor Rev. F. W. Kreamer to Rev. Henry Harbaugh, St. John’s first minister.
“We carried out some of the most significant articles with the members of St. John’s turning over these items to St. Mark’s,” Jones said. “The cross on the altar, the offering plate, which represents our work for the church, and a book of worship, which signifies that our worship is going to continue in a new location.”
That final service was bittersweet for Shirk, who was married at St. John’s in 1992, saw both of her children baptized there 2001 and 2004 and served as the location for her mother’s funeral in 2018 and her father’s less than one year later.
“It was strange not going these past few months, but I was glad to have the final service to have closure,” Shirk said, choking back emotion. “It was still difficult because I wanted to hug people and yet I knew I couldn’t do that. There is a grieving and mourning process, really, by having so much family involvement. There are still a handful of people who have known me since the day I was born, so that was really hard, too. I kind of mourn losing them as well, and there’s been a lot of sadness involved throughout this whole process.”
While she hasn’t picked a new home church due to the pandemic, Shirk looks forward to the day when she can walk into the doors to begin what will hopefully be a new family tradition.
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An earlier version of this article had a picture of St. Mark’s at the top, rather than St. John’s. LebTown regrets the error.