Two Lebanon city churches – one more than 200 years old, the other over a century – have merged into a single congregation.
The members of Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, at 119 N. 8th St., and St. James Lutheran Church, at the corner of Second and Chestnuts streets, are now worshipping together at the Salem location. The St. James location was sold to the Paloma School, a bilingual Christian school, earlier this year for $420,000.
The two Lutheran churches have historical ties dating back to the founding of St. James as a satellite mission school in 1889.
Salem, according to the church website, “is the oldest Lutheran church in the city of Lebanon and one of the oldest in Lebanon County. Salem’s history includes leaders of the American Revolution and the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Salem has had a presence at the corner of Eighth and Willow Streets since 1760, where its congregation first gathered in a log church. The property on 8th Street today includes two buildings: the 18th-century Old Salem church, a two-story limestone building erected between 1796 and 1798 and expanded in 1848, and the 19th-century Salem Memorial Chapel, built in 1898 as a limestone and sandstone building “designed in a Gothic style with Richardsonian Romanesque influences.”
It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
With Salem’s Sunday school enrollments growing in the late 1800s, the pastor at the time proposed establishing mission schools in growing areas of Lebanon. St. James opened as a mission school in a rented space on Chestnut Street; the cornerstone for Salem St. James Chapel was laid in 1890. St. James membership also grew, and the church was expanded in 1904 — the same year St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church received its Articles of Incorporation.
According to a press release submitted by Linda Brandt, a member of Salem’s Archives Committee, both congregations joined the Lebanon Lutheran Cooperative in 2014, bringing them together again in a new relationship.
“After several years of working together, in 2023 the two congregations spent months in prayer, discussion, and discernment,” Brandt said in the release. “On April 30, 2023, at a special congregational meeting, St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church members voted unanimously to merge with Salem. At the same special congregational meeting Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church members voted to accept St. James in merger.”
Linda Ebling, president of Salem’s Congregation Council, told LebTown that, with the sale of St. James earlier this year, “there are no additional property issues to be taken care of as part of the merger.”
“Salem has a large property so no changes were needed for the facilities to accommodate St. James’ members,” Ebling added. The only job that was impacted by the merger was the church secretary, she said, “but Salem had hired St. James’ secretary to work for us as well as St. James since it was a part time job for both churches.”
The impetus for merging, Ebling said, “was a financial decision.” Two-thirds of St. James’ members decided to join with Salem, she explained.
Although she did not provide membership numbers for the two churches, Ebling said “the number has grown” since the merger and, in the spring, “we added five new members from outside our two churches.”
“The two congregations are blending well,” she said. “Both councils have been working together as one since early spring and all committees have members from both congregations. It energizes all as we decide together which traditions one or the other or a blend of the two we will use. Since we haven’t gone through the whole church calendar together yet it is still new and exciting every quarter.
“We also seem to be doing more fellowship things together which helps all to get to know each other on a more personal level.”
Celebrating the merger
The unified church will celebrate the union of two congregations with a celebratory merger service on Sunday, Oct. 29, at 9 a.m. The Rev. James Dunlop, bishop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, will preach at the service. Deacon Marsha Roscoe, assistant to the bishop, will deliver a children’s message. Rev. Pamela Carnes, interim pastor of Salem, will preside at the service.
“We are looking forward to our celebration of merger,” Ebling said.
Music will be provided by Mark S. Dimick, organist and cantor, leading Salem’s choir. Salem’s hand bell choir under the direction of Louise Pouss will also provide music for the service, and there will be a display of memorabilia and artifacts from both congregations.
A search is underway for a permanent pastor at the church. Ebling said the church has formed a committee consisting of three members from each congregation. The process is being led by the Lower Susquehanna Synod, she said.
“The merged congregation of Salem is looking forward to calling their first pastor together,” Brandt said in the release. “This is an exciting time in their life together as they look to the future, trusting the promise of the Lord Jesus, to be with them always, as they seek to serve others in his name.”
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