Keeping Welsh church tradition alive in Ebensburg

Heritage focus of annual gathering at historic site


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On a rainy Sunday morning in August 2004, Carol Ellis, 71, drove four hours from her home in Shamokin to Ebensburg. There, she found an old white church building labeled “SALEM” with the year “1839” inscribed above it.

Outside, there was a tent set up for a meal later in the day, but inside, there was “no electricity, no nothing.”

“They had to open the windows so you could see,” she recalled.

The rickety old structure once housed the Salem Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church of North Ebensburg. Started in 1839, the congregation — hardly unique for catering to the predominant Welsh population in the Ebensburg area — met in the homes of its members until the present tract of land was purchased in 1854. A church was built that same year, but it was torn down and reconstructed in 1882.

The church itself has not changed much since then, save for bringing in a fan and some lights, but the congregation and its membership certainly has. In fact, the church formally dissolved in 1920, but because the community was reluctant to completely dissipate, an unorthodox plan was agreed upon.

Instead of meeting weekly, why not meet yearly?

This arrangement, named the Salem Homecoming Church, has persisted almost without interruption from 1921 until now, and will have its next iteration today. Each year, Welsh folks from all over the state bring their families, friends and other guests for a sermon, an outdoor picnic and — the favorite activity of many churchgoers interviewed — a group singalong of Welsh hymns (led by Ms. Ellis since 2004).

John Rhoades, a Pittsburgh native, began attending the annual services with his family — his mother’s side being Welsh and from Ebensburg — since before his earliest memories. He looked forward to these summer outings, he said, because the mystery and the rarity of the event led him to believe that they were going to a “secret little place.” He’s now the board president of the Salem Homecoming Association (salemreunion.wordpress.com).

After refraining from attending the annual services for portions of high school and college, Mr. Rhoades, 31 and residing in Polish Hill, returned just a couple of years ago, in most part to reconnect with his grandfather, who remains a devoted attendee. He found that both his own attitudes about the tradition and the congregation itself had changed considerably.

For the first time, Mr. Rhoades saw past the friends, the food and the song. His current interest, he said, is in the church’s history and the congregation’s spirituality.

Despite the large Welsh population in Ebensburg, very few people still describe themselves as “Calvinistic Methodists,” Mr. Rhoades said. Further, most Salem attendees go to other churches in other denominations throughout the rest of the year. Thus, the congregation has a “rotating minister” setup, where a different minister each year is borrowed from another church for this one Sunday.

This year, the minister is a pastor at the Ebensburg First United Church of Christ, but Mr. Rhoades said he hopes to invite ministers from other denominations and backgrounds for future services. “That’s one of the things I look forward to exploring more in the future — connecting to ministers,” he said.

Although the church is rooted in Welsh tradition, it has, of course, since opened up to people of other cultures and faiths as well. Dick Davis, 93, of Ebensburg, who has attended the Salem Homecoming quasi-regularly for more than 80 years, said he has even brought his Jewish friends to services in recent years.

“It’s an open invitation to anybody who’s interested in a little piece of Welsh culture from old times,” he said.

But there is one concern that Mr. Rhoades, as board president, hopes to resolve before continuing to expand the cultural and spiritual sides of the community: Membership has hit a record low over the past couple of years, hovering at around 30. As a child, Mr. Rhoades remembered the services as being “standing room only.” Likewise, Mr. Davis has not attended services for the past couple of years due to health issues, but he recalled there being more than a hundred attendees just a few years back, when he last went to Salem with his grandson.

And church records show, Mr. Davis claimed, that the first couple of reunions attracted more than 1,000 attendees.

The issue, according to all churchgoers interviewed, is that the older crowd has phased out without much new, young membership flowing in. And though the church has traditionally found members from all over the state, the distance between Ebensburg and the homes of the Salem attendees makes retention, at least across generations, somewhat difficult.

But Mr. Rhoades is not discouraged by low numbers in recent years. In fact, he said he knows of approximately 75 individuals who said they would attend the upcoming reunion. Through the simple means of setting up a website, promoting the event on Facebook and coordinating with the St. David’s Society of Pittsburgh (a Welsh heritage group), he has found many potential new Salem members — with most of them in the desired younger crowd.

“There’s definitely an idea among the young generation now about appreciating our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ traditions,” he said. Young people nowadays are technologically inclined, but that does not mean they are averse to embracing “more analog” traditions, Mr. Rhoades explained.

For instance, the music.

Everyone knows that almost nobody knows the Welsh language within the congregation, Mr. Rhoades said. (Mr. Rhoades often signs off on emails with Welsh salutations, but he conceded that he probably cannot correctly pronounce such words out loud.)

Even Ms. Ellis, who leads the singing and has returned almost every year in the decade following her initial visit to conduct the congregation, acknowledged that she can only so much as encourage the church members to sing in Welsh. And if the guttural and consonant-heavy language is too much to speak, the attendees are provided with English lyrics.

After all, it is the act of singing that matters most in Welsh culture.

Yet one of Ms. Ellis’ first and fondest Salem memories suggests otherwise, at least in a divine sense.

On that Sunday in August 2004, the rain was coming down hard — until the music began.

“It was raining when we started [singing], but when we started singing in Welsh, the rain stopped and the sun came out, shining through the windows,” Ms. Ellis explained.

“Everyone was sure it was a sign from God.”

Wesley Yiin: wyiin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1723. Twitter: @YiinYangYale.


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