Sewickley church to mark 175 years

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From a small group of settlers who worshiped along a stream, members of The Presbyterian Church in Sewickley have grown to a large community that will gather Sunday in the grand stone building at 414 Grant St. to celebrate the church's 175th anniversary.

"We were a pioneer church before Sewickley was even a town," said member Nancy Merrill.

More than 200 years ago, a small group of Scots-Irish settlers gathered in homes and barns to worship together in an area called Sewickley Bottoms. This group often would meet with another group of settlers for worship when a traveling preacher visited.

"Itinerant pastors would come through on horseback," Mrs. Merrill said.

By the 1820s, there were 20 or 30 people who worshiped regularly together. They created a small church from clapboards and squared logs, with a floor and seats made of "puncheon," a broad and heavy section of timber. The Rev. Michael Law delivered the first service in this log cabin church, using a Bible brought from Scotland in 1778.

The Rev. Daniel Eagle Nevin of the Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh eventually was invited to preach at the church. Rev. Nevin was paid $500 annually to split his time preaching at both the Sewickley church and at Fairmont Presbyterian Church.

With a growing congregation and permanent minister, the church requested to be formally organized by the Pittsburgh Presbytery. The church now celebrates that date, Feb.17, 1838, as its Founders Day.

For the next three years, the congregation worked on planning a new church while worshiping together at the Edgeworth Female Seminary. By 1843, the new church had been constructed and membership grew to 60.

In 1851, yet another change took place: The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Railway began traveling through Sewickley Bottoms. Because worshipers could then travel to and from Pittsburgh by train instead of horse and buggy, membership boomed to 235. A newer, larger church became necessary.

Architect Joseph Kerr designed the new building, which stands at Grant and Beaver streets today. The stone in the church's foundation, walls and steeple was donated by local quarry owner Jemima Anderson, who owned a farm on Blackburn Road.

Construction of the church was completed in 1861 for a cost of $12,500.

New changes and additions have taken place over the years, but the most striking change may be the "really extraordinary windows in the church that have been installed over decades," according to Mrs. Merrill. Stained glass designed by John LaFarge, Howard Wilbert, Charles Connick and Louis C. Tiffany has replaced old, clear glass windows.

As part of the 175th anniversary celebration, a booklet has been prepared detailing the history of the stained-glass windows.

"The windows are really wonderful treasures," said Mrs. Merrill.

The church plans to extend its anniversary celebration throughout the year.

A number of musical events are scheduled, and once a month on Sunday mornings, "someone from our past drops in to say hello," Mrs. Merrill said. For example, "In February, three of the earliest church elders stopped by in their kilts and chatted with the congregation about the early years," she said.

In May and September, lectures on early Presbyterianism in Sewickley are planned. The church plans to wrap up the yearlong celebration with a play in January. The play, also performed for the church's 100th anniversary, "will be a fun thing for kids, adults and for the whole church family," Mrs. Merrill said.

All celebrations aside, Mrs. Merrill reflected on the true meaning of the church's 175th anniversary.

"I think the importance of an anniversary is to remember those who went before us, the sacrifices they made, and the foundations they laid that we enjoy today," she said. "Anniversaries encourage us to look back and appreciate who went before us."


Shellie Petri Budzeak, freelance writer:


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