MOUNT CARMEL — For the three remaining parishioners of Grace Lutheran Church, the end of an era has come. The oldest church in the borough announced its closing early this year after 164 years of service.
Over the past several years, Diann Repko, Bill Brass and Charles “Chick” Barnes have watched attendance at Grace Lutheran, 132 W. Mt. Carmel Ave., steadily dwindle to the point where the Upper Susquehanna Synod was finally forced to step in and render the decision to permanently close the church and put the property up for sale.
“I was born and raised in Mount Carmel and attended Grace Lutheran in my earlier years. We didn’t attend every Sunday but when we did, I enjoyed Sunday school. It was a fun time for me,” Brass said.
Brass served in the Army from 1961-63, then worked for 15 years in Phoenixville before coming back home and getting a job in Ashland.
“I’d been away from the church for many years before finally coming back about eight or nine years ago. At that time, we had about 30 people in our congregation,” he said. “Unfortunately, once our longtime pastor, Rev. (Charles) Souders, became ill and was no longer able to serve, many of them ended up leaving the church. As for the building, it’s a beautiful church and one of the nicest around.”
Repko became emotional in her recollections of Grace Lutheran.
“We’ve had a lot of memories here. I’ll never get over losing our church,” she said.
“I’ve been attending Grace Lutheran for nearly 75 years since I was a teenager. Both Charles and I joined the church choir when we were in our teenage years. This church building has been an integral part of our lives for so long it’s hard to believe we won’t be meeting here anymore,” Repko said tearfully.
“I believe the decline started when we no longer had a full-time pastor and were constantly rotating guest speakers in and out of the church every Sunday. People are searching for stable spiritual leadership and if you’re always changing from one speaker to another, week after week, they often feel like they can’t form a spiritual bond of trust, which takes time to build. As a result, they end up going elsewhere,” she added.
The Rev. Craig A. Miller, assistant to the bishop and director for evangelical mission with the Upper Susquehanna Synod, based in Lewisburg, vowed that, even with the church’s closing, it still will provide aid to those who need it.
“While we are truly saddened by the closing of this congregation, we celebrate their faithful ministry. As we prepare to sell the property of Grace Church, we are making plans to continue its legacy by sharing the proceeds of that sale with ministries in Mount Carmel,” Miller said.
“Remaining members of Grace have been encouraged to join other congregations in Mount Carmel or nearby and to share their talents with those worshiping communities,” he added.
First church, 1867-94
Grace Lutheran Church was organized by 15 Lutherans on Friday, May 18, 1855, under the leadership of the Rev. Charles J. Ehrehart, who served concurrently as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Shamokin. The first formal service was held two days later and included the administration of communion.
In 1858, under the guidance of the Rev. Jacob F. Wampole, the Lutherans united with the German Reformed congregation and elected a joint council. In those days, the congregation used the German language for its service. English wasn’t introduced in the church until later.
The cornerstone of the first church building was laid and dedicated in the spring of 1867. The congregation flourished and, on Aug. 11, 1867, it was formally received into the Susquehanna Synod in Shamokin.
On Feb. 1, 1879, the Rev. C.W. Sechrist was installed as the church’s first resident pastor at a salary of $300.
In October 1879, a large cabinet organ was added along with a new roof. At a special meeting of the Church Council on Dec. 10, 1879, plans for a parsonage next to the church were submitted and adopted, with construction taking place the following year at a cost of $1,193.51. In the spring of 1885, a new boardwalk, wall terrace and iron gate at the front of the church were added for $350.
Current church, 1894-present
The present Grace Lutheran Church was erected in 1894. Electric lighting was added in 1910 and an addition for Christian education was built between 1915 and 1916. In 1922, a large stained glass window depicting “Christ Knocking at Heart’s Door,” along with natural stone, were added to the front of the church. Rededication services were held on Nov. 26, 1922.
In 1947, the church reached its highest membership with 798 baptized members. On May 1, 1967, the Rev. Alfred J. Bashore began serving the congregation as vice pastor. On May 15, 1968, the Rev. C. Albert Wagaman accepted the call to serve as pastor, which he did for the next 13 years until his retirement on April 30, 1980. During his pastorate, a large, ornate All Saints Memorial Organ was installed.
From Nov. 30, 1980, to Aug. 31, 1985, the Rev. Walter R. Keim served as the church’s last full-time pastor. Following his departure, the Rev. Charles A. Souders accepted the position of interim pastor and, on Nov. 9, 2015, the church celebrated its 150th anniversary.
From its founding until the official date of its closing on Feb. 16, Grace Lutheran Church served as an anchor of Lutheran ministry in and around the Mount Carmel area. The Slovak congregation helped to found many other local churches, including St. John’s in Locust Gap and St. Matthew’s Slovak Lutheran Church in April 1888.
In its later years, as membership declined, Grace Lutheran decided to worship with St. Matthew’s congregation. In 2018, nearly all worship services were held in St. Matthew’s because the church could not repair its heating system.
A final goodbye
One final memorial service is being planned by the synod for Grace Lutheran Church.
“Bishop Barbara J. Collins and I have determined a time for the celebration of the almost 165 years of ministry at Grace,” Miller said. “We are tentatively scheduled for 3 p.m. April 28 at St. Matthew’s, 301 West Ave., until we get a confirmation from them.”
Miller also noted that items from the altar of Grace Lutheran will be used to adorn the space in St. Matthew’s during the worship service, over which Collins will preside.