Chester Church and City Celebrate Centennial

Riverstyle Sunday Review
Sunday, November 5, 2000
(Ethelberta Shaw of the church provided the historical information)
Reprinted here with permission.

First Presbyterian Church
Chester church and city celebrate centennial
The First Presbyterian Church of Chester will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the church Nov. 12 with a variety of activities. Though organized in 1900, the church had its beginning several years earlier.

In 1885, when East Liverpool was a thriving pottery town, the area across the river in West Virginia was mostly farmland. Orchards and corn and grain fields reached from the river to the hills. A relatively level area, known as the south side, ran along the river and was scarcely populated.

To the residents of East Liverpool, “The City of Hills and Kilns,” this level land on the south side must have looked inviting as they trudged up the step hills after a day’s work in the pottery because many families began moving across the river to West Virginia. The migration stiffed the concern of the Rev. J. C. Taggart, D. D. of the First U. P. Church of East Liverpool and the Rev. J. Ross Green, pastor of the Second U. P. Church, who worried that their former parishioners had no church to attend. They enlisted the help of Frank, White, Second Church Sabbath School Superintendent and their Young People Societies to cross the river and start a Mission Sabbath School.

In those days before dams, crossing the river could be quite difficult. When the river was low, people often could drive across by horse and buggy, but frequently resorted to making the crossing by skiff, boar or ferry. At those early Mission Sabbath School meetings, held in a schoolhouse near First Street, attendance stood at 43 and the average collection was $1.05. Thus was the foundation for the first church in Chester. In 1898, Taggart, Green and White, with the help of their Young People’s Christian Union Societies, raised sufficient funds ($1,500) to establish a Mission Sabbath School. Mrs. M. M. Gardner donated a lot on Carolina Avenue, which at that time was a dusty, often muddy country road that served as the main artery of transportation in upper Hancock County. A frame building, built by the Finley Brothers Lumber Co., was erected on the site where the present church sits. The final cost of construction was $1,912.72, of which $500 was debt. The building was dedicated Dec. 1, 1898, and debt was paid by the First U. P. Church of East Liverpool with a bequest of the estate of A. B. Marks. The chairs to seat the chapel were a gift from the First Church, as well, and for the next two years the growing Sabbath School services continued to be conducted.

Frank McDonald, and East Liverpool attorney, realized the potential for development for the tract of level land across the river, which was part of the Gardner farm on the south and the Marks property on the north, and purchased the properties. He planned to build a bridge at First Street and an amusement park at Mark’s Run. He obtained backers and formed a bridge company. After many setbacks, the bridge was completed Dec. 31, 1897.

As families from East Liverpool and Wellsville began buying homes in the new town, the Sabbath School continued to flourish and preaching services were added by Taggart and Green with the assistance of other neighboring pastors. On May 1, 1900, the Rev. W. Bruce Gillis came as stated supply preacher until Oct. 1, when he was appointed in the same capacity to Starkville, Miss. Taggart and Green resumed preaching for the month of November.

A special meeting of the Steubenville Presbytery was held Nov. 8, 1900, as the First U. P. Church of East Liverpool. In attendance were 31 members and 18 adherents from the United Presbyterian Chapel in Chester who signed and presented a petition requesting they be organized into a congregation under the care of the Steubenville Presbytery.

The petition was granted with Dr. Taggart and a provisional session being appointed under the order of Presbytery to organize Chester Mission Sabbath School into a congregation under the direction of the Steubenville Presbytery.

At a meeting held in East Liverpool Dec. 31, 1900, Taggart reported the appointed committee had performed the duty assigned it. Thirty-eight members were received on certificate and entered into the congregation. A. W. Nickle, E. A. Smith, J. P. Wylie and J. N. Finley were elected ruling Elders. On Dec. 7, 1900, Smith and Wylie were ordained and together with Nickle, who had been a member of the First U. P. church Session, were installed as ruling Elders and constituted a Session. On the same date, the Rev. W. B. Gillis was called as pastor. J. W. Finley, Enoch Riley and Oliver Hall were elected as Trustees for one year.

When the call was moderated for Rev. Gillis, the congregation paid $500 and asked the “Board of Home Missions” to give $400, agreeing to give a “Deed of Trust” or its equivalent to the board as required by the application clause.

The year 1900 proved to be the real beginning of the community as well as the church. A rolling mill, which later became the American Sheet and Tinplate Co., was constructed on the flat land between Carolina Avenue and the river at Sixth Street. The mill, which employed more than 500 men, produced special black plate for stoves, stovepipes, furniture and milk cans. As more people moved to the area for work, church membership grew. By November 1905, church membership had grown to 115.

After five years of ministering to the congregation, Rev. Gillis and his wife moved on, and a Rev. Sankey was called as minister. His salary was $1,000. It was during his ministry that the church began to look for a lot on which to build a parsonage. The trustees reported that a lot on either side of the church would be purchased from the Land Co. The trustees purchased a lot on the west side of the church for $875 and in 1906 constructed a two-story parsonage with a large porch that wrapped around the front and side of the home closest to the church. In 1907 Sankey requested a leave of absence. Due to a lengthy absence, the Session requested his resignation for the good of the church. Rev. Sankey resigned in 1908.

The Rev. J. O. McConnell succeeded Rev. Sankey. Dissension arose within the church during McConnell’s ministry, which resulted in the Session resigning in a block. The exact cause of the dissension is not known. Speculation is that it was over politics, which the reverend denied. McConnell tendered his resignation at a congregational meeting because of differences between him and the Session, but the congregation refused to accept it. In April 1910, the Presbytery received the Session resignations and appointed a provisional Session. It consisted of Thomas Hinder of Second Church, acting clerk, Willis Gaston of Calcutta and J. E. Anderson of the First Church in East Liverpool. Elmer Stevenson later replaced Anderson. The men served as ruling elders, looking after the spiritual needs of the church; receiving new members; and giving letters of dismissal when requested until a new Session was elected in June 1911.

In 1912, Rev. McConnell resigned and seminary students and Dr. H. C. Kelsey, minister at the First Church, filled the pulpit. During communion services Jan. 31, 1914, several people were conducted into membership including longtime members, Mrs. Sarah Wright, her daughter, Mabel Wright Haney, Walter Marshall, Fred Greenlee, Lester Shaw, John Harris, Frank Richmond and Bernice Shaw.

J. I. Moore came from the seminary in September 1913 and was the first minister ordained in the church. The parsonage was under repair so he, his wife and 8-month old daughter, Ruth, stayed with the George Richmond family for two weeks. Rev. Moore was ordained April 14, 1914. A man of dynamic personality and many new ideas, he persuaded the Session that the choir should be replaced by a mixed quartet composed of Mrs. J. Frank Rigby, soprano; Mrs. C. A. Smith, alto; Fred Dunn, bass; and Mr. Harris, tenor. The paid singers furnished the church with music for several months.

An interesting story passed down through the church history is told about the piano and the rivalry between Dr. Pyle and C. A. Smith. Pyle and his wife were active members of the church. Smith, a prominent citizen who made his money in the oil business, never attended church though his wife sang in the quartet. When the committee that was appointed to raise money to buy a piano asked Smith to contribute, he reportedly refused until he learned that Dr. Pyle was willing to help. Smith, not to be outdone, said he would purchase the piano himself. When the big upright piano purchased by Smith was replaced by a baby grad Esty Piano in later years, the upright was used in the basement for Sabbath School until 1968, when Frank Richmond purchased a spinet for the remodeled basement.

Building a New Church

The congregation grew under Rev. Moore’s leadership and needed more room. The question arose as to whether to remodel or build a new church. George Holliday, chairman of the building committee, reported to the congregation on the money available. After reviewing various options, the trustees decided to borrow $3,300 to build a new church.

The congregation voted to accept the plans drawn by Holliday, who also was an engineer. Because there were no blueprints of the plans, the sketches were referred to as the “White plans.” Construction of the new brick church began immediately the building committee reported it had received a grant of $2,500 from the Board of Extension and borrowed $3,000 from the Building and Loan. The total cost of construction was $5,116.47.

During tear down of the old church and construction of the new, services were held in the IOOF Hall over McCutcheon’s Drug Store at Fifth Street. After services moved back to the new church, Rev. Moore tendered his resignation in March 1918 to accept a call to Zanesville.

Paul Reynolds of Vermont served the congregation from July 1918 to December 1919. In February 1920, Thomas H. Newcomb, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Seminary, came to Chester. He was ordained July 20. Their daughter, Margaret Jane, was baptized at the church in 1923. Rev. Newcomb, also taught ancient history and English at Chester High School.

Perhaps the most important milestone of the church came in 1927 when on Oct. 15, burning the mortgage of the First Presbyterian Church of Chester took place before a large gathering of the congregation. Participants in the ceremony included Edna Frost, whose father had been a member of the Board of Trustees; F. M. Hawley, one of the first members to advocate a new building; and Sam Martin, the contractor.

In 1929, Rev. Vorhis came to Chester from Dayton. Soon after he came, the Great Depression enveloped the country. When the rolling mill failed, many people were put out of work. As a result the congregation was unable to meet its obligation to Rev. Vorhis who voluntarily took a $600 cut in salary. On the heels of the Depression came World War II, when all men between the ages of 18 – 39 were drafted. The church membership considered itself fortunate that all of its male congregants called to duty returned safely from the war.

Several ministers and seminary students have served the church since that time. For the last four years, Jerry Rose, a lay pastor from East Liverpool, has served the church and has been an integral part of the Nov. 12 100th anniversary celebration.

Throughout the church’s history it has maintained close ties with the missionary work of the Presbytery. Three of the ministers who served the Chester church, Glen Fleming, Alex Wilson and Milton Fischer, went on to the foreign mission field. Willard Billica and Bradley Watkins served the church upon their return from the mission field. Donald Vogel left the church to go to the national mission field.

When Vogel left the church in 1967, he left behind as a legacy the “Christian Visitor,” the church newspaper. Although in the years since its inception, the staff of the paper has changed numerous times, the “Christian Visitor” has been an integral part of the church for 39 years delivering news to the membership monthly.

Another integral part of the Chester church has been its music. Other than the six months with a paid quartet, singers and pianists volunteered their services or were paid a token amount. Joe McCoy was the first person in charge of the music, and many others followed him over the years. Frank Richmond served as a choir director for 25 years. Mrs. Ray Shaw organized the Carol Choir in 1949 and in 1960 started a children’s choir. When Richmond retired, Mrs. Shaw became the adult choir director. Esta Johnson directed a children’s choir and a girls’ choir during the 1970’s.

Similarly there have been several pianists through the years including Gertrude Richmond, Cathie Kirkbride, Paul Nardo, Jan Stover, Evelyn Talbott and Ralph Falconer. The present organist is Marwynne Serafy. In 1995, she purchased chimes and organized a chime choir. And just in time for the upcoming celebration, she has purchased new robes for both the adult choir and the chime choir.

A history of a church is more than statistics recorded in a book. A church is also about the people who give it life. As the church prepares for its second hundred years, it is fortunate to have among its members Mabel Wright Haney and Frank Richmond, who remember the early days of the church. Haney recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She came to the area with her mother and siblings from Clinton, Pa., in 1907. Richmond has been a member of the church for 93 years, having always served in some capacity, ranging from a youth choir member, to janitor, teacher, trustee, elder, clerk of Session, Sunday school superintendent and choir director.

Other early church families still represented in the membership are the Wells family, the Allison (Oyster) family and the Shaw family.

Since the building of the brick church, there have been various updates including structural changes, remodeling of the basement, heating system upgrades, classrooms, kitchen, restrooms and office, and a new roof. The outside of the church hasn’t changed much since ivy was removed several years ago and the silver maple trees were replaced with young dogwoods in 1998.

With a newly erected sign on the lawn showing a picture of the original church proclaiming that the First Presbyterian Church was the first established church in Chester and five former ministers returning, the congregation is ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary in grand fashion.