By JEFF PICKELL
In 1882, a group of professors at Fayette Normal College began holding prayer sessions in the school chapel. The exact reason for this is a story lost to history.
What is known, however, is that by late 1885 or early 1886 so many residents were attending these sessions that the chapel was getting a little too stuffy for comfort. Congregation members undertook to build a new church, and on May 4, 1886, the building that was to be called the Fayette Christian Church was completed and dedicated.
On Friday, the church will turn 125 years old, and the congregation will celebrate Sunday with an informal mass in which many church members will share stories and memories.
And what memories they are. According to church secretary Grace Sly, the Christian Church just might be the oldest church in town, though she acknowledges that the Methodist Church is getting up there in years as well.
The current church building was dedicated on Dec. 13, 1908, after the original was destroyed in a raging fire that took many buildings with it, said long-time congregation member Mildred Uhler.
This is also around the time the church’s many stained-glass windows were installed, thanks to donations from prominent Fayette families, such as the Gambles, the Hubbards and the Letchers.
The most prominent image—that of a young boy clutching a stone cross—is a depiction of Christ as a youth, said Grace. She learned this when she saw the same image in a Baptist church in Crown Point, Ind.
“I thought it was a unique image, but they must have shared ideas,” she said.
Still, the Christian Church boasts a unique and progressive history.
Fayette resident Bill Steinem, whose grandparents were charter members of the church, recalled how pastor Ada Hawley served proudly during a period in which pastors were predominantly men. Over the course of her stay—from 1921 to 1946—the Ladies Aid group developed into a strong organization, with as many as 36 women attending meetings.
While men provided maintenance work, it was the women who took charge of social events and fund raisers, Grace said. They took their jobs seriously, added Mildred, even going so far as to catch their own fish for the fish fries.
The women also organized Dutch markets at which homemade towels, rag rugs, quilts, and other crafts were sold. Also up for purchase was souse—or head cheese—a gelatin dish made from the head flesh of pigs. It is a favored treat among the Pennsylvania Dutch.
“It was delicious,” said Mildred.
Mildred and her husband Wayne joined the church in 1954 after another congregation member invited them. At the time, the church was trying to increase its membership to 200, but that’s not why the Uhlers joined. Up to that point, Mildred had attended the United Brethren Church in Munson and Wayne was attending Methodist services.
They came to the Christian church in order to share a common membership. However, they were not baptized into the church until at least 1959. Rev. James Osuga, one of the most popular pastors to serve at the church, officiated the ceremony.
Rev. Osuga—a Japanese American Sacramento, Cal., native—was both interred by the government during World War II and later drafted into active military service. He served in Berlin from 1945 to 1947.
Grace remembered the pastor’s tenor singing voice and his compelling sermons.
“I was just wonderful. Wonderful,” she said.
Rev. Osuga served during some of the church’s best years, but there were also down times. In the mid-1990s, for example, service attendance began to flag and children all but disappeared from the church, said congregation member Tom Spiess.
During a two-year search for a new pastor, Don Glasgow and Ed Bomlie helped to keep the church alive with interesting, compelling and humorous sermons, said Tom. In 1999, Mary Jo Bray accepted the full-time pastor position and began efforts to have an addition with new restrooms, an elevator and new offices built. She also worked hard to revive study groups and Sunday school classes.
The new wing was completed in 2001. Rev. Bray left last year, but attendance remains strong under pastor Gene Sugg, with 60 to 70 residents attending services each week, said Grace.
Of course, that number changes from season to season, she added. As one of the “older” congregations in town, many members fly south for the winter.– May 2, 2007