Houses of faith bridge gaps for growing populous

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This being Williamsport’s sesquicentennial year, Sesquicentennial Corner, a weekly Saturday series, will focus on the city’s history.)

Churches in early Williamsport provided not only a place to worship their creator and pray but to gather for family functions and to share stories of hardships and joy.

“Workers needed a place to live and sense of community, so having churches was part of that,” said the Rev. Gwen Bernstine, executive director of the United Churches of Lycoming County.

Some of the city’s more elaborate churches were built stunning stained glass Tiffany windows and exquisite architecture of brick and marble and wood.

A cluster of these churches along West Fourth Street includes Trinity Episcopal, Covenant Central Presbyterian and Church of the Annunciation. They are among houses of worship featuring those amenities that continue to provide a unique ambiance for worshippers.

Trinity Episcopal Church, at 844 W. Fourth St., built 150 years ago almost entirely by Peter Herdic’s contributions, had chimes that were brought from Westminster Abbey, according to John F. Piper Jr., local historian and a retired dean at Lycoming College.

Today’s congregants at the church continue to enjoy the windows, creating a spectrum of colors as the sun peaks through them and illuminates comforting images of Christ in prayer, which is a mural painted by member and artist Mickey Mapstone.

For many immigrants, the church community was central to their existence.

“Church construction helped to benefit the city by adding to its population, because the church was often considered to be the center of their lives,” Bernstine said. It wasn’t uncommon for those with similar ethnic backgrounds to attend churches they felt were there for the betterment of their neighborhoods and community, she said. “Irish Catholics, for example, would consider Annunciation Church to be their home house of worship,” Bernstine said.

Church of the Annunciation, which since has become St. Joseph the Worker Church, originally was organized in 1865, with the first 60 families attending who previously were connected with St. Boniface Church, according to author John F. Meginness in his 1892 “History of Lycoming County.”

St. Joseph the Worker, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets, is the site that had been given to the congregation by Herdic, according to Meginness. Consistent growth of that church made a larger building a positive necessity, and early in 1886 preliminary steps toward the project began, Meginness said.

St. Boniface Church, meanwhile, was organized in 1853, with principally German families, Meginness said. The first pastor visited from Milton. In November 1872, the church was moved to the rear of the lot to make room for a substantial ediface, Meginness said.

Bernstine consideres Herdic, an industrialist, lumber baron, mayor and inventor, as a major player in the development of the churches of the city.

“He was developing communities with his land and financial donations,” Bernstine said. “I can tell you many of the churches in the West End were built on land that was donated by Herdic. Even in Newberry, land was donated, she said.

Other churches also flourished and provided different denominations a home base.

Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, at the corner of Campbell and Grace streets, was built in 1880. It originally seated about 600 people, according to Meginness.

Interestingly, up until the 1860s, the only Methodist Episcopal church within the limits of the borough, which became a city in 1866, was on Pine Street, Meginness states. During that year, a movement was started to establish another church. Congregants and students and professors at Dickinson Seminary met in the seminary chapel for public worship, Meginness said.

St. Mark’s English Lutheran Church on Market Street was built in 1854 at a cost of $8,000. The church seated 250. The German Lutheran Emmanuel Church on East Third Street has a membership of 150.

Third Presbyterian Church, an outgrowth of Second Presbyterian, was dedicated on July 4, 1869. The building, at 312 Maynard St., now is home to The GAP Fellowship of Williamsport.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was organized on April 9, 1871. Services were held for some time in the Academy of Music at Fourth and Pine streets, Meginness said.

The First German Baptist Church, on the corner of Washington and Packer streets, was founded as early as 1867. It is an offspring of the three original German Baptist churches of Blooming Grove, Anthony and Fairfield townships.

There were missions of faithful, serving specific needs.

The City Mission of Williamsport and Girls’ Industrial Home first was located on East Third Street and opened Dec. 12, 1885, and chartered in January 1888. Overseen by T. P. S. Wilson, a city missionary, the institution was non-denominational and was organized to reach the masses.

Girls were taught to sew and perform all duties pertaining to housekeeping by Anna Burchard, matron of the department, Meginness said.