United Presbyterian Church
2230 Washington Road
Canonsburg, PA 15317
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Donald C. Austin Minister
Hill Church 1938
Front Wall Collapsed on Oct. 24, 2002 following the removal of the bell tower as
part of a renovation project.
was rededicated on March 7, 2004
Prayer and hard work bring church back from collapse
BY DAVID PENN, Staff writer Observer-Reporter.com
After 16 months of renovation work, and a considerable supplement
of prayer, the congregation of Chartiers Hill United Presbyterian Church may move back
into its place of worship next month.
Standing along Route 19 in North Strabane Township, Hill Church is
among the oldest churches in the area. Work to upgrade plumbing and make the 160-year-old
building handicapped-accessible began in 2002, but workers ran into a major stumbling
block in October of that year, when a brick wall at the front of the church collapsed.
Some wondered whether the church could be preserved at all, and renovations initially
estimated to take about six months stretched over more than a year.
"You could say it's been a long haul," said Nancy
Magera, a member of the church's rededication committee.
No firm dates are set, but the church has planned a dedication
ceremony along with open house days for the community to see the work that has been done.
Employees of Rhodes Carpet & Installation were preparing to lay carpet in the nave
Tuesday, but that was only one finishing touch on a major structural overhaul.
In October 2002, shortly after a new roof was installed, a Butler
demolition company removed a bell tower that had stood at the front of the building for
more than 90 years. Deemed the part of the church with the least historical value, the
bell tower was dismantled to make way for a new entryway that could accommodate
wheelchairs and house handicapped-accessible restrooms.
The same week, a wall that had stood behind the tower, the rear
wall of the sanctuary, toppled. The bell tower apparently had provided it critical
support; a foundation beneath the wall ran only three feet deep. Planners waited nervously
through the winter for the ground to thaw before they could bolster the foundation and
rebuild the wall.
In the meantime, the congregation was meeting in the basement of
a building next to the church. Christmas services during the past two years have been held
at the Candlelight Room in Washington, and attendance has dipped during construction. The
Rev. Donald C. Austin, pastor of the church, said the experience has been trying, but
ultimately it may make the congregation stronger.
Austin said questions of whether the building could be preserved
and whether the church members would be able to afford mounting costs were a source of
constant concern. "Most important was the spiritual aspect, whether we could
maintain this building and all it has meant," he said.
The red-brick church dates from1840, when it replaced a previous
building, probably made of wood, that had served as a house of worship since the 1770s.
Bricks for the construction were fired at the site, and the
foundation that failed the front wall 14 months ago was made of hand-hewn stone. A
churchyard contains the remains of some of the earliest settlers of the region.
According to Austin, the bell tower was added early in the 20th
century under the direction of Murray C. Reiter, a pastor of
the church who instituted several projects, including the construction of classrooms. The
decision to replace the tower drew some criticism, but Austin said the changes were
necessary in light of the property's old, unreliable septic system and cramped stairs and
entrances that made it difficult for elderly members to enter the church. A plan to move
forward with the renovations
was approved in a vote of the congregation.
The fallen wall has long since been replaced, and the church now does
exhibit a more modern style, at least on the inside. An elevator allows for easy
access to a community space in the basement, and grinder pumps have been installed to send
waste water into the municipal sewer system.
The exterior remains red brick, and the new tower matches the old
building pretty closely.
"People tell me, unless you grew up around here and knew
what the church used to look like, you'd never guess it wasn't always like this,"
A chandelier donated to the church hangs above the nave, at the
center of a sprawling geometric design painted on the ceiling. The decoration on the
ceiling also is a recent addition, inspired by a photograph nearly a hundred years old.
The photograph, Austin said, pictures a gas-fueled chandelier and
a portion of the ceiling design. Also pictured is the Rev. Reiter, now hopefully appeased
for the demolition of his bell tower.
On the fourth Sabbath of August 1775, the Rev. John McMillan, later to be known as
"The Apostle of Presbyterianism in the West," preached to a gathering of
neighbors at the home of John McDowell, not far from the site of the present church
building. On that day the roots of the "Hill'' Church began to grow.
Dr. McMillan was called as pastor by the congregations of Chartiers and Pigeon Creek
in 1776. He served these two churches for 19 years.
The first church building was completed on the approximate site in 1778. A
stone structure was built in 1800, remodeled in 1832. The belfry and vestibule were built
between the years of 1907 and 1914. The Christian Education Building was built in 1957.
See pictures at: Chartiers
Hill United Presbyterian Church & Cemetery
Charter members of the "Hill" Church were mostly of Scotch- Irish descent
. The Church's membership has never exceeded 400 at any time.
Sixteen ministers have served as pastors. Aside from Rev. McMillan, one other pastor
is of historical note. Rev. Joseph R. Wilson, father of President Woodrow Wilson,
ministered from 1849 until 1851.
Rev. Lee E Schaeffer* began
his ministry here in 1930 and served untill 1938. At that time he and his new wife,
Catherine Cochran Schaeffer, lived in the manse across the road from the church and was
paid in chickens and fresh baked bread. During this time, the basement rooms were
excavated under the church.
Chartiers Hill Church is a member of the Washington Presbytery, Synod of the Trinity
and General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
How It Was Back Then.
The following is an article written by Virginia Hopkins
for the Washington County, PA,Historical Society
In those early days, the church was often the center of our
social as well as our spiritual life. In my case, it was the historic Chartiers Hill
Presbyterian Church, thought to be the oldest church west of the Allegheny Mountains. My
grandfather lived close to the church in a little white frame house that had been the
parsonage when President Woodrow Wilsons father was the pastor of the church and
lived in this same little house.
As soon as we were born, we were enrolled in the Cradle
Roll, and thence on up through all the grades. Sunday School convened before church,
and classes met in every niche and cranny of the church building, including the sanctuary,
since Education Buildings were a later innovation.
After Sunday School, nearly all remained for the church service,
from babe in arms to octogenarian with ear trumpet. There was a great deal of background
noise of babies and small children (nurseries are a
modern frill), but then, ministers cultivated good big chest tones and had no
need of artificial amplification.
Mothers of small children carried snacks in their handbags, and I
and the little boy who sat behind me regularly exchanged goodies under the pews. I suppose
there was much inattention among the congregation, and certainly the ministers must have
felt greatly frustrated on occasion, when a laboriously thought-out text was lost to a
childs ill-timed wail. But the important point was, we were there, and it became a
Communion was held quarterly, I believe. How well I remember the
grave old elders, always men, clad in their Sunday black suits, one or two leaning on
canes, passing the bread and wine, the latter in tiny glasses. Children
didnt partake of communion until after confirmation (called joining the
church) at age 12 or 13, so we sat and watched the plates pass by, and watched our
parents chew and swallow the bread and then close their eyes and bow their heads, then
open them to be ready for the cup when it came by, then the same ritual. As
long as she was able, my grandmother made the communion bread from an old recipe, and we
children were allowed to have some of the leftover bread at her house after church. This
was a real treat, as it was moderately sweet, and more like cake than bread. When I grew
up and was exposed to the tasteless unleavened wafers, or else broken saltines that other
churches used, I began to wonder about the deliciousness of Grandmas cake that was
supposed to represent the suffering body of Christ!
Christmas was, for us, primarily a secular holiday. I was a grown
woman before I became familiar with the terms Advent, Lent, Epiphany, etc., as seasons
which were observed in the more liturgical churches. And so the whole month of
December we were looking toward Christmas day, as we sang the joyful Christmas carols all
through the penitential season of Advent.
Jesus said: "I am the way, and the truth) and the light." Beyond
the right hand of Christian fellowship, we offer to you the good news' of God's gracious
presence an history and individual lives. May the spirit of the risen Christ fill you with
hope and peace.
Donald C. Austin Minister
2230 Washington Road
Canonsburg, PA 15317
HOURS: 9 a.m. - 12 noon Monday - Friday
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Church School - 9:30 a.m.
Worship Services- 8:30 a.m. & 11 a.m.
Summer Schedule ( July & August) Worship - 10:00 a.m.